Earlier this spring, as Michael Phelps hunkered down in his home with his wife and his three young kids, he received a thoughtful offer from down the street. “I actually had a neighbor drop off a note in our mailbox here at our house,” Phelps says during a conference call with a handful of reporters in late July, “saying that they have a two-lane 25-meter pool if I needed to go swim.” The 35-year-old Phelps is now retired—for real this time, following a short-lived hiatus between gold-medal performances in 2012 and 2016—and these days, the pool on his own Arizona property is designed more for chilling like a civilian than for training like a national icon. But his neighbor’s gesture made him think about what life must be like for current Olympic hopefuls in the age of COVID: Not only are they facing the void of a postponed and uncertain Summer Games after so many years of precision training, but they may have to scramble to so much as locate a lane in an open pool.
Being a world-class athlete means staying as finely tuned as a clock, Phelps explains, with the four-year “quad” cycle from one Olympics to the next mapped out basically down to the minute. Lately, needless to say, everything has gotten unwound. “For swimmers, you know, taking one day off? It’s two days to get back to where you were,” he says, and that’s during the good times. He finds himself worrying—not just for all these athletes’ bodies or fitness or Olympic potential, but also for their mental health. “It’s a total hiccup in the grand plan,” he says.
Phelps is chatting with members of the media two days before the July 29 HBO release of a new hour-long film called The Weight of Gold that he narrated and coproduced. The documentary—which is directed by Brett Rapkin and features interviews with Olympians ranging from Phelps to speed skater Apolo Ohno to figure skater Sasha Cohen to the late bobsled gold medalist Steven Holcomb, among many others—explores the struggles of Olympians during and after their competitive careers. It delves into the debilitating depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations, and other mental health crises that can plague these athletes on their quests, regardless of their level of acclaim. It is grim and essential viewing, and for Phelps, the subject matter is highly personal.
As he grew from a lanky aqua-prodigy who swam in his first Olympics at age 15 in 2000 to a new dad winning his 28th and final medal with his tiny baby son on hand (and in earmuffs) in Rio in 2016, Phelps became one of the most famously successful athletes of all time thanks to all of his highlights in the water. (And maybe a little bit of luck?) But the flip side was that he experienced his lowest moments in the public eye, too—from the trivial-in-hindsight to the one that could have gotten someone killed. Now, in his retirement, the question Phelps often receives is: Would he want the Olympics for his kids? “Honestly, in a perfect world, I’d say no,” Phelps says. “Just because I don’t want them to live in my footsteps. And I also know everything about—I know the ins and the outs, the good, the bad, and the ugly. So, you know, as a parent, it just—it frightens me.”
People have been talking about Michael Phelps for decades, for all sorts of reasons, but it’s only in the past few years that he’s become accustomed to talking—like, really talking—about himself. And lately, having worked on The Weight of Gold, Phelps has been listening, too, and learning that even in his most isolated moments, he was never really alone. “I was shocked at just how similar our answers were,” Phelps says about the other athletes who speak out in the film. “We were all saying, like, nobody helps us, and we’re just products. And our stories are pretty much the same.” Which is why it’s so vital to be telling them.
The Weight of Gold is the latest in a series of projects that center on the lived experiences of athletes who competed at the highest echelons of their sports. This is not some brand-new genre: It’s been 25 years since the release of Joan Ryan’s investigative book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters exposed the ugly side of all that sparkle. For decades, publications like Sports Illustrated frequently delved beneath the surface to uncover inconvenient truths. But what distinguishes a lot of the more recent movements is not only the direct agency of the people involved, but the growing sense of solidarity and momentum between them all.
There are so many important stories, but here are a few: It was just over a year ago that elite Nike runners called out the company for its treatment of pregnant athletes; last fall, women also spoke out against abusive coaching practices there. Countless competitors have used platforms like The Players’ Tribune to tell their personal stories of addiction, or infection, or redemption, or depression. In the past weeks, WNBA players have pushed back against their U.S. senator owner, and NCAA athletes have banded together to agitate for change, standing up to their powerful conferences and stepping up the pressure over this past weekend in a way that may well have seismic implications for the foundation of college sports. And across the sporting world, athletes have fought for Black Lives Matter and the racial justice movement.
