Olympians including Michael Phelps, Apolo Anton Ohno, Jeremy Bloom, Shaun White, Lolo Jones and Sasha Cohen are opening up about their mental health struggles in a new sobering documentary about suicide and depression among the world’s greatest athletes. They’re also calling out a system that they say has allowed the problem to become, as Phelps put it, “an epidemic.”
Many of the athletes are sharing their pain for the first time in “The Weight of Gold,” which premiered on HBO last week. The documentary aims to expose the problem, incite change among Olympics leadership and help others experiencing similar issues feel less alone.
Athletes describe a culture of silence and a lack of mental health resources within their sports and at the highest levels of the Olympic Games, with Phelps (the most decorated Olympian of all time) saying in the film that he doesn’t think leadership on Team USA or the International Olympic Committee cared about him outside of his athletic performance.
The film delves into a number of Olympian suicides, including those of aerial skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, sports shooter Stephen Scherer, cyclist Kelly Catlin and bobsledder Steven Holcomb.
Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Ohno told The Associated Press that in an ideal world, every time the International Olympic Committee gets a sponsor, it would dedicate a portion of the resulting funds to mental health resources.
“That seems like a no-brainer to me,” he said. “If I was the CEO of X Company, which is a global company, and you were gonna tell me as a part of these sponsorship dollars, some of that money is going to go towards these resources, I would be ecstatic. That’s the type of organization that I want to partner with … And I believe that the conversation like this documentary is going to push that narrative along.”
He said he does believe that the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee “is taking necessary steps, albeit slow, because they’re a large organization.”
But “I believe it needs to come from the IOC level. I think the IOC needs to have a real conversation that’s authentic, that’s not kind of politically driven or, you know, politically correct and say, ‘Hey, look, there’s flaws in our system and they exist. And here’s what we’re gonna do. And we’re going to engage in this dialogue to help these people as Olympic champions, as Olympic athletes, because they represent what we as human beings aspire to be,'” said Ohno, who has won two gold, two silver and two bronze medals.
In a statement to The Associated Press, the IOC said it “recognizes the seriousness of the topic” and assembled a team of international experts to review scientific literature on mental health issues among elite athletes in 2018, resulting in a mental health working group. The committee said the topic has been discussed more openly at forums and panels in recent years and that the IOC has launched a series of webinars to help athletes cope with COVID-19, among other initiatives.
“The IOC Athletes’ Commission will continue to work closely with the Mental Health Working Group on creating more resources as well as a helpline,” the IOC said.
Jeremy Bloom, a three-time world champion skier and Olympian, said the recent efforts are “not going to solve all the problems overnight, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Brett Rapkin, who directed “The Weight of Gold,” said he hopes the documentary leads to better resources for Olympians.
“They have this incredibly unique psychological journey they go on and it needs to be paired with appropriate resources to handle it,” he said. “Those things clearly aren’t there.”
“The Weight of Gold” is available on HBO and HBO Max.