- The Weight of Gold dir. by Brett Ratkin
What is the price of striving for athletic glory? For decades, the opening montage of ABC's Saturday television program The Wide World of Sports included footage of Slovenian skijumping athlete Vinko Bogataj wiping out in a terrifying spill. The crash came to represent "the agony of defeat," the lowest moment that an athlete might experience in the dramatic narratives of success and failure enjoyed by sports fans every week. This popular depiction of the human drama of sport focused on the kinds of losses captured by cameras and documented on scoreboards. As with most sports programming, however, the effects on athletes' health remained largely out of frame.
HBO Sports' The Weight of Gold focuses on the mental health struggles faced by Olympians both during and after their athletic careers. Directed by Brett Ratkin and narrated by Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, the film consists largely of personal interviews with elite athletes across a range of sports, such as Lolo Jones, Apolo Ohno, Katie Uhlaender, and Shaun White. These elite competitors candidly address the mental health effects of spending their childhood and early adult years striving for a relatively brief moment of victory on the world stage. [End Page 66]
In the United States, many long-standing cultural narratives emphasize both the physical and mental health benefits of sports. In particular, the notion that athletics represent a wholesome outlet for youthful energy has a long history. As Ohno recalls, "The only thing that my dad saw that could potentially redirect my energy into something positive was sport, and he was right." Yet the Olympic interviewees repeatedly note that, with a singular focus on sports, their family, friendships, school, hobbies, and other interests all became secondary. "None of us had normal childhoods per se," says Phelps. Unlike an injured ankle or knee, for which treatment was more readily available and more obviously urgent in order to keep competing, mental health conditions were typically brushed aside. Social norms reinforced the silence; the athletes highlight the stigma of acknowledging the need for help. Phelps summarizes the mentality: "Olympians are definitely a group who want to keep their pain out of sight."
But in many ways, the experiences described in The Weight of Gold are not limited to Olympians. In recent decades in the United States, year-round specialization in a single sport for elementary- and middle-school-aged children has become widespread far beyond a small cadre of future Olympians. As sociologist Jay Coakley has observed, the increasing privatization and commercialization of youth sports has resulted in professionally administered, costly, and highly demanding programs for young athletes. Little research suggests that such early specialization benefits either the physical or psychological development of young athletes.1
While effectively drawing attention to the long-standing neglect of elite athletes' psychological well-being, The Weight of Gold addresses only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mental health impacts of such intensive sports training. For each of the familiar Olympic medalists who bravely describe his or her mental and emotional struggles, thousands of young athletes who will never compete on a national or international stage also experience extraordinary pressure. From increasingly early ages, children enter a sportstraining pipeline that involves high-intensity training, immense community expectations, and the inescapable reality that only a minute percentage of athletes will ever attain Olympic success. In fact, as The Weight of Gold highlights, even those who achieve a brief moment of glory typically are unable to earn a living wage thereafter. Debt and the loss of health insurance are far more common than ongoing lucrative sponsorships. Lolo Jones explains that her post-Olympics career involved serving smoothies at a gym for $7 an hour while experiencing deep mental health challenges.
Understandably, the documentary largely focuses on depression and loss of identity. Yet the scope of mental health issues associated with sports is broader, encompassing eating disorders, sexual abuse, bullying, hazing, and other significant mental health harms. Recent efforts to address sexual abuse in youth sports have emphasized the hierarchical nature of many of...