Relations between the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and its most decorated Olympian, Michael Phelps, have been rocky for years.
The more Phelps wins, and the more wins he has ever won, 28 Olympic medals in five games, the more he became the poster child of the organization, deserving of whatever special treatment it might provide. Or, from Phelps’ point of view, it was the latest and greatest item that Olympic promoters had noted as a mere medal-making swimming machine.
Phelps dissolves that dynamic near the end of “The Weight of Gold”, an HBO sports documentary he describes about depression and other mental illnesses with which Olympians struggle. Phelps is also an executive producer of the film, which premiered on Wednesday night.
“I can honestly say that looking at my career, I don’t think anyone really cared to help us,” he says, staring blankly at an offscreen interviewer. “I don’t think anyone asked us if we’re okay.” While we were performing, I don’t think anything else really matters. “
In recent weeks, as he criticized the setbacks for the film’s release, and a system that had long won everything else, past and present Olympic officials gained during his career Noted all perks, including top training and coaching, the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs has state-of-the-art technology and a two-bedroom suite that only and occasionally used visiting therapists if it wasn’t there Was. Everyone else slept in single or double rooms.
But the disproportionate behavior and reaction to the film, Phelps said in an interview this week, shows how Olympic officials and coaches view athletes as valuable assets during their brief windows of Olympic glory, but during games Abandons them extensively through the years. . And when his career is interrupted or ended, the system moves on to the next star.
“I feel like they don’t care that I do anything right now,” said Phelps, 35, of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
In recent months, the committee, which says it has always welcomed and sought Phelps’ input, has formed a mental health task force to help transform and expand a system, which its main Executive Sarah Hirsland clearly stated the need to update. The organization jointly takes 1,000 athletes for the Winter and Summer Olympics during each four-year cycle, but has just three mental health officers on its staff.
“There’s room for us to grow and improve,” said Bahati OnePelt, who became head of athlete services for the USOPC last year. “I am a big believer in a framework that is holistic and available throughout the life cycle of an athlete’s career.”
At the root of this problem, Phelps and other athletes say that Olympic officials and elite athletes have received two very different definitions of athlete support over the years.
For the Olympic Committee, athlete support means providing services on a large scale – state-of-the-art training facilities, access to top coaches and sports scientists, sports psychologists, as well as a lot of Team USA swag – that seemingly bring home medals directly Leads.
For athletes, support should now evolve into a more holistic approach that included caring for their mental health beyond sports psychologists who focused on soaking their minds for competition.
“We have to educate people that mental health is not a weakness,” said Katy Uhlender, a four-time Olympian at Skeleton who is among the athletes trained in the film. Others include Steven Holcomb, a gold medalist at Bobsleigh who died in 2017; He said Sasha Cohen and Gracie Gould, and Jarrett Peterson, a sky skier who killed himself in 2011. “It’s a matter of coming from the performance point of view of people versus healing,” she said.
Uhlender and others say athletes need easy access to therapy, which does not include coaches and high-performance staff – people who evaluate their fitness for competition and membership on the national team each year and who are penalized Athletes they know need help in dealing with mental illness.
The USOPC has tried to take steps in this direction. A growing number of athletes have access to six in-person therapy sessions with a licensed professional through unlimited phone counseling and employee support company ComPsych. This year’s benefit was given to some 4,400 athletes, more than three times its reach before the coronavirus virus epidemic, which postponed the Tokyo Games until 2021.
Critics point out that the complex is actually a corporate human resources tool rather than a mental healthcare unit. VanPelt confirmed that the Olympic Committee is in talks with Talkspace, a telehealth and digital therapy company, for which Phelps is both an investor and a spokesperson.
The committee is also creating a registry of mental health professionals, whom athletes will be able to consult at the USOPC without approval from anyone, although the person who qualifies for and pays for that benefit is still being worked on is.
Already this year, Kyle Caitlin, an Olympic cyclist and former Olympic bobsledder Pavel Jovanovic, has killed himself.
“I can’t see any more suicides,” Phelps said.
Phelps said he discovered the value of therapy in 2014 during the first months of his return before the 2016 Olympics, when he was caught speeding and driving while intoxicated in a tunnel in Baltimore. He said that he witnessed the incident, and the thoughts of suicide he later witnessed, the culmination of years of “emptying”, his emptiness, feelings of vulnerability and a lack of confidence about anything other than the race to win. is.
The opportunity to create “The Weight of Gold” arose in 2017 when its director Brett Rapkin contacted Peter Carlisle, Phelps’ agent, as Phelps was becoming more vocal about mental health. Ropkin was working on a film about Holcomb, who was struggling with bobsledder depression and spoke openly about his suicidal thoughts. Rapkin last interviewed Holcomb in the spring of 2017, just a few days before Holcomb died alone at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., in an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol.
“The metaphor I like to use comes into the arena of game performance, we think hitting a great slam to win the top game and strike out at the bottom, when in fact the actual bottom is not alive Wants to stay. ”Said Rapkin.
The filmmakers contacted USOPC officials about participating in the film and providing the footage. The organization said it would only do so at a cost of $ 100,000 – a waiver of its standard licensing fee. It also wanted the film to provide health services, services that are desired in Phelps and other subjects of the film.
That film was not Phelps, Carlisle and Rapkin wanted to make. The result only has athletes talking about their struggles on camera.
“I knew it was going to be emotional and raw,” Phelps said. “It’s the real feelings we lived with throughout our career.”