- The HBO documentary “The Weight of Gold” sheds a heartbreaking light on the mental-health challenges Olympic athletes face.
- Several athletes said there’s “an epidemic” of suicides and depression in their ranks but no easy way to get help.
- While depression can affect anyone, Olympians may be especially vulnerable due to a lack of identity outside their sport, financial pressures, public failures, and enormity of dedicating your life to a single moment.
- The athletes hope speaking out will tackle the stigma for future Olympians and everyday people alike.
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Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for the HBO Sports documentary, “The Weight of Gold,” which airs at 9pm ET on July 29.
The only thing that kept Olympic figure skater Gracie Gold from killing herself was her twin sister. What kept Michael Phelps alive was checking into a treatment centre after his second DUI left him contemplating if he should “just end it all.”
“This is like an epidemic,” Bobsledder Steven Holcomb said when he realised when his friend and fellow Olympian Jeret Peterson died by suicide.
Then, in 2017, Holcomb killed himself.
These are some of the heartbreaking stories of serious mental-health challenges Olympians shared in the HBO Sports documentary, “The Weight of Gold.”
While mental illness can affect anyone, the athletes contend that Olympians may be especially vulnerable due to their innate natures, public and financial pressures, a lack of identity outside of sport, the post-Olympic crash, and a lack of mental-health resources.
“Being an Olympian is advertised as this amazing thing, and they leave out all of the side effects,” including eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, Gold said in the film. “And then when all those side effects do happen, there’s nothing in play to help you.”
The postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics could make it all even worse.
There are many reasons Olympians may be especially vulnerable to mental health issues
It’s difficult to know exactly how prevalent mental illness is among current and former Olympians, but a consensus statement from the International Olympic Committee found that in elite athletes, including Olympians, rates of anxiety and depression may be as high as 45%.
Phelps, who narrated and co-produced the film, said in the film he suspects at least 80% of Olympians go through “some sort of post-Olympic depression.”
Most Olympians grew up with eyes only for one goal: getting to the Games. Family, friends, hobbies, and other sources of emotional development and support were distractions.
There’s also the immensity of a single moment defining your life. The time difference between a Gold medal and fourth place is two quick hand claps – but the difference between a Gold medalist and a fourth place finisher is celebrity and civilian, speed-skater Apolo Anton Ohno said of his sport.
Experiencing your biggest personal failure in front of the entire world is devastating too. “In my life, I’ve probably hit a hurdle three times,” bobsledder and hurdler Lolo Jones said. “And now I’m known as a girl who hits hurdles.”
Then there’s the financial pressure, with most athletes needing to take second jobs to sustain their training and travel. Jones said she’s worked as a hostess, at Home Depot, and at a gym where she made smoothies.
Retirement is fiscally harder, with even well-known athletes swiftly getting kicked out of the sponsorship spotlight by up-and-comers. “The whole idea that going to the Olympics, especially if you win a medal, sets you up for life is such horse sh–,” Gold said.
Retirement may also lead to an identity crisis. “Yeah I won a s–t-ton of medals. I had a great career. So what? I thought of myself as ‘just a swimmer,'” Phelps said, “Not a human being.”
The athletes spoke out to lessen the stigma and prevent future deaths
Olympians are also vulnerable to mental health issues because of the barriers they face to getting help.
They may fall victim to the stigma that mental illness is a weakness (the last thing a competitor wants to admit) or believe that hard work can overcome anything, even a mental health issue.
Katie Uhlaender, a skeleton racer, said her coach didn’t allow her to leave tour to see her dad on his deathbed. “I don’t think I ever got over that.”
When she asked for mental health help, the request went up the chain to approximately six people, but still left her with nothing.
She and the other athletes in the film, which also featured snowboarder Shaun White, alpine ski racer Bode Miller, skiier Jeremy Bloom, and diver David Boudia, hope speaking out will break the stigma of mental illness for both Olympians and civilians.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympic gold medalist and the most decorated athlete in human history or someone driving a bus,” Boudia said, “you’re prone to depression.”
- Read more:
- Why we grieve the deaths of celebrities like Naya Rivera, and how to cope
- Michael Phelps worries that we could see more athlete suicides due to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics postponement
- The 4 best ways to help someone with depression
- The coronavirus pandemic could ‘unleash a wave of suicide’ by firearm in the US, public health officials warn