Olympic Moms Steal the Show at London 2012

Forget about the hot young athletes. It’s all about the parents at this year’s summer games, says Rebecca Dana.

Mark J. Terrill / AP Photo

Everyone’s furious with NBC for generally making a hash of its Olympics coverage: for the occasionally brainless commentary; the refusal to carry some popular events live; the Soviet-style suppression of dissent; and the bizarre decision to narrate pretaped specials as if they were unfolding in real time. This is all indeed frustrating, but it misses a larger point. The best action coming out of London isn’t in the pool or the dressage ring or the giant gymnastics Pepto-Bistorium. It’s happening in the stands. And NBC is all over it.

The stars of this year’s summer Olympics? Moms. Weeping, screaming, covering their eyes, performing gymnastics floor routines in their seats, wearing American flags in their Aquanetted ponytails. The middle-aged American parent who has given her life savings and every waking moment over to her child’s athletic ambition is this year’s undisputed Olympic champion. Forget about a tape delay for the most popular events. You could cut the athletes out entirely and the emotional experience would be virtually the same.

This solves several problems for the network. It helps jack up the level of suspense during pretaped events, the outcome of which most viewers learned hours earlier on Twitter. It also reduces the amount of time Olympians (and the rest of us) must spend enduring substance-free “interviews” with members of the NBC News team. Who cares what Michael Phelps has to say about his performance in the 400-meter relay when his mother, Debbie is there, weeping and praying and putting on an altogether better show?

Olympic parents are natural stars. Gymnast Aly Raisman may or may not be on the cover of a Wheaties box when this is all said and done, but her parents are already international superstars. Gabby “Flying Squirrel” Douglas’s mother is already a parenting icon for sending her daughter off to Iowa to train. And lord, does the camera love Ileana Lochte.

The mommy cam is hardly new, it’s merely been perfected this year. Where once viewers had to be content with a passing shot—a tearful mom, a stoic dad—now the parents are miked up and plopped in front of their own devoted camera. NBC, eager to provide value to advertisers who’ve ponied up $1 billion for promotional time during the next two weeks, is wringing every drop of star power out of these women. And it’s working. On Saturday night, more than 28 million people tuned in for the primetime coverage.

NBC is not the only one trying to capitalize. Procter & Gamble has set up a “Home Away From Home” zone in Olympic Village specifically for Olympic moms. By one count there were more than 120 references to parents and family in the first three days of the games.

It’s a logical approach for the network that turned the Olympics into one big Lifetime original movie, padded out with soft-focus athlete bios designed to provoke maximum audience weepage. The Olympics are now 24 uninterrupted hours of the Today show. It’s glorious. It’s also a glimpse of the future. We complain now, but the day can’t be far off when it’s just Andy Cohen sitting around drinking pinot grigio with the gymnastics moms, arguing about the judges’ scores.