The relationship between the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committees and its most decorated Olympian, Michael Phelps, has been rocky for years.
The more Phelps won, and whether he ever won, dismantling 28 Olympic medals in five Games, the more he became a poster child of an organization worthy of any special treatment. Or, from Phelps’ point of view, it was the last and largest commodity that Olympic advertisers cared about only as a medal swimmer.
Phelps invents this dynamic at the end of the film “Weight of Gold”, a documentary documentary “HBO Sports”;, in which he talks about depression and other mental illnesses that the Olympians are struggling with. Phelps is also the executive producer of the film, which was set to premiere on Wednesday night.
“I can honestly say, looking back on my career, I don’t think anyone really cared about helping us,” he says, silently looking at the screen interviewer. “I don’t think anyone jumped in to ask us if we were all right. While we were speaking, I don’t think anything else matters. “
In recent weeks, as they have been involved in the film’s release and critique of its level in a system that has long prioritized victory over everything else, past and present Olympic officials have noted all the benefits Phelps has received in his career, including training and coaching. , access to advanced technology and a two-bedroom kit at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, used only by him and a doctor who visits from time to time if he has not been there. All others slept in single or double rooms.
But this uneven behavior and reaction to the film, Phelps said in an interview this week, illustrates how Olympic officials and coaches view athletes as valuables during their brief windows of Olympic glory, but then leave them largely alone for years between the Games. And when their careers are interrupted or ended, the system moves on to the next star.
“I feel like they don’t care what I do now,” said Phelps, 35, of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committees.
In recent months, the committee, to which he has always welcomed and welcomed Phelps’ contribution, has formed a mental health task force to help change and expand the system, which clearly needs to be updated by its CEO, Sarah Hirschland. The organization hosts approximately 1,000 athletes who compete in the Winter and Summer Olympics during each four-year cycle, but the state has only three mental health workers.
“We have the opportunity to grow and improve,” said Bahati VanPelt, who became head of athletic services for USOPC last year. “I have great faith in a framework that is holistic and accessible throughout the athlete’s life cycle.”
The crux of the problem, Phelps and other athletes say, is that for several years, officials in Olympic and elite athletes have had two very different definitions of supporting athletes.
For the Olympic Committee, supporting athletes has largely meant providing services – state-of-the-art training grounds, top coaches and sports scientists, access to sports psychologists, and many US Team jumpers, which seem to have led directly to bringing home medals.
For athletes, support should already become something more holistic, involving caring for their mental health in other ways that go beyond sports psychologists who have focused on preparing the mind for competition.
“We need to educate people that mental health is not a weakness,” said Katie Ulander, a four-time skeleton Olympian who is among the athletes profiled in the film. Others include Stephen Holcomb, the gold medalist in bobsleigh, who died in 2017; skaters Sasha Cohen and Gracie Gold, and Jaret Peterson, an air skier who killed himself in 2011. “The point is for people to approach it in terms of working against treatment,” she said.
Ulander and others say there is an urgent need for athletes to have easier access to therapy that does not involve coaches and highly productive staff – people who annually assess their fitness for competition and membership in a national team, and who can fine an athlete they know. , need help in the fight against mental illness.
The USOPC is trying to move in that direction. A growing number of athletes are gaining access to unlimited telephone counseling and six personal therapy sessions with a licensed specialist through a company that provides assistance to ComPsych employees. This year, the aid has been extended to about 4,400 athletes, three times the number of people who had access to it in the coronavirus pandemic, which has postponed the Tokyo Games to 2021.
Critics say ComPsych is truly a corporate human resources tool, not a mental health entity. VanPelt has confirmed that the Olympic Committee is in talks with Talkspace, a television and digital therapy company for which Phelps is an investor and spokesman.
The committee is also creating a registry of mental health professionals that athletes can consult without the approval of any of the USOPCs, although those who qualify and pay for this benefit are still working.
Already this year, Kelly Kathleen, an Olympic cyclist, and Pavel Jovanovich, a former Olympic bobsledder, killed themselves.
“I don’t see any more suicides,” Phelps said.
Phelps said he discovered the value of the therapy in 2014, during the first months of his attempt to return on the eve of the 2016 Olympics, when he was caught speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol in a tunnel in Baltimore. He said he viewed the incident and the suicidal thoughts he had afterwards as the culmination of years of “killing” his sense of emptiness, vulnerability and insecurity in anything other than winning the race.
The opportunity to make The Weight of Gold arose in 2017 when its director, Brett Rapkin, approached Peter Carlisle, Phelps’ agent, about the project as Phelps became more vocal about mental health. Rapkin was working on a film about Holcomb, a bobsledder who struggled with depression and spoke openly about his suicidal thoughts. Rapkin last interviewed Holcomb in the spring of 2017, just days before Holcomb died alone at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York, from an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol.
“The metaphor I like to use is when it comes to a range of sports, we think the top goes into a grand helmet to win the game, and the bottom is impressive when the bottom doesn’t really want to live. “, – said Rapkin.
Film staff appealed to USOPC officials to participate in the film and provide footage. The organization said it would do so for only about $ 100,000, a discount on the standard license fee. He also wanted the film to highlight the medical services it provides, services that Phelps and other subjects of the film considered desirable.
It wasn’t the movie Phelps, Carlisle, and Rapkin wanted to make. As a result, only athletes talk about their struggle on camera.
“I knew it was going to be emotional and strong,” Phelps said. “It’s a real emotion we’ve lived our whole career with.”