Tom Daley dives in memory of his father. Gemma Gibbons weeps with joy mouthing “I love you mum” to the mother she lost in 2004 from leukemia. Andy Murray has his mum Judy at court side as does Serena Williams with her dad Richard. Victoria Pendleton only took up cycling to please her father whose own cycling ambitions were never realised.
These and many others are the truly moving stories of the Olympics. They illustrate how each of us throughout our lives carry our parenting and our upbringing with us, how we play this out in our sporting lives and in our relationships.
We often model ourselves in relation to our parents, we may not form an individual identity separate from them, unconsciously seeking their approval and to be like them or liked by them.
Tom Daley movingly described himself as “the oil” in his sick father’s lamp. Understandably his identity is tied up with his father and his need to reaffirm the relationship through sporting success.
We may seek to please them, Victoria Pendleton is thought to have been trying to please – mainly her coaches – throughout her career. Lewis Hamilton famously fired his father Anthony as his manager. This may have been his means at this time of creating a separate identity from his father. Arguably he has not yet regained the form of his earlier career.
When we keep ourselves overly close to our parents or their image it is difficult to find our “real self”, an image based on reality in the present, a sense of who we truly are in our own uniqueness in this world.
This takes time, age and experience and there is a rite of passage. This involves the ability to separate and create ourselves as individuals separate from our parents.
The intensity and emotion of witnessing young athletes playing this out in public in front of billions of people is moving and extraordinary. Yet while saluting their courage, I fear that by defining themselves and seeking any kind of resolution through their sporting achievement they may experience disappointment.
The challenge is to recognise that each of us is a separate and distinct person capable of dealing with the slings and arrows of daily life, that as important as sport may be it is only one part of who we are. They are more than their chosen sport, more than their hopes, expectations and accomplishments.
One day their sporting careers will be over and they will all develop a sense of who they are, independent of their parents, a real self that will sustain them and carry them forward through many more years of life.