The aim of “The Weight of Gold” is both simple and noble: to remind everyone who’s ever tuned in to the Olympics that the competing athletes are, despite their seemingly unattainable strength, human beings. Narrated by Olympic legend and executive producer Michael Phelps, the HBO Sports documentary details the extraordinary drive and dedication it takes for someone to get to the Olympics, the “overwhelming” reality of being there, and most keenly of all, the suddenly steep climb to stability that awaits them once they’re home. It enlists Olympians like Phelps, snowboarder Shaun White, speed-skater Apolo Anton Ohno and figure skaters Sasha Cohen and Gracie Gold to detail their lives in and out of the Games with unprecedented candor. In openly discussing the unique pressure and deflation that defines an Olympian’s life arc, each testimony helps humanize an experience that, to many sitting at home, feels more like a remote fantasy of American exceptionalism at work.
There’s enough material to fuel an entire docuseries in the immersive vein of something like “The Last Dance” — and yet, “The Weight of Gold” clocks in at just under an hour in total. With precious little time to spare its dozens of narrative avenues, this well-meaning documentary just can’t do justice to everything — and everyone — it wants to highlight. (It would also have done better to make its opening content disclaimer more explicit than “the following film contains subject matter related to mental health that may be triggering”; please be advised that “The Weight of Gold” deals very directly with suicide and suicidal ideation.)
There could be an entire episode in the lead-up to the Olympics, when children become singleminded athletes who believe that, as Ohno puts it, “everything that’s not catered to you performing at the highest level in sport is a nonstarter.” Understanding that perspective more intimately seems key to more clearly understanding how athletes come to view everything outside the Games as, in the words of Cohen, “an obstacle” to “push aside.” There could be an entire episode or two in the Olympics themselves, as athletes struggle to maintain their focus and composure under the white-hot gaze of millions across the world, not to mention the hungry press detailing their every move. Skiier Bode Miller only gets a few minutes to describe how the media covered and encouraged his fraught career arc, which is a shame, since it’s an interesting point that deserves more time and scrutiny than “The Weight of Gold” can give it. Most crucially, a more thorough docuseries could, and should, devote more than 20 minutes or so to the inevitable adrenaline crash that greets many Olympians once they’re out the other side.
For one, trying to cover so much ground in so little time results in unfortunate shortcuts that sometimes undercut the documentary’s own conclusions. About halfway through, for example, Phelps’ narration tells us that “however [The Olympics] end, the bigger point is that it’s over.” Phelps’ well-documented problems are of course no less valid than anyone else’s, but his particular experience of becoming a wealthy Olympic poster boy is a far cry from that of Lolo Jones, the hurdler turned bobsledder who once had to watch reruns of her own Olympics races while making someone a smoothie at her new day job. And while it’s important to hear people like Ohno, Gold and skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender speak on how terrible it’s been to try and get mental health support through Team USA, the documentary doesn’t have nearly enough time to dig into why Team USA is particularly frustrating on this count. And when “The Weight of Gold” finally turns to those Olympians who did eventually die by suicide, including bobsledder and recurring interview subject Steven Holcomb, it’s almost too jarring to fully process.
This documentary wants to show civilians that Olympians aren’t nearly as impervious as their otherworldly skill might convey. On that count, it succeeds. In fact, it’s persuasive enough on this front that its ultimate inability to delve into every issue it raises becomes even more frustrating than it might have been if it were just straight up bad. But if “The Weight of Gold” ends up being encouragement for other athletes to be candid about their struggles, or maybe even an outline for a more thorough examination of these worthy subjects down the line, it would still be well worth it.
“The Weight of Gold” premieres Wednesday, July 29 at 9 pm on HBO.