Skip to main content
Original Issue

They Deserve A Medal

The athletes aren't the only ones who sacrificed to get to the Olympics—their parents went the extra mile, too

From section 225, row 18, seat 31 in the Olympic Park Basketball Arena, a blind man can see. Harold Murphy has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that has reduced his field of vision to 18 degrees. He has been legally blind since 1998. If his seat were closer to the court, his tunnel vision might allow him to focus only on the red number 12 with CANADA on the front and MURPHY on the back, a jersey worn by an off-the-bench swingman who can pop a three-pointer from the elbow or slash to the hoop. But from his perch in the upper balcony, he can make out enough of the court to know that the ref who calls traveling on his daughter, Lizanne, during the second quarter of Team Canada's 73--65 defeat of Great Britain on July 30 is "a dumbass because she moves so quickly, he missed it."

From section 111, row 1, seat 26 in the ExCeL Centre fencing hall, a woman can't look. Fiona Imboden sits long enough to see a rakish 19-year-old whose first name, Race, was inspired by Race Bannon, a rugged character on the 1960s cartoon adventure series Jonny Quest, walk onto the piste. Nervous, she flees. Under the stands, the mother who lives in a third-floor walkup in Brooklyn listens to her son winning his first Olympic foil bout.

London 2012 is the Parents' Olympics. The running, tumbling and sweating have been embroidered with viral videos of the spectator stylings of the mother and father of U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman and the dedicated Deb Cam fixed poolside on Michael Phelps's mom, Debbie. The footage captured evocative moments that touch anyone who ever walked his or her child to school. The most wondrous moment of parenthood is when your baby falls asleep on your shoulder, a fragrant lump of dead weight and unconditional love. The second-most wondrous is when that baby, now in an ill-fitting cap and an oversized glove, catches his first pop fly. Lynn and Ricky Raisman are our proxies—only with better moves.

These Games have helped resuscitate the good name of sports parents, who have been maligned (soccer moms) or demonized (Little League parents, tennis fathers) beyond all sense of fairness. Obviously, such characters roam the sidelines, but Harold Murphy, who sees the glass half full as long as it is placed in his direct line of sight, figures they are few among thousands. The silent majority—those who drive, watch and cheer—are the backbone of North American sports culture. Like the solidly middle-class Murphy and Imboden parents, most have done nothing but offer their children the gift of opportunity.

If you are Debbie Phelps, maybe you end up with the winning lottery ticket. For most others, raising an Olympian is a ludicrous long-range financial investment. Gold, silver or bronze? Try Visa, Mastercard or Amex.

"We used to send Race to national competitions with only three blades," says Fiona Imboden, whose accent is a curious mix of New York City and Yorkshire, England, where she was born and lived until immigrating 30 years ago. "There were times when he thought he'd miss a plane, and I'm like, Oh, my God, we don't have any money [to pay the changed-ticket fee], and our credit cards are blown." Fiona is an administrator at a Manhattan private school, a job she took two years ago to help pay the bills for Race's fencing. Her husband, William, produces TV promos for CNBC. "My mom thought we were nuts," she says. "She was very British, almost Victorian. [What we were doing for Race], to me, seemed very American."

Unless Donald Trump founds the National Fencing League, Race won't play in the NFL. Nor is 28-year-old Lizanne Murphy WNBA bound, although she will return to her French club, Aix-en-Provence, where she scratched out a living in a half season last winter. Before France she played in Finland, Lithuania, Slovakia and Poland, but the opportunity costs—she passed on medical school to do it—were substantial.

She dreamed. Her mother, Maureen, drove. When Lizanne was in college at Hofstra, where she had a 3.65 GPA in biology (with a triple minor in chemistry, French and psychology), Maureen would ferry her husband seven hours from their home in Beaconsfield, Quebec, to watch Lizanne's weekend games. (They scored a good rate at the Long Island Marriott because Harold would fib that he was a visiting professor from Concordia University in Montreal—where he had worked in human resources before going on disability three years ago.) During a drive to a game in East Lansing, Mich., Harold insists they were victims of ethnic profiling at the border. "We told [the border guard that] we were going to see our daughter play against Michigan State," he says, "and the guy told us he knew there was no woman's hockey game that night." Until scraping together $4,000 for the London trip, the Murphys had followed their middle child's international career via basketball websites, with Harold visualizing the action through real-time statistics. When Canada's women's team belatedly qualified for London last month, Lizanne's first thought wasn't I did it but rather We did it. "My family," she says. She cried during the last 15 seconds of Team Canada's 71--63 play-in-game victory over Japan on July 1. And as she recounted the story last week on a picnic bench amid strolling crowds in Olympic Park, her eyes welled again. London Bawling.

There are 10,500 Olympians in London. There are almost double that number of parents who have stood behind their children, hands outstretched not to push them but to catch them if they fell. "The scary thing about raising a kid," Fiona Imboden says, "is asking yourself the question, Is it my goal or my kid's goal?"

The ones with the right answer are a credit to their Lizanne, a credit to their Race.


The family of 26-year-old gold medal--winning Chinese diver Wu Minxia admitted last week that it had withheld from Wu the news of her mother's breast cancer, in 2004, and her grandparents' deaths, in '11, so as not to interfere with her Olympic training.