In addition to The Weight of Gold, several other audiovisual pieces related to Olympic sports have aired this summer, presumably originally scheduled to coincide with the Games. On June 24, Netflix premiered Athlete A, a film following the Indianapolis Star journalists who investigated the mountain of crimes perpetrated by national team gymnastics trainer and sexual predator Larry Nassar. (More than 100 women testified against Nassar in court.) On July 14, ESPN aired a seven-part 30 for 30 podcast, Heavy Medals, that delved into the life and times of the decorated, dictatorial former Team USA coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, whose young athletes were also subjected to mental, physical, and emotional anguish.
In an online Q&A discussion that accompanied the Heavy Medals launch, one former Olympic gymnast, Tasha Schwikert, put it this way: “At the end of the day, I look at that medal and it’s not joyful. I just look at it and I see, like, pain. A lot of pain.”
These sentiments dovetail with the heartbreaking experiences shared in The Weight of Gold. Gold medalist skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender laments missing the death of her father while training. Figure skater Gracie Gold notes that if she needed surgery, she’d be on the operating table the next morning with the best surgeon in the business, all organized by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, but that when she asked about seeking therapy, she received shrugs. Three-time Olympian Lolo Jones describes devoting her body to Team USA for more than a decade, only to lose health insurance the moment her career ended. The mother of the late skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, who died by suicide in 2011, speaks frankly about how even winning a gold medal couldn’t save his life.
Even for the Olympics enthusiasts who may already be familiar with some of these stories, hearing them en masse from the athletes themselves, in tones ranging from trembling to sardonic to angry, again and again and again, becomes not only upsetting but alarming. And on a personal level, it’s a message that my own longtime love for and fascination with the Olympics should not continue to exist unexamined.
In some alternate dimension there is no virus, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics concluded this weekend with one final night of grand visual and emotional spectacles following two weeks full of ’em. In this dream world, I became a passionate if temporary expert on the subtleties of the pommel horse and handball and cultural diplomacy. The swimmers flip-turned, the gymnasts wolf-turned, the coaches winced, and the various lifelong dreams of weight lifters and speed walkers alike either flamed out or at long, long last were realized. The brands were really feeling themselves, and their commercials made me weep—even when I’d seen them dozens of times already, and especially if they were for detergent.
In this other universe, the local bars all broadcasted women’s soccer at dawn, the online GIF pool replenished itself daily, and my children learned the Russian national anthem by osmosis. The towering NBA players posed with the wee Simone Biles, the teen skateboarders crushed their debuts, and Brooks Koepka called the whole thing overrated. There were macro cost overruns, true, but the numbers were so egregiously large that they just felt made-up, right? As ever, it was all a supremely athletic version of The Aristocrats: ugly, captivating, and always ending in the same punch line: The Olympics!
Of course, none of that happened. On March 24, amid the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the games were postponed to next summer. And now I wonder how I’ll feel about the event whenever it takes place in the real world again.
I’ve been watching the Olympics since back when the USSR was one of the entrants. I will never in a million years forget Kerri Strug’s gold-medal-winning vault in 1996. In 2014, I covered the games live in Sochi, and my buy-in was earnest but unevolved: I loved everything. I remember seeing Shaun White, the halfpipe favorite, fail to medal, and thinking that it kinda served him right for taking that spot on the slopestyle team and then withdrawing. I remember perceiving the prim figure skater Gracie Gold, with her tight-lipped smile, as a real-life Tracy Flick. I remember feeling nostalgic when Bode Miller, at a positively ancient 36, became the oldest Alpine skier to win an Olympic medal with a bronze in the super-G. I also remember that all the seasoned journalists, the ones who were covering their fifth, sixth, seventh Olympic Games, the ones whose work I sought to emulate, were consistently as skeptical as I was awestruck—not about the athletes or their performances, but about the institution of the Olympics itself. I should have learned then.
But learning sometimes happens on a lag. I’ve known about the ravages of concussions since Pat LaFontaine and Eric Lindros talked about them in the ’90s, for example, and yet for years, I still felt a rush when I saw a hockey fight or a got-his-bell-rung football hit, until one day I looked up and finally felt only revulsion. It’s not that I didn’t trust those earlier stories, it’s just that I perceived them as outliers, when in fact they were the canaries in the coal mine.
