Gold medals. Worldwide exposure. The chance to go toe-to-toe with elite athletes from around the world. The Olympic Games — at least for some athletes — offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete at the highest possible level in a sport. But what happens after the cameras stop rolling? That's the focus of HBO new documentary, The Weight Of Gold.
Narrated by Michael Phelps, the film interviews Olympic greats including Shaun White and Lolo Jones. They highlight the mental toll training for and competing in the Games has on athletes, who often wind up feeling undervalued and unsupported by Team USA.
One stressor the film names is money. While many people tend to think that athletes are well-compensated from sponsorships, the reality is very different. "For every athlete who has a sponsor, there are hundreds who need to take a second job just to make ends meet while they're training," Phelps says. The Olympic stipend for the USA swim team, Phelps reveals, is $1,700 a month. That comes out to $20,400 a year.
"I grew up watching the '96 Atlanta Olympics and I watched the gymnastics team and the track and field athletes in all of this glory," said Jones, a three-time Olympian, three-time World Champion athlete who competed in both track and bobsledding. "They're on every cover of every magazine and you're thinking they're financially stable — they have to be right? And fast forward to my future, me trying to be an Olympic athlete, and I'm living off $7,000 a year." She added, "I've had years where I can make a killing, and then I've had years where... for bobsled, my check was $725 for the whole season. Tell me how I'm supposed to live off of that."
"Even if you're in a marquee sport and you do so well, you have a limited window to capitalize on, and to pay back training bills and try to earn some money," said Sasha Cohen, two-time Olympic athlete and 2006 Olympic silver medalist in figure skating. "But for most athletes, there's no money. There's no money at all."
Worrying about money is incredibly damaging to mental health. On top of that, many athletes experience what the film euphemistically calls the post-Olympic blues.
"After every Olympics, win or lose, I've just felt like a dramatic emptiness," Shaun White, a three-time Olympic gold medalist for snowboarding, said. "Your whole world is built around this one day, and you're putting so much on it. So much expectation, and pressure, and interviews... After every Olympics, there's this incredible crash. Nothing really matters as much anymore."
Many of the athletes featured in The Weight Of Gold revealed the letdown was so intense that they experienced suicidal thoughts. "Post-2008, I was so broken down," Jones revealed. "I would just want to be gone."
"I was like, what's the point of going to the Olympic games, what's the point of sacrificing and training all of these hours if this is what I have to show for it?" David Boudia, a three-time Olympic diver said, before revealing he, too, experienced thoughts of suicide.
The documentary names former Olympic athletes that did, tragically, die of suicide: Steve Holcomb; Pavle Jovanovic; Kelly Catlin; Jeret "Speedy" Peterson.
"We're lost. We're just so lost," Phelps echoed. "We spent four years grinding for that one moment. And now we don't know what the hell to do." He says that it's safe to say that around 80% of Olympians go through this post-Olympic depression. (Though this year's Games were postponed, the 2020 USA Olympic team consists of over 600 athletes.)
Given that this is such a seemingly common and debilitating issue, you'd think that Team USA would educate their athletes about it, and provide guidance and help to those going through it. But in the film, athletes described feeling unsupported.
"If I had blown out my knee, I know for a fact that I would've had the top physical therapist, the top surgeon... absolutely whatever I needed," Olympic figure skater Gracie Gold said. "I mentioned one time before to someone in the federation that, actually I'm going through some really dark shit right now and it's really interfering. And they said, 'Oh, you can look up a therapist in your area.'"
"I can say now, looking back at my career, I don't think anybody really cared to help us," Phelps revealed. "I don't think anybody really jumped in to ask us if we were okay. As long as we were performing, I don't think anything else really mattered."
This film comes at a time when USA Gymnastics is already under fire for mishandling Larry Nassar's sexual assault case. USAG tried to cover up the case rather than take appropriate action against Nassar. It's an experience that's taken a significant and harrowing toll on the gymnasts and survivors involved.
Team USA may be taking baby steps toward providing more support for its athletes. In February 2019, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee created an "athlete services division" that's meant to "advance the support and resources available to Team USA athletes — specifically in the areas of athlete safety, mental health, wellness, and career and education," their website reads. This move is supposed to create "separation between the people who support athlete wellness and those dedicated to athlete performance." We hope this means that they're taking athletes' mental health, both pre- and post-Olympics, more seriously.
"I will never regret competing for Team USA and this country. I've helped promote the Olympic sports for three Olympics," Jones said. "I've given my blood, sweat, and tears. I've given my talents. And all I'm asking if that after it's all said and done, someone can help me mentally get through this."
The Weight of Gold premieres Wednesday, July 29 at 9 p.m. EST on HBO.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.