‘The Weight of Gold’ brings Olympians’ mental health to light, kickstarts larger conversation
Prior to Simone Biles sitting out the majority of the 2020 Summer Olympics because of her mental health struggles — or Mikaela Shiffrin being candid about what was going on internally at the 2022 Winter Olympics, it was common for athletes to keep all of their mental struggles to themselves.
One of the reasons athletes would keep their emotions and struggles to themselves is because the stigma within sport is that athletes must act stoic and unbreakable.
“The Weight of Gold” has worked to break this stigma and bring awareness to the mental health epidemic present at the Olympic level.
On Tuesday, Aug. 9, Podium Pictures, Breck Film Society and Centura Health brought the 2020 film to The Eclipse Theater in Breckenridge for a one night screening.
In its first screening in the state of Colorado, the film worked to benefit the ongoing missions of Podium Pictures and Building Hope Summit County.
During the 60-minute runtime of the film, viewers witnessed several Olympic athletes, including Breckenridge’s Katie Uhlaender and Olympic snowboarder Shaun White, talk about the depression they have faced while striving for Olympic glory.
The most decorated Olympic athlete of all-time, Michael Phelps, acts as the main subject and narrates sections of the film. Phelps opens up the film with a monologue explaining that every athlete’s journey to the Olympics begins the same way as everyone else’s: with a dream of getting there.
These athletes then become so hyperfocused on this dream that their sports often become their whole identity with little social life outside of their sport and most of their time being spent training.
The result is that when these Olympic athletes fail to attain a medal or receive support from sponsors their whole world can often come crumbling down around them leading to a downward spiral of mental health issues.
Even the athletes who are successful, like Phelps with his 28 Olympic medals, can be subjected to mental health struggles.
Phelps and White explain in the film that after the post-Olympic celebration dies down that athletes often fall into a post-Olympic depression because the very thing they have tirelessly been pouring their life into for the last four years is now over.
The film ends with the many athletes featured in the film talking about the lack of support they receive to address their mental health. Olympic athletes have coaches for their sport, nutrition and strength training but for many years did not have a single mental health professional on staff.
The result is that there have been many Olympic athlete suicides in recent years, including American bobsledder Steven Holcomb, who was featured early on in the film prior to his death in 2017.
Concluding the film is a call for action for the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee to address the mental health epidemic that is affecting the wellbeing of some of their most prized athletes.
A panel discussing the film and its importance followed the screening. The panel included the filmmaker Brett Rapkin, former professional snowboarder and Breckenridge local Steve Fisher, mental health consultant at Supple[Mental] Sports Ashley Hughes and US Ski and Snowboard’s head of athlete education Mackenzie St. Onge.
Rapkin opened up the panel by explaining the inspiration behind the film. He stated that the film was going to focus on the physiological journey of competing in the Olympics but after Phelps opened up about his experiences in an interview with Rapkin the film took on a whole new focus.
“He opened up to me that resources were not sufficient,” Rapkin said. “With Michael’s help we just got more and more athletes. They were looking for a way to tell this side of the story. This is not a part of the story that NBC tells before the Olympics.”
St. Onge then spoke about the stigma that is brought up multiple times in the film and how mental health, for whatever reason, has often been a taboo subject in contemporary society.
Following St. Onge, Hughes spoke about how she overcame the stigma of mental health in her own life. One thing that immensely helped her was finding out that many other people and athletes face the same emotions and feelings she thought she was facing alone.
Fisher added his own perspective to the conversation, drawing on his experience as a professional snowboarder.
“It is not widely accepted being an 18-, 19-year-old youth to really say ‘I don’t want to do this today,’” Fisher said. “Until Simone Biles did it at this Olympics it was widely frowned upon. Coaches are incentivized. They are there for you but they have jobs. When athletes perform, they get paid and that is something that is never talked about.”
The panel then focused on the impact of the film since 2020 and the hope for the Podium Picture’s future films on mental health.
“I had no idea in terms of the resources being provided,” Rapkin said. “I am proud to say, this film came out in July 2020 and by September the U.S. Olympic Committee had found a couple million dollars to improve mental health resources. You can see why I want to do more of this kind of thing. To create institutional change is really inspiring but it also applies to all of us.”
To conclude the panel, the conversation shifted to what can be done within Summit County and for people on a personal level in order to address the mental health epidemic among athletes and a large portion of the U.S. population.
“I am a firm believer in the tools that are out there,” Rapkin said. “A lot of these issues can be drastically improved if you work on them. But it was almost ignored in a way. You have this organ in your body called your brain that needs attention. It needs chemical attention and needs to be soothed and taken care of.”
Rapkin was quick to point out the great work Building Hope Summit County is doing at the local level to address mental illnesses. Firmly believing in the phrase that “it is OK, to not be OK,” Rapkin, alongside the rest of the panel, encouraged the audience to reach out to the organization if you or somebody you know is in need of help.
Breck Film’s next event will be their annual film festival which will take place from Sept. 15-18. Tickets are available BreckFilm.com.
“The Weight of Gold” is available on HBO Max with a subscription.
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