Going For Gold: A Mental Health Crisis of Olympic Proportions

By Caroline Balick

From the Post-Olympic Blues to financial hurdles, The Weight of Gold reveals the vast mental health struggles that many Olympians face in their pursuit for gold.

I have always eagerly anticipated the Olympics. Not only is watching the best athletes in the world compete against each other incredibly entertaining, but it is particularly exciting to see team USA consistently dominate. I, like many, look up to these athletes. They epitomize perseverance and the securement of one’s dreams. They work tirelessly to prioritize their physical health. Mentally, however, many of them are damaged.

The Weight of Gold, an HBO documentary co-produced and narrated by Michael Phelps, reveals this dark reality. Featuring decorated Olympians and household names such as speed skater Apolo Ohno and snowboarder Shaun White, the documentary uncovers the tremendous mental health challenges many Olympians face. The athletes featured candidly and courageously discuss the deep trauma they have experienced in their efforts to achieve an illustrious gold medal.

One phenomenon, known as the “Post-Olympics Blues,” refers to the dramatic decline many Olympians experience after they return home. Relentless, painstaking work for four years suddenly dissipates. Those who fail to get a medal remain unknown by the public. Even for those who are successful, the media attention and sponsorships eventually fade. The Post-Olympic Blues cause many Olympians to question their true purpose. Most do not know who they are outside of training to be an Olympian. This leads to a painful combination of fear, disorientation, and lack of lust for life.

Many Olympians dedicate their entire life to compete for only a minuscule period of time. A female gymnast’s entire routine lasts for a little over four minutes. Olympic sprinters run from anywhere from 10-45 seconds, depending on the event. Most swimming events only take up to a few minutes. Olympians often only have one shot; a matter of seconds may change the course of their life and prove their hard work paid off. For all Olympians, the come-down after this brief but crucial performance is severe. But for those who fail, their mistakes will replay in their head for the rest of their life while they acknowledge they must wait four more years to try again—if ever.

In addition to this mental hardship, most Olympians struggle financially. Olympians are given stipends to support them while they dedicate their time to training, but these stipends are shockingly insufficient. Unless they are funding themselves or are being funded by their family, many Olympic hopefuls have to find multiple jobs to keep themselves afloat, all while training for countless hours every day. As Olympic figure skater Gracie Gold mentions in The Weight of Gold, “The whole thought that going to the Olympics, and especially if you win a medal, sets you up for life, is such horseshit.” Lolo Jones, Olympic hurdler and bobsledder, claims she lived off of $7,000 a year while training to be an Olympian. She has been a hostess, worked at Home Depot, and served smoothies at a gym. One time, while making a smoothie, her track race played on the TV in front of her. Few options exist to make money while training to be an Olympian, so many have to stretch themselves thin.

The more medals one earns, the more one can make. But the benefits are distributed few and far between. As the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps reportedly has earned $60 million. Apolo Ohno’s net worth is $10 million. Earning medals themselves provides winnings; U.S. gold medalists earn $37,500, silver medalists earn $22,500, and bronze medalists earn $15,000. With these medals come sponsorships, interviews, and speaking opportunities. Money being closely intertwined with Olympic success only puts additional pressure on Olympians, which can easily take a toll on their mental health.

For some professional athletes who play mainstream sports, such as basketball, soccer, and tennis players, the Olympic Games are a bonus, a fun summer tournament. For many of them, money is no issue. But most Olympians compete in relatively niche sports with unpopular or nonexistent professional leagues. Olympic success is the primary option for securing a lucrative career in their respective sport. Not only are they concerned about winning in order to make a decent living, but some carry the weight of keeping the sport alive. Steve Holcomb, a gold and two-time silver medalist in bobsled, mentions in The Weight of Gold that he was told by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation that he had to succeed or he would lose funding. He describes feeling the weight of the program on his shoulders. At the film’s conclusion, it is revealed that Holcomb took his own life in 2017.

Not only do Olympians feel financial pressure, but some successful Olympians use their platform to advocate for intense social issues. This can be emotionally taxing. Allyson Felix, a sprinter who will soon compete in her fifth Olympic games, raises awareness for the racial disparities that exist in the maternal health system. As a Black woman, Felix personally experienced these disparities in the difficult birth of her daughter Camryn. She also called out Nike, her former sponsor, for treating her and other pregnant athletes unfairly when negotiating contracts. World-renowned gymnast Simone Biles has revealed she was one of hundreds of gymnasts abused by Larry Nassar. Since then, she has spearheaded change among USA Gymnastics, alongside addressing the trauma and mental health struggles that come with sexual assault.

The issues these women have experienced personally have taken a toll on their mental health. But on top of this, they have the pressure of publicly advocating for everyone also affected by these critical issues. When speaking on these issues, advocates like Felix and Biles put themselves in the spotlight, sharing their personal trauma to millions of strangers and opening up to any and all backlash. They know they have a rare opportunity to effect change—but being at the forefront of these movements, in addition to training constantly for hopeful success at the Olympics, is a lot for one person to handle.

Given the intense hardships elite athletes can face, The USOPC offers some support to their Olympic athletes. Team USA athletes can connect with a mental health provider at any time by calling a support line. In 2019, the USOPC created the athlete services division to provide support to athletes, separate from support they might receive from those working to enhance their performance, such as coaches. The USOPC also has a registry in which athletes can connect with mental health professionals who have experience helping elite athletes. All of these services help athletes achieve their goals and stay mentally well.

But these resources should have been introduced sooner. The mental health crisis became prominent in 2011, when aerial skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson ended his life, shocking the Team USA community. But the issue wasn’t adequately addressed by the USOPC. It took more deaths for real change to occur. Bobsledder Steve Holcomb, mentioned previously, passed in 2017. Kelly Catlin, a silver medalist in cycling, took her life in 2019, as did Olympic judoka Jack Hatton. Only after these deaths were the resources mentioned earlier put into practice. But even now, are they actually accessible?

Skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender claims in The Weight of Gold that she tried to access these resources multiple times, to no avail. She says, “If you look at the process I had to go through, I have to tell my coach or I have to tell sports med, I have to tell sports performance, then they have to tell like two more people… Despite those five to seven people knowing, I didn’t get any help.” If the USOPC is going to offer resources, they should actually be accessible, not concealed at the end of an extensive and painstaking process.

The resources mentioned earlier could help, but more needs to be done. This significant problem can only be resolved with equally significant changes in elite athlete culture. The USOPC must end the toxicity they have created among U.S. Olympic athletes. First, they must make it clear that their athletes’ mental health is equally important as their physical health. Trainers need to recognize when they have worked their athletes beyond their limits. Coaches and athlete support staff need to be trained to recognize the signs of someone in crisis, just like they are trained to recognize physical injury. USPOC mental health professionals should check in on athletes after the Olympics to help them through the Post Olympics Blues. And we as viewers need to understand that Olympians aren’t Gods or action figures that serve to entertain us. They are not invincible; they are human.

Gold medals seem a little less shiny now, wouldn’t you agree?


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