When Bela Karolyi yelled, “You can do it!” to Strug right before she hit that vault on that shredded ankle and burst into tears, the world already knew that he was a harsh, even cruel coach; Ryan’s bestselling book had covered it extensively a year earlier. And yet that was still regarded at the time as more of a feature than a bug. Like so many others, I ate up the striking visual images of the ursine Karolyi carrying Strug in his arms to the podium; one of the more memorable parts of the Heavy Medals podcast is the straight-up audio, and so much of it, of TV commentators gushing over Karolyi’s trademark tough love. (We still do this with college football coaches. For now.)
Similarly, I’ve long understood in theory that so much of the way the Olympic model operates is concerning. I’ve elided that by choosing to tunnel my vision toward the athletes and their performances, but now it’s those same athletes who are sounding the alarm. White, Gold, and Miller are all among the Olympians featured in The Weight of Gold who share the things they remember from the Sochi days—and most of them aren’t glowing memories. It’s a necessary wake-up call that I can’t just stick to sports, and that I never should have in the first place.
Of course, no one understands the allure of the Olympics quite like the Olympians who organize their entire existence around getting there. In The Weight of Gold, one athlete after the next recalls their absolute obsession with watching and training for the Olympics when they were growing up. “The Olympics have been a part of my whole life,” Phelps says on his call with the media. “You know, as, like, a kid growing up, that’s what I wanted.” Those detergent commercials, the ones that make me weepy? They often feature old home videos of tiny children who are already yelling “gold-medal victory!” as they barrel down a ski slope or across an invisible finish line in their backyards.
But that’s part of the challenge: For every Michael Phelps, there are multiple hopefuls with two day jobs and a very particular set of skills waiting in the wings for their chance to be the next great someone. (Phelps calls it “an assembly line.”) Elite sports are, by definition, inherently competitive, but the Olympics’ higher-faster-stronger ethos and its quadrennial schedule torques that even further, and can complicate an athlete’s already isolating decision about just how honest to be about their state of mind. “If you have any fear you’re criticized as weak,” says former Olympic gymnast Jennifer Sey in the roundtable discussion about the Heavy Medals podcast. “You know, landing on your head and breaking your neck and being afraid of that? Seems like a decent thing to be afraid of! But that’s considered an insurmountable failing in the sport.”
The Weight of Gold is not a prescriptive film, nor does it need to be. There are no specific requests made for how the national sport federations or the USOPC ought to address what Phelps refers to in the film as an “epidemic” of depression and suicide among world-class American athletes. (There is also not much in the way of actual Olympic footage in the documentary; according to The New York Times’ Matt Futterman, the USOPC sought a discounted six-figure licensing fee for use of past highlights and requested that the film outline the mental health resources available to athletes, and the filmmakers balked.) In this conference call with reporters, when asked “what will it take” to support athletes in the way he envisions, Phelps’s response is somehow both pointed and vague.
“I wish I could answer that question,” he says. “I wish I had the power to answer that question. I don’t know. I really don’t. I think there are people who could answer that question very well and hopefully they will soon.”
In February of this year, a former USOPC doctor filed a lawsuit alleging that he was fired after whistleblowing about the organization’s subpar mental health protocols. A few weeks later, the USOPC announced the formation of a “mental health” committee that would include several athletes—one of them, Allison Schmitt, is a gold-medalist swimmer and one of Phelps’s closest friends—as well as at least one crucial change: giving athletes access to health professionals who are seeking to understand them as humans, not just optimize them for competition. “I don’t need a sports psychologist,” Schmitt told USA Today in April. “I need someone in the mental health field who works with everyday things.” Last week, the Senate passed a bill to provide for greater congressional oversight over the USOPC “to protect amateur athletes from emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.” It now moves to the House.
On the road to the Rio Olympics, SI’s Tim Layden asked Phelps some question during an interview for a cover story—Phelps can’t remember what it was, which frustrates him to no end—and “I blasted off, and poured out everything, and it really started the journey,” Phelps says. Now, nothing makes him happier than hearing about others who go through that similar moment. Recently, Phelps chatted on YouTube with the NBA’s DeMar DeRozan, and the two agreed that talking openly about their vulnerabilities made it feel as though a whole bag of weights had been lifted from their shoulders.
“I was smiling,” Phelps says, “because I was like, oh, my gosh. I understand exactly how freeing it is. … The more you understand that it’s OK to not be OK—it’s so powerful.”