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After the cheering stops – ‘The Weight of Gold’

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Every four years, the world watches as its greatest athletes compete on the global stage. Elite performers from all over converge on a single place in an effort to excel in the name of Olympic gold.

But what happens to these athletes after the cheering stops? Is the price paid to reach the pinnacle too high?

That’s the fundamental question behind “The Weight of Gold,” a new documentary from HBO Sports. In it, filmmaker Brett Rapkin speaks to a number of American Olympians – both Summer and Winter – about the toll their respective quests for excellence took on them. Even the most successful among them had their share of struggles … and for too many, the tale took a tragic turn.

The film – narrated by legendary swimmer Michael Phelps (a featured interviewee and an executive producer on the project as well) – brings together new interviews and archival footage to offer a look into the sacrifices these athletes make to reach the top and the aftermath through which they must navigate after the spotlight fades.

“The Weight of Gold” focuses on a handful of faces that will likely be familiar to American sports fans. There’s Phelps, of course. Shaun White and Apolo Ohno are prominently featured, guys who have stayed in the cultural consciousness. But then you have athletes like Lolo Jones, Bode Miller, Jeremy Bloom, Sasha Cohen – people whose body of work is defined not by their massive accomplishments, but by falling just short on the biggest stage.

Gracie Gold, David Boudia, Katie Uhlaender … the list goes on and on.

All of these people, from the multiple medal winners to those who never scaled the podium, are here to share their feelings about what it takes to become an Olympic athlete and what it means to be a former Olympian.

Each of them shares their own personal stories of sacrifice, the hours in the gym or in the pool or on the ice. Hours given freely, but also at the expense of all else. There is no room for half-measures in the path to the U.S. Olympic team. No room for the trappings of a personal life. Friendships, family, school – all readily abandoned for the chance at making it to the Olympics.

These are all people who have reached the absolute apex of their sport. And yet … some of them are remembered not for their achievements, but for their failings. A single bad day, one tiny twist of fate, and these great athletes are remembered as busts, their entire sporting careers reduced to a clipped hurdle, a slip or a fall. And they’re left to handle that new reality largely on their own.

Institutional financial support is minimal. Those without the generosity of corporate sponsorships are left to make do with the relative pittance provided by the USOC; $1700 a month at best, less than a thousand on the low end. This despite a training regimen that makes other means of self-support almost impossible.

And while athletes have access to the greatest sports medicine treatments in the world, that’s strictly on the physical plane. It’s about maximizing athletic performance and nothing more. Yes, this is beneficial to athletes competing for their country, but there’s clearly a need for more. To a person, these people questioned the mental health services available for current and former Olympians. In a competitive world where asking for help is viewed by many as weakness, too many are left to their own devices, asked to work through their personal demons essentially on their own.

Unfortunately, not all are able to do so, with tragic results.

At just an hour long, “The Weight of Gold” doesn’t necessarily have the time to delve fully into the stories of its participants, but the reality is that it could have been twice the length and still been incomplete. What we do get is a collection of elite athletes – among the best to ever participate in their respective sports – acknowledging the personal difficulties that accompany that excellence.

It’s a striking and stylish film in terms of its visual choices. Seeing the archival reminders of the thrilling victories and agonizing defeats places the conversations into stark perspective. And when the conversations turn to those who ultimately lost their battles … heartbreaking.

“The Weight of Gold” offers a frank look at some of the less celebrated aspects of Olympic aspiration. The honesty of expression from these athletes is disarming at times; it is easy for us to forget as we watch them scale the heights of athletic achievement that they are people, too. People who are subject to the same doubts and fears as the rest of us. They aren’t more than human. They’re just … human.

Heavy is the head.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 03 August 2020 08:15

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