‘The Weight of Gold’ Review: HBO Sports Doc Gives Lightweight Treatment to Heavy Issue

Brett Rapkin's examination of the ailing mental health of Olympic athletes is necessary, but packing it into a broadcast-ready hourlong package does it no favors.
The Weight of Gold
"The Weight of Gold"

In another universe, this summer’s sports-centric programming looks quite a bit different than it does in our current (and very strange) reality, from major league sports like baseball and basketball not existing in a literal bubble to the only-every-four-years spectacle of the Olympics unspooling in Japan. In fact, the latest edition of the Summer Olympics would have kicked off this very week, with the world’s best athletes gathering in and around Tokyo for two weeks of competition. Brett Rapkin’s “The Weight of Gold,” which assembles a sterling array of Olympic athletes to talk candidly about their struggles with mental health, starts with a necessary nod to what would have been another entry in classic Olympic mania.

It even suggests an important question: perhaps they’re better without it? It’s an idea worth pondering, especially as Rapkin’s documentary steadily builds over the course of just one hour to show, if not the full weight of Olympic expectations on those who dedicate their lives to their sport, at least enough of it to given even the most sports-crazy fan a moment of pause.

Unfortunately, that might be all the HBO Sports project is able to spawn, because trapped inside a broadcast-ready package that clocks in at just under an hour, Rapkin’s look at the mental health challenges affecting athletes is far too truncated to leave a lasting impact. “It’s too short” might seem like a blasé bit of criticism, but when a documentary attempts to tackle such a heady subject with such short shrift, the issue moves beyond “I wanted more of this” into “this is actually irresponsible.”

While the stories and ideas contained within “The Weight of Gold” are of paramount, literally life or death importance, tying them up into a tidy package that fits inside the confines of one chunk of broadcast time, no longer than an episode of “Bar Rescue,” lessens their heft. Paired with an all-star assortment of talking heads, including Michael Phelps (who awkwardly, if empathetically, narrates), Jeremy Bloom, Lolo Jones, Gracie Gold, Bode Miller, Apolo Anton Ohno, Sasha Cohen, Shaun White, David Boudia, and Katie Uhlaender, “The Weight of Gold” appears to have more than enough material to mine for something far more extensive, something with actual weight.

It’s a limitation that’s not even necessarily obvious for at least the doc’s first half, which is guilty of meandering to the point that it’s difficult to ascertain what is the point of all this. Ostensibly focused on interrogating the connection between Olympic-caliber athletes and ailing mental health, “The Weight of Gold” offers initially broad observations, despite the appearance of so many big stars who seem primed to talk candidly about their struggles. Still, the doc’s early moments do lay out one key foundation: an understanding of why and how these athletes, so driven by performance and results and being the best, might be susceptible to emotional and mental issues.

It’s a concept that makes plenty of sense with the minimum of consideration (seriously, just think about how hard it must be to be an Olympic-caliber athlete), but the doc’s talking heads — particularly Ohno, Gold, Miller, Cohen, and of course Phelps — offer such raw and honest insight into their own struggles that it removes any doubt as to why people so physically adept might have problems in other spaces. From Miller’s searing indictment of the media to Ohno’s insights into what it really feels like to be driven to attain gold at any cost, “The Weight of Gold” at least doesn’t skimp on its most basic of messages.

But by the time it pushes into its messy, often emotional second half, those messages become far less easy to follow. While “The Weight of Gold” is, on its surface, about mental health in the Olympics community, its final act only hedges up against what it might actually be about, what it really should be about: the rising numbers of Olympians taking (or attempting) their own lives. It’s not about mental health in a broad way, it’s about suicide in a very immediate way.

This key change, complete with some of the most emotional scenes the documentary has to offer (and with much of it told through a dispassionate and unimaginative talking head format, that’s not an easy ask), temporarily pushes “The Weight of Gold” into bold territory. There are surprises (many of them wrenching) and there are confessions that absolutely sting (Gold, again, offers some of the doc’s most important commentary), and even the necessary implication that the Olympic Federation (like so many other sports organizations) has wholly failed its members.

But to what end? Neutered into an hour-long quick hit, “The Weight of Gold” can only approach its heaviest, most daring matters at its end, one that can’t even lodge enough time to imagine a space in which they are treated with the care they demand. Just as it starts punching back, the credits roll, another easily digestible bit of broadcast entertainment, just in time to fill the yawning Olympics gap.

Grade: C+

“The Weight of Gold” premieres on HBO on Wednesday, July 29 at 9 p.m. ET.

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