Louder, funnier, needier: Olympic parents reach for gold


Michael Phelps's mother Debbie (R) and his sister Hilary (C) applaud as he receives his gold medal for the Men's 4 x 200m freestyle relay.


Ezra Shaw

LONDON, UK — If parenting were an Olympic sport, this year’s games would probably see several world records broken.

The joyful hollering, synchronized squirming and tearful eruptions of moms and dads on the sidelines at London 2012 have sometimes threatened to eclipse the athletes’ performances.

Of course parents have long been involved in their offspring’s sporting careers, but their roles have generated unprecedented interest this year, possibly thanks to a slick advertising campaign that pays homage to their hard graft and unrelenting faith.

Procter and Gamble has tugged at heartstrings with “raising an Olympian” ads depicting the childhoods of athletes from the perspective of mothers who encourage, console, push and cajole their children along the road to Olympic glory.

While the commercials have struck a chord, the unintentionally comic face of Olympic parenting appears to have won over bigger audiences. Several overwrought parental performances have already gone viral on the internet.

Among them, Lynn and Rick Raisman’s fretful gyrations in the stands as they cheered on their American gymnast daughter Aly provided material for one of the most entertaining clips to emerge from the 2012 games so far.

Then there was Bert Le Clos. A fizzing ball of gravel-voiced excitement after his son Chad beat Michael Phelps in the 200 meter butterfly, Le Clos tearily told the BBC: “He’s the most down-to-earth, beautiful boy you’d ever meet in your life. Look at him, he’s crying like me. I love him!”

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Meanwhile, Phelps’s mother Debbie — who staged a legendary parental performance poolside at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — provided cruel amusement during the same race by mistakenly celebrating her son’s 15th gold. A video shows her doing a pop-eyed double take after being informed he was bested by Le Clos.

“The emotion is something you never get used to,” says Ann Cundy, whose son Jody will attempt to add to the three gold and two bronze medals he has already won as a paralympian swimmer and cyclist from Great Britain.

The pool and trackside outbursts often provide crucial releases for parents who have invested large parts of their lives in the sporting fortunes of their children, Cundy explains.

“It’s very difficult to describe to someone who has never experienced it, but we’ve been there through the triumphs and disappointments, so there are a lot of pent up feelings to release,” she says. “These will be our fifth games and they’re going to be the worst. I’m trying not to think about it because I feel physically sick when I do.”

Interviewed by USA Today about his amazing display of facial gymnastics, Aly Raisman’s father Rick described it as an outpouring of relief and jubilation. “I think it was pure joy because me and Lynn know how long and how hard she has worked, literally every day for the last 15 years,” he said.

If the athletes are embarrassed by the outpourings, they aren’t showing it. Aly Raisman gamely tweeted a video link of her parents’ moment in the spotlight, declaring: “I love my parents.”

But not all parental attention is welcome. Carrie Sheinberg, a US skier who competed in the slalom at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, says she appreciated her parents’ hands-off approach after witnessing the obsessiveness of others.

“It wasn’t the moms so much as the dads,” Sheinberg says. “The girl athletes especially had these overbearing fathers who saw themselves as coaches. They would travel with us. They would be at team dinners with us. They would be at team meetings with us.

“They would be running their daughters through exercises before they raced or they would walk their daughter’s skis up for them so they didn’t have to carry them on the chairlift. There was a lot of over-the-top shit going on.”

Sheinberg says although her family’s commitment and financial support was crucial to her success, parents must realize their limitations. “The truth is no matter how involved a parent you are, most of the work goes on without you there.”

Cundy agrees. “The support of family and friends is 50 percent of it at least, but ultimately it has to be down to him and his talent and hard work.”

Not every athlete’s relationship with his or her parents is straightforward. British cycling hero Bradley Wiggins has written about how his Olympic successes came despite a difficult relationship with his father Garry, an alcoholic who died in 2008.

But few paternal relationships can be more complicated than New Zealand kayaker Mike Dawson’s.

He barely scraped through the slalom semifinals on the second day of the London Olympics after a judge penalized him 100 seconds for missing two gates. The judge was his mother, Kay Dawson.

Thanks, Mom.  

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