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Michael Phelps surprises me with a winning and wise HBO documentary, ‘The Weight of Gold’ | COMMENTARY

At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Michael Phelps won his record eighth gold medal in the 4x100-meter medley relay. The retired swimmer from Baltimore executive produced, narrates and is featured in an HBO documentary, "The Weight of Gold," premiering July 29.
At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Michael Phelps won his record eighth gold medal in the 4x100-meter medley relay. The retired swimmer from Baltimore executive produced, narrates and is featured in an HBO documentary, "The Weight of Gold," premiering July 29. (Al Bello // Getty Images)

I wasn’t expecting much when I heard that retired swimming star Michael Phelps was executive producing, narrating and featured in a documentary for HBO on Olympic athletes and the mental health challenges some of them face. As a journalist, I would have much preferred an independent production team documenting Phelps’ portion of that story.

My thinking is more aligned with Ken Burns, the maker of such hugely popular PBS documentaries as “Baseball” and “The Civil War,” who was one of the few filmmakers willing to publicly criticize “The Last Dance” docuseries earlier this year because retired superstar Michael Jordan was involved in the production of the film that featured him and his Chicago Bulls teammates.

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The fact that Jordan’s production company was one of the partners making “The Last Dance,” was a conflict-of-interest no-no, according to Burns, who told the Wall Street Journal he would “never, never, never, never” allow a subject in a documentary to have a producing role like that.

“If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,” Burns said. “And that’s not the way you do good journalism … and it’s certainly not the way you do good history [which is] my business.”

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The principle is an important one that I need to be clear about, because I see it as one more standard of objectivity and independent, fact-based storytelling that is being eroded with rich athletes allowed to control their image and history through production deals with networks and channels that just want to make a buck off their name. Is the next step, rich, retired politicians controlling their historical record? How about Donald Trump producing the documentary of his presidency? Highly successful athletes can be pretty vain, too. As a culture, we are losing the war on truth, and I see the public’s unquestioning acceptance of documentaries like “The Last Dance” as part of that process.

But all that said, Phelps and HBO pleasantly surprised me with “The Weight of Gold,” which premieres Wednesday. The hourlong film looks at what happens to child athletes once they are identified as possible Olympians. The arc of that journey into adulthood and retirement from competition is sensitively and powerfully delineated through the words of such athletes as speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, track star Lolo Jones, figure skater Sasha Cohen, skier Jeremy Bloom, snowboarder Shaun White, diver David Boudia, skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender, alpine ski racer Bode Miller and figure skater Gracie Gold, as well as with Phelps. Some of the most moving words come from videotapes of bobsledder Steven Holcomb and aerial skier Jeret Peterson recorded before their deaths.

“When you’re an Olympian, you like to think your story is different from all of the others,” Phelps says in voice-over as the screen fills with images of him as a 15-year-old. “But, really, they all pretty much start the same. At some point or other, all of us get this idea in our heads: We can make it to the Olympics.”

Videotape shows several of the athletes as children and adolescents telling interviewers their goal is to compete at the Olympics.

One of the youngest is Gold, who remembers how old she was when her childhood ended.

“I started skating when I was eight,” Gold says. “I get on the ice and I just kind of love it right away. I didn’t perceive myself as being amazingly talented. But I was aware that I was better than some of the other kids. And it just rapidly snowballed from there.”

Phelps says, “None of us had normal childhoods.” And while he acknowledges that he freely chose the path to the Olympics as a teenager, once he did, his focus “got incredibly narrow and intense really quickly, which would have ramifications later in life, even if it was impossible to realize that at the time.”

Against images of Ohno as a teenager engaged in a furious workout, we hear him saying, “You think and you operate as if everything revolves around the sole focus, and that sole focus is the Olympics. Everything else is secondary. So, your relationships, your school, your family, your other friends, everything that does not cater to you performing at the highest level in sport is a non-starter conversation.”

Cohen describes her childhood and adolescence this way: “Everything else in life was an obstacle I wanted to push aside. I didn’t want to spend time with friends. I didn’t want to go to school. I wanted to do everything I could to be the best skater I could.”

The kind of pressure the athlete feels once she or he gets to the Olympics is suggested by Cohen explaining what it felt like riding in the bus to the arena where she would skate.

“You get on an Olympic venue bus and you go to the arena where you’re going to compete, and you have this kind of epiphany,” Cohen says, “that when you get back on this bus tonight, your fate will have been sealed ... And it’s just a bus ride, but the enormity of it is huge.”

That’s a lot for any teenage athlete to handle.

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“It’s all they’ve done for the past 10 years,” Ohno says, “And now, for the next 40 seconds of our human lives, this moment will dictate whether they have a gold or not.”

The documentary does its best and deepest work in examining some of those “ramifications later in life” mentioned earlier in the film by Phelps: eating disorders, anxiety, crushing depression, alcoholism, inability to function in the “civilian” world, suicidal thoughts and, in the case of some Olympians, suicide. The athletes are candid, personal and, in some cases, in considerable pain as they talk about their struggles.

Phelps talks about what he was feeling after he hit “rock bottom” with a DUI arrest in 2014 in Baltimore’s Fort McHenry Tunnel. He said after he was released by police and came home, he was “just a wreck.”

He said he sat in his room “basically curled up and cried.”

He said he was thinking, “Well, this is everything coming to an end in front of my eyes. And that’s where I was just like, ‘Why don’t I just end it all?‘”

Instead, he says, he checked into a treatment center and spent the next 45 days “rebuilding” himself from the ground up.

Not all former Olympians featured in “The Weight of Gold” had the resources and support system that Phelps did. The stories and the recollections of friends and family members of Peterson, who committed suicide, are heartbreaking.

The documentary goes out of its way to make it clear that the producers understand that many Americans are suffering from anxiety, fear, loneliness, depression and other mental health issues as COVID-19 continues to do its deadly work. An effort is made to place the suffering of current and former Olympians within that context.

And it should be noted that the mental health issues the Olympians face are not exclusive to them. Any boy or girl who is singled out early for their athletic prowess and spends their teen years playing on travel and All-Star teams and is then hoping for a career at the college or pro level goes through much of the same darkness. That’s especially true if their parents start living through their children’s accomplishments and make them feel anything short of a professional career is a failure.

But Olympics are the biggest stage of all with the overlays of patriotism, nationalism, hero worship, pop-culture celebrity and nonstop TV coverage from the Olympic Village.

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I did not like Phelps very much when he stood atop that Olympic mountain as the most decorated athlete ever. He seemed aloof and entitled, and I wondered why he didn’t do more with his fame to help others.

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But I have much respect for him now after seeing “The Weight of Gold.” Not because of what he went through, but because he is now using his fame to make a film like this, which will help others see they are not alone in their feelings of darkness.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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