‘The Weight of Gold’ Exposes Olympians’ Mental Health, Starts a Bigger Conversation

Spectators at The Eclipse Theater in Breckenridge await the start of “The Weight of Gold” on Tuesday, August 9. The 2020 film, produced by Podium Pictures and HBO, examines the mental health issues of Olympic athletes as they strive for Olympic medals.
Elaine Collins / Courtesy Photo

Before Simone Biles sat out most of the 2020 Summer Olympics due to her mental health issues — or Mikaela Shiffrin being candid about what happened internally during the 2022 Winter Olympics, it was common for athletes to keep all their mental struggles to themselves.

One of the reasons athletes would keep their emotions and struggles to themselves is because the stigma within the sport is that athletes must act stoically and unbreakable.

“The Weight of Gold” has worked to break this stigma and raise awareness for the mental health epidemic that is present at the Olympic level.

On Tuesday 9 August, Stage Photos, Breck Film Society and Centura Health brought the 2020 film to The Eclipse Theater in Breckenridge for a one night screening.

During its first showing in the state of Colorado, the film benefited the ongoing missions of Podium Pictures and Building Hope Summit County.

During the 60-minute film run, viewers witnessed several Olympic athletes, including Breckenridge’s Katie Uhlaender and Olympic snowboarder Shaun White, speak about the depression they faced as they strove for Olympic glory.

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, acts as the main subject and narrates parts of the film. Phelps opens the film with a monologue explaining that every athlete’s journey to the Olympics begins in the same way as everyone else’s: with a dream of getting there.

These athletes then become so hyper-focused on this dream that their sport often becomes their whole identity with little social life outside of their sport and most of their time is spent training.

As a result, when these Olympic athletes fail to win a medal or get support from sponsors, their entire world often collapses around them, leading to a downward spiral of mental health problems.

Even the athletes who are successful, such as Phelps with his 28 Olympic medals, can be subject to mental health problems.

Phelps and White explain in the film that after the post-Olympic celebration dies out, athletes often fall into post-Olympic depression because the very thing they’ve tirelessly poured their lives into for the past four years is now over.

The film ends with the many athletes in the film talking about the lack of support they are getting to deal with their mental health. Olympic athletes have coaches for their sports, nutrition and strength training, but for many years they did not employ a single mental health professional.

As a result, there have been many suicides of Olympic athletes in recent years, including American bobsleigher Steven Holcomb, who was featured early in the film prior to his death in 2017.

The film’s conclusion is a call to action for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee to address the mental health epidemic affecting the well-being of some of its most valued athletes.

After a screening of “The Weight of Gold” on Tuesday, August 9 at The Eclipse Theater, a panel answered questions about the film and the importance of mental health. From left to right, Mackenzie St. Onge, the head of US ski and snowboard education, filmmaker Brett Rapkin, mental health counselor at Supple[Mental] Sports Ashley Hughes and former professional snowboarder Steve Fisher.
Elaine Collins / Courtesy Photo

The screening was followed by a panel that discussed the film and its importance. The panel included filmmaker Brett Rapkin, former professional snowboarder, and Breckenridge local Steve Fisher, mental health counselor at Supple[Mental] Sport Ashley Hughes and Mackenzie St. Onge., chief of athlete training at US Ski and Snowboard.

Rapkin opened the panel by explaining the inspiration behind the film. He stated that the film would focus on the physiological journey of participating 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 told me the resources weren’t enough,” Rapkin said. “With Michael’s help, we’ve only gotten more and more athletes. They were looking for a way to tell this side of the story. This is not part of the story NBC is telling for the Olympics.”

St. Onge then spoke about the stigma that emerges multiple times in the film and how mental health, for whatever reason, is often a taboo topic in today’s society.

Following on from St. Onge, Hughes spoke about how she overcame the stigma of mental health in her own life. One thing that helped her immensely was discovering that many other people and athletes face the same emotions and feelings that she thought she was facing alone.

Fisher added his own perspective to the conversation, drawing on his experience as a professional snowboarder.

“It’s not widely accepted as an 18- or 19-year-old boy to really say ‘I don’t want to do this today,'” Fisher said. “Until Simone Biles did it at these Olympics, it was widely frowned upon. Coaches are encouraged. They are there for you, but they have work. When athletes perform, they get paid and that is never talked about.”

The panel then focused on the film’s impact since 2020 and the mental health hopes for Podium Picture’s future films.

“I had no idea of ​​the resources being provided,” Rapkin said. “I can proudly say that this film came out in July 2020 and by September the US Olympic Committee had found a few million dollars to improve mental health resources. You understand why I want to do more of these things. Creating institutional change is very inspiring, but it also applies to all of us.”

To close the panel, the conversation shifted to what can be done within Summit County and for people on a personal level to address the mental health epidemic among athletes and much of the US population.

“I’m a big believer in the tools out there,” Rapkin said. “Many of these issues can be drastically improved if you work on them. But in a way it was almost ignored. You have this organ in your body called your brain that needs attention. It needs chemical attention and needs to be soothed and cared for.”

Rapkin was quick to point out the amazing work Building Hope Summit County is doing on a local level to address mental illness. Firmly believing the phrase “it’s okay not to be okay,” Rapkin, along with the rest of the panel, encouraged the audience to contact the organization if you or someone you know needs help.

Breck Film’s next event is their annual film festival which will take place September 15-18. Tickets are available at BreckFilm.com.

“The Weight of Gold” is available on HBO Max with a subscription.

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