When Cathy and Patrick Batten travel to watch their daughter, Haley, compete in mountain biking races, they like to go their separate ways. Cathy finds one spot, locks in, and watches from there. Patrick’s nerves won’t accommodate such stillness. He runs all over the course, monitoring Haley’s progress at multiple locations.
“I have to keep moving,” Patrick Batten says, laughing. “For some reason, my anxiety is expressed by the motion of my feet.”
For the Tokyo Olympics, the Battens weren’t able to do their usual race day routine. This year’s pandemic policy barred them from watching Haley compete in person. They weren’t allowed in Tokyo at all, due to Covid-19 restrictions set in place for the delayed 2020 Summer Games.
Instead, the Battens watched Haley’s race from Orlando, Florida, at a parents viewing event arranged by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and NBC Universal, which is televising the Games.
You’ve probably caught some of these domestic scenes: exuberant parents hanging on the action, exploding in joy at a medal-winning effort. Some moments have gone viral: swimmer Caeleb Dressel’s family weeping after his 100-meter gold medal; family of gymnast Suni Lee erupting at a watch party in Minnesota as Lee clinched the all-around gold.
Here in Tokyo, the absent Moms and Dads add another layer of disconnection to these subdued Games. While their children are competing in empty stadia, the vast majority of parents are at home. Parents from every participating country who have devoted lives to supporting their sons and daughters at events—in the rain, in the bleachers, or both—are watching life-changing moments happen on a screen.
“It’s been a really odd, interesting journey,” said Richard Jacoby, father of Lydia Jacoby, the 17-year-old Alaskan swimmer who became an overnight sensation with a thrilling victory in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke.
As friends and supporters gathered for a rowdy party in Jacoby’s home base of Seward, Alaska, Richard and Lydia’s mother, Leslie, watched from the NBC/USOPC parent party in Orlando. There, the network captured their joy in the final meters, Leslie clinging to an iPad as she filmed her own account of the moment.
Watching while on camera is an unusual experience, Richard Jacoby said.
“When you’re watching something like that, there’s a lot of raw emotion,” he said. “Every once in a while, you glance over and realize that you’re not just having that moment to yourself.”
He reminded that crowd restrictions have been part of the athlete parenting experience for a year and a half. “We’ve had a year to get used to it,” Richard said.
He recalled sitting in a park in Mission Viejo, Calif., during one of Lydia’s meets, watching her race on his own device while he could hear the competition happening next door.
“At the end of the day, she came out, and we went back to the hotel,” he said. “That’s a funny way to participate.”
For Tokyo, there are new adaptations. The time difference makes communication tricky. It also means that families of U.S. athletes are often watching in the middle of the night. By the time Jacoby’s parents spoke to her after her momentous win, it was close to 3 a.m. ET.
And there’s no guarantee a parent watching on TV will be able to see all of their child’s performance, especially in a sport like mountain biking, where the coverage fixates on two or three leaders. The Battens cleverly turned to a local spy: the U.S. mountain biker Christopher Blevins, who was at the course in Izu, connected with them via FaceTime and provided updates of Haley’s performance.
The 22-year-old Haley wound up finishing a very impressive ninth—and soon confirmed with her parents she was finished and safe.
“We got a text pretty quickly,” said Cathy Batten.
A handful of Olympic parents have been lucky enough see their children compete in Tokyo because of professional responsibilities. Sports Illustrated writer Pat Forde has written movingly about his daughter, Brooke, who is part of the U.S. swim team. Greg and Helena Duplantis, parents of the pole vaulter Armand “Mondo” Duplantis, who was raised in Louisiana but competes for his mother’s native country of Sweden, serve as his coaches and are part of the official Swedish delegation. Greg is also coaching Sweden’s women pole vaulters.
“She does the physical training and preparation, and I do the technical pole vault coaching,” Greg Duplantis said. “It works out really well.”
Amy and Mike Parratto, parents of diver Jessica Parratto, the winner of a silver medal in the synchronized 10-meter platform, said they were grateful to have had the experience of being at their daughter’s first Games, in 2016 in Rio.
The Parrattos are also coaches—one of Mike’s swimmers, Regan Smith, won a silver in the 200 meter butterfly and a bronze in the 100 meter backstroke.
But when their daughter is competing, priorities shift.
“I always watch first as a mom,” Amy said.
The Parrattos did not have a big watch party. They didn’t head to Orlando, either. Instead, they stayed at home in Apple Valley, Minn., and watched with Jessica’s 94-year-old grandmother, Mike’s mom Viola.
Viola took a nap and was good to go at 1 a.m.
“She rallied,” Mike Parratto said proudly.
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Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com
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