London’s Family Affair: Olympic Parents Become Stars in Their Own Right

London 2012 is proving to be a family affair, with parents' reactions to their children competing as big a spectacle as sports

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Dave Hogan / NBC

Lynn and Rick Raisman during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London on Aug. 1, 2012

Forget hockey or soccer moms. The time of the Olympic parent has come.

London 2012 is proving to be a family affair. Perhaps not since Barcelona 1992, when Derek Redmond, the British favorite in the 400 m, snapped his hamstring and was carried across the line, limping, by his father Jim, have parents have become such stars in their own right. So far, none of the parental drama has proven to be as heart-wrenching as that show of paternal support, though what London 2012 has lacked so far in tearjerkers, it is definitely making up for in laughs.

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The man who arguably takes gold for proudest father is Bert Le Clos, whose son Chad is a South African swimmer. Le Clos is a burly, giant of a man who, shirt unbuttoned and cheeks flushed with pride, flung his arms wildly over his head after his son beat Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, in the 200-m butterfly on Tuesday evening.

This was Chad Le Clos’s first Olympics, and coming away with a gold by beating his swimming idol was an overwhelming experience, evidenced by his teary breakdown on the podium. His father made no attempts of tempering his emotions either. Interviewed by the BBC after the win, the man was exploding with sheer joy: “UN-BE-LIEVABLE!” he bellowed in his gruff, Afrikaans-accented English. “Unbelievable, unbelievable! I have never been so happy in my life … I mean, what happened tonight is like I died and went to heaven.” As clips of his son walking around the pool with Phelps were shown to him on a monitor, he burst into full flow once again. “This is unbelievable — look at him! And he’s beautiful! Look at what a beautiful boy, look at this, look at how ugly I look!” he said laughing, and rubbing his generous belly, incredulous that he could father such a fine Olympic specimen.

Both men were in tears as they took in the immense achievement of winning a gold. “Look at him! He’s crying like me!” said Bert, before shouting at the images of his son, “I love you.” Finally, aware that he was being filmed, he turned to the BBC presenter: “Is this live?”

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Away from the Aquatics Centre, other athletes’ parents are also gathering an audience. NBC’s clip of American gymnast Aly Raisman’s parents ducking, weaving and wincing as they watched her bar routine during team qualifiers has gone viral. As Raisman goes through her routine, her mother’s face contorts and twists. Her mother Lynn writhes in her seat. “Let’s go Aly! Let’s go, let’s go,” she says over and over again, her voice taut with expectation. Aly’s father Rick bites his lip in anticipation before begging his daughter to “stick it, please, stick it!” Once the 18-year-old successfully “sticks it,” the relief is palpable. Rick Raisman punches the air, and after putting his hand over his heart he looks into the camera and screams, “Aargh!”

Aly, not one to be embarrassed, tweeted after posting the video: “I love my parents.”

For some parents, the spectacle and pressure can be too much to bear. U.S. Olympic gymnast John Orozco may have had to keep his eyes wide open to make sure he made his landings, but his mother Damaris found watching to be almost unbearable. She kept her eyes firmly shut behind her perfectly manicured hands on Saturday, as her husband attempted to zoom in on their son with a pair of binoculars. Once her son’s routine was over, she opened her eyes, fanned herself with her hand, her face flush with relief.

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Nor have Britain’s most famous Olympic family been immune to public, if rather regally restrained, displays of affection. While Olympic equestrian Zara Phillips, the granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II, did not cause her mother Princess Anne to jump with delight as she claimed her silver — the first ever Olympic medal won by a member of the British royal family — Princess Anne’s pride could still be glimpsed as she presented the medal to her daughter. Of the first members of the medal-winning team, Phillips was the only one to get a kiss on the cheek.