Beijing Bureau: Athletes of Unknown Parentage

The Beijing Olympic broadcasting organization places signs at the entrance to the Water Cube asking parents of star athletes to tell them where they will be sitting. 

Watching the wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Phelps’s mom, one would be forgiven for imagining that the parents of Olympians go from the Today Show to handshakes with the President to interviews with Tom Brokaw.

As it happens, many parents have to scramble for tickets and hotel rooms like everyone else. (In the weeks leading up to these Games, the special online ticket lottery for family members of Olympians was mistakenly opened to the public). Most parents come to Beijing to see their sons and daughters get knocked out in the first round of competition. Most never run in a semifinal or fight a medal bout. The mathematics of the Olympics is cold.

During a swimming semifinal we sat between the fathers of two different athletes. We had nosebleed seats, up in a corner of the Water Cube. The father behind us told us he had paid $150 for a $12 ticket in order to see his son swim.

One father, a Croatian, went absolutely wild when his son swam, standing up, whooping and waving a flag. Nearly the entire section joined in clapping and cheering. After the race, he announced that his son had just smashed the Croatian record. It would not be fast enough to advance to the next round.

The other father, whose son swam for the Philippines, was quiet as his son raced. He bit his lip and frowned. His son had swum a personal best, but it would also not be fast enough to advance to the semifinals.

Rest assured, the fascination with the parents of more famous Olympians is not just an American phenomenon. The arrival of hurdler Liu Xiang’s parents in Beijing warranted a news report on central television. And there are tons of television ads featuring the parents of Olympians.

So many others, though, remain anonymous.

See also: Ming Thompson reports on security and the smog in Beijing, and Dan Mattingly tells us what the Chinese really cheer and how they treat Taiwanese athletes.

Plus, visit Ming’s Beijing food blog


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