THE WEIGHT OF GOLD – Review by Diane Carson

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The Weight of Gold examines mental health issues of Olympic athletes

As winner of the most Olympics medals of any competitor ever (28 total, 23 gold, in five Olympic games) swimmer Michael Phelps already established himself as a magnificent, unequalled athlete. Now, in the HBO documentary The Weight of Gold, he proves he’s also an extraordinary human being, so courageous that he tackles mental health issues for Olympic athletes, including himself.

I hasten to add that the discussion of depression, including suicidal thoughts, applies to more than just elite athletes, perhaps one in five Americans, making this film important to large audiences. To his credit, Phelps, who narrates the film, denounces and deplores the still pervasive, harmful stigma of mental health struggles when asking for help is the constructive choice. Olympic skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender says it best, “We have to educate people that mental health is not a weakness.” Except for confidence as a swimmer, Phelps is direct and honest about his own feelings of inadequacy, of not wanting to be alive at times.

While Phelps anchors the film, writer/director Brett Rapkin includes many more Olympic athletes with heartbreaking revelations and tragedies that involve suicides. Skier Bode Miller indicts the media’s “throw away last year’s athlete” practice. Hurdler Lolo Jones describes unbearable, internalized pressure and haunting regret over a misstep. Speed skater Apolo Ohno talks of the vanishing endorsements and the fraction of a second that matters for life. Figure skaters Sasha Cohen and Gracie Gold, snowboarder Shaun White, bobsled captain Steve Holcomb, and others provide another facet of the Olympic burden, including our own expectations that only a gold medal will suffice.

Statistics expose the U.S. Olympic committee’s negligence; three mental health experts support the approximately one thousand summer and winter games athletes. At just an hour running time, The Weight of Gold offers an important step toward initiating long overdue, helpful action addressing Olympic athletes’ emotional difficulties. It also encourages anyone battling mental health issues to reach out for help wherever and whatever their situation. The Weight of Gold is available on HBO, listed in the sports documentary section.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.