The relationship between the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and its most ornate Olympian, Michael Phelps, has been rocky for years.
The more Phelps won and won, winning 28 Olympic medals at five games, the more he became a child of the organization’s poster, worthy of any special treatment he could provide. Or, from Phelps’ point of view, it was the last and largest commodity that the Olympics promoters took care of only as a swimming machine for making medals.
Phelps distills this dynamic at the end of “Weights of Gold,” an HBO Sports documentary that talks about the depression and other mental illnesses that Olympians struggle with. Phelps is also the executive producer of the film, which premiered Wednesday night.
“I can honestly say when I look back on my career, I don’t think anyone would really help us,” he says, looking blankly at the interviewer. “I don’t think anyone would jump in and ask us if we were okay.” As long as we played, I didn’t think anything else really mattered. “
In recent weeks, as they relent on film releases and criticism of a system that has long won priority over all others, Olympic officials have seen in the past and now all the benefits Phelps has gained during his career, including top training and coaching. , access to state-of-the-art technology and a two-bedroom suite at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, used only by him and the casual doctor if he wasn’t there. Everyone else slept in single or double rooms.
But this unequal treatment and reaction to the film, Phelps said in an interview for this week, shows how Olympic officials and coaches perceive athletes as a valuable asset during their short windows of Olympic glory, but then leave them alone for years between games. if their career is interrupted or ended, the system will move on to the next star.
“I feel like they don’t care about anything I’m doing now,” Phelps, 35, told the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
The committee, which says it has always welcomed and wanted Phelps’ contribution in recent months, has set up a working group on mental health to help change and expand the system, which has made it clear that its CEO, Sarah Hirshland, needs a clear update. The organization participates in the Winter and Summer Olympics during each four-year cycle of approximately 1,000 athletes, but has only three mental health officers on staff.
“We have room to grow and improve,” said Bahati VanPelt, who became head of sports services for the USOPC last year. “I am a great believer in a framework that is holistic and accessible throughout the athlete’s career.”
The focus of this problem is that Phelps and other athletes are that Olympic officials and elite athletes have had two very different definitions of support for athletes for several years.
The support for athletes for the Olympic Committee meant, above all, the provision of services – state-of-the-art training facilities, top coaches and sports scientists, access to sports psychologists and many US team magnifiers – which apparently led directly to home medals. .
For athletes, support should henceforth evolve into something more comprehensive, involving mental health care in a way that goes beyond sports psychologists who have focused on preparing their minds for competition.
“We need to educate people that mental health is not a weakness,” said Katie Uhlaender, a four-time skeleton Olympian who is one of the athletes profiled in the film. Others include Steven Holcomb, a gold medalist in the bobsled track, who died in 2017; figure skaters Sasha Cohen and Gracie Gold and Jeret Peterson, an air skier who killed himself in 2011. “It’s a matter of people coming to this in terms of performance versus healing,” she said.
Uhlaender and others argue that there is a strong need for athletes to have easier access to therapy that does not involve coaching and high-performing staff – people who evaluate their eligibility for competition and national team membership each year and who could punish an Athlete he knows , needs help in dealing with mental illness.
The USOPC has tried to move in this direction. A growing number of athletes have access to unlimited telephone counseling and six personal therapy sessions with a licensed professional through AsPsych. The contribution has expanded to approximately 4,400 athletes this year, more than three times the number of access to it before the coronavirus pandemic, postponing the Tokyo Games until 2021.
Critics argue that ComPsych is in fact a human resource tool in society and not a mental health service provider. VanPelt has 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 building a register of mental health professionals that athletes can consult without the consent of anyone at the USOPC, but who still qualifies and pays for this benefit is still working.
Already this year, Olympic cyclist Kelly Catlin and former Olympic bobsleigh track Pavel Jovanovic were killed.
“I don’t see any more suicides,” Phelps said.
Phelps said he discovered the importance of therapy in 2014, during the first months of his attempt to return, ahead of the 2016 Olympics, when he was caught speeding and driving in a tunnel in Baltimore. He said he saw the incident and his suicidal thoughts as the culmination of years that “clogged” his feelings of emptiness, vulnerability and mistrust about nothing but victory in the race.
The opportunity to do “The Weight of Gold” arose in 2017 when director Brett Rapkin approached Peter Carlisle, a Phelps agent, about the project as Phelps became more prominent in mental health. Rapkin worked on a film about Holcomb, a bobsled that struggled with depression and spoke openly about his suicidal thoughts. Rapkin last spoke to Holcomb in the spring of 2017, just before Holcomb died alone at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, NY, for an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol.
“The metaphor I like to use is when it comes to the spectrum of sports performances, we think the top is hit by a huge punch to win the game, and the bottom is staggering when in fact the real bottom doesn’t want to be alive.” “Rapkin said.
The filmmakers approached USOPC representatives 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 emphasize the health services it provides, the services that Phelps and other film actors considered necessary.
It wasn’t a movie that Phelps, Carlisle and Rapkin wanted to make. As a result, only athletes on camera talk about their matches.
“I knew it would be emotional and raw,” Phelps said. “These are real emotions that we’ve been through all our careers.”