LONDON (Reuters) - When British judo champion Gemma Gibbons won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics, she looked to the heavens and mouthed “I love you mum,” a teary tribute to her mother who died eight years ago.
Bert le Clos, father of South African swimmer Chad who beat Michael Phelps in the 200 meter butterfly, became an Internet sensation when he cried over “his beautiful boy,” tugging his shirt over his stomach as he realized he was on live television.
An online video of U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman’s parents squirming in their seats at the London Games as they mirrored her moves on the bars also went viral.
While the spotlight is on the athletes at Olympics, in the wings is often a family that is as committed and dedicated to the sport as the athletes, making huge financial and lifestyle sacrifices to let their sons and daughters chase their dreams.
Kathy Vollmer, mother of U.S. swimmer Dana who won three golds in London, used to spend four hours a day driving her daughter to swimming practice.
Realizing they were eating and doing homework in the car, she took the decision to home school her daughter.
“When Dana didn’t qualify for the Beijing Olympics it was so disappointing but we all learnt from every disappointment and every injury,” Vollmer told Reuters at the P&G House, a centre set up in London for athletes’ families.
“Now it has paid off. It seems there was a plan there.”
Vollmer said the families of top athletes would do anything to help them reach their goals and tended to be optimistic even though the pressure often shows as they watch from the stands.
“You need to pass on to your children the belief that they can do anything with hard work and effort,” said Vollmer, who admitted to feeling faint and nauseous before Dana competes.
Can they go too far? The parents of Chinese diver Wu Minxia have come under fire in the media after it was reported that they hid the death of her grandparents for a year and kept her mother’s battle with cancer secret so as not to distract her.
A study by psychologists at Britain’s Loughborough University found Olympic champions tended to have five common psychological traits that helped them to succeed.
They shared a sense of positivity, high levels of motivation and of focus, and good self confidence, which could be gained from various sources including experience, coaches and family.
But the psychologists also found that those close to the athlete played a major part in sporting success with the fifth shared attribute found to be perceived social support.
“We found that families are key, and not just parents but siblings as well,” said David Fletcher, director of Sport Psychology Support Services at Loughborough University.
He said the type of support provided by parents of Olympians was also consistent in that it was not, surprisingly, focused on the result or the victory. They tended to talk about the process that goes into achieving an outcome.
“If you look at the parents of high achieving athletes they are not pushy and they provide unconditional love,” he said.
Connie Carpenter, the mother of U.S. cyclist Taylor Phinney, is an Olympian herself, winning gold in the cycling road race at the 1984 Los Angeles Games where her husband, Davis Phinney, won a bronze medal in the men’s team time trial.
She said family support was critical for athletes.
“It can be very lonely and very frustrating for athletes at this level,” she told Reuters. “As parents we try to make it real and we try to make it fun.”
When British gymnast Louis Smith burst into tears after a qualifying event, so did his mother Elaine, a hairdresser, who largely brought him up on her own and has not been on a date in years or on an foreign holiday since Smith was 11.
“I was crying because he was crying and I just wanted to hug him,” she told reporters as her son went on to win bronze in the men’s team event and silver in the men’s pommel horse.
Family support comes in all forms.
British diver Tom Daley said his younger brother’s parting words before his first event in London were: “You’re shit.”
But after Daley and partner came fourth in the synchronized 10 meter platform diving and he was subjected to a barrage of insults on Twitter, his brother Will was quick to his defense.
“Tom did the best he can and one slip up can loose (sic) you race for a medal! Oh well bring on the individual.”
Editing by Mark Meadows