Behind glory of gold, no one really cared: Phelps

Michael Phelps celebrating after winning the last of his 23 Olympic gold medals at the 2016 Rio Games. In The Weight Of Gold documentary, he detailed how American athletes had little help in dealing with mental health issues.
Michael Phelps celebrating after winning the last of his 23 Olympic gold medals at the 2016 Rio Games. In The Weight Of Gold documentary, he detailed how American athletes had little help in dealing with mental health issues.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • The relationship between the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and its most decorated Olympian, Michael Phelps, has been rocky for years.

The more Phelps won, racking up 28 Olympic medals across five Games, the more he became its poster child, worthy of whatever special treatment it could provide.

Or, from Phelps' perspective, he was the latest and greatest commodity that Olympic promoters cared about only as a medal-producing swimming machine.

He distils that dynamic near the end of The Weight Of Gold, the HBO Sports documentary he narrates about depression and other mental illnesses with which Olympians struggle. He is also an executive producer of the film, which premiered on Wednesday.

"I can honestly say, looking back on my career, I don't think anybody really cared to help us," the 23-time Olympic champion says. "As long as we were performing, I don't think anything else really mattered."

In recent weeks, as they have braced for criticism, Olympic officials past and present have noted all the perks Phelps received during his career, including top training and coaching, access to cutting-edge technology and a two-bedroom suite at the Olympic Training Centre in Colorado Springs. Everyone else slept in single or double rooms.

But that uneven treatment and response to the film, Phelps said, illustrates how officials and coaches view athletes as assets during their brief windows of Olympic glory, but then leave them largely on their own during the years between Games. And when their careers are interrupted or over, the system moves on to the next star.

"I feel like they don't care about anything I do right now," the 35-year-old said of the USOPC.

In recent months, the committee, which says it has always welcomed and wanted Phelps' input, has formed a mental health task force to help change and expand a system that its chief executive, Sarah Hirshland, has made clear needs to be updated.

The organisation takes roughly 1,000 athletes combined to the Winter and Summer Olympics during each four-year cycle but has just three mental health officers.

"There is room for us to grow and improve," said USOPC chief of athlete services Bahati VanPelt.


The crux of the problem, Phelps and other athletes say, is that for several years, Olympic officials and elite athletes have had very different definitions of athlete support.

To the Olympic committee, athlete support has largely meant providing services - state-of-the-art training facilities, top coaches and sports scientists, access to sports psychologists - that seemingly led to medals.

To athletes, support should have evolved by now into something more holistic that included caring for their mental health in ways beyond the sports psychologists who focused on priming their minds for competition.

"We have to educate people that mental health is not a weakness," said Katie Uhlaender, a four-time Winter Olympian in skeleton who is among the athletes profiled in the film.

Others include Steven Holcomb, a bobsled champion who died alone at the Olympic Training Centre in New York of an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol in 2017; the figure skaters Sasha Cohen and Gracie Gold; and Jeret Peterson, an aerial skier who killed himself in 2011.

Uhlaender and others say there is a dire need for athletes to have easier access to therapy that does not involve going through the coaches and high performance staff - people who each year evaluate their fitness for competition and membership on the national team and who might penalise an athlete they know has needed help dealing with mental illness.

The USOPC has tried to move in this direction. More athletes have access to unlimited phone counselling and six in-person therapy sessions with a licensed professional through the employee assistance company ComPsych. The benefit was extended this year to some 4,400 athletes, more than three times the number before the coronavirus pandemic caused the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to next year.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2020, with the headline 'Behind glory of gold, no one really cared: Phelps'. Print Edition | Subscribe