Invisible fathers at the Olympic Games

The number of superior male Olympic athletes who look to their mother for inspiration is astonishing.

phelps winner 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
phelps winner 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
The most memorable scenes of the Beijing Olympics are not what Michael Phelps accomplished in the pool but what he did right after emerging with yet another gold medal after every swim. Here, a 23-year-old athletic superstar took his flowers from the medal podium, climbed over benches and photographers and handed them to his beaming mother. The gesture was startling. When I served as rabbi at Oxford, I noticed how uncomfortable students were whenever their parents visited. They had gone to university to assert their independence and were often embarrassed, or at the very least uncomfortable, when they had to introduce their visiting parents to their friends. Certainly, the last thing they did was go out and buy their moms flowers and present them in the presence of their entire social circle. If anything, we should have expected Michael Phelps to come out of the pool and give the flowers to some beautiful young girlfriend. But no, it was his mom. But then again, Debbie Phelps is no ordinary mother, but the single mom who alone raised Michael and his two sisters, Whitney and Hillary, from the time Michael was nine. AS A child of divorce who was raised by a single mother from about the same age, I can attest to the fact that the feat is never forgotten. Children retain a lifelong debt of passionate gratitude toward a mother who sacrifices all on their behalf. They will move heaven and earth to show appreciation for a mother who made her children her entire universe. Champions are not born, they are raised. And those who do the raising, especially when it is done in solitude, earn their moment in the sun. Indeed, the number of superior male athletes at the Olympics who look to their mother, as opposed to their father, for inspiration is astonishing. Basketball superstar LeBron James was raised alone by his mother Gloria to whom he remains especially devoted. Jamaican uber-sprinter Usain Bolt ran straight to his mother Jennifer's arms after breaking the world record in the 100 meter dash and becoming the fastest man alive. America's best male sprinter, Tyson Gay, is so close to his mother Daisy that he phones her every day and especially an hour before he races to help calm his nerves. The list goes on. Indeed, few indicators of the falling stature of the American male are as potent as the receding influence of men in their sons' lives, as they are slowly replaced by mothers of unbreakable devotion. Whereas once this may have been true of areas where women carry special insight, such as in, say, vetting a girlfriend or giving advice about love and relationships, today it is true in the area one where we would least expect it, sports. WHICH BEGS the question, aside from the moment of conception, are men even necessary? If a single mother can produce the greatest Olympic champion of all time, do we even need dads? An increasing number of women are saying no, we don't. They are choosing to have children on their own, or remain single and raise their kids by themselves long after they have divorced. Dads are becoming a luxury. I thought of this scary development as I took a day trip with my children recently. What was it that I, as their father, gave them that their mother could not? Was I, as a man, superfluous? To be sure, there were the obvious things that I contribute. I help support the family. I take my kids to synagogue, study Judaism with them and teach them about our ancient tradition. I attempt to inspire them with talks about character and I remain the principal disciplinarian in the home. But surely these were all things that my wife, if God forbid forced to, could do on her own. Was there anything that required me and only me? And then I remembered. Yes, there was one big thing. I alone could love their mother. That was not something she could do on her own. I could teach my children by means of living example the glories of devotion to a special woman who sacrifices so much on all of our behalf. I could show my children that love was not a fantasy concocted in Hollywood or invented in a novel. I alone could demonstrate to my children that their mother was precious and that love was real. No one could do this but me. I was necessary after all, as was every other father and husband. In other words, the greatest gift a man gives his children is to love their mother. By doing so, he imparts the lesson that there are things in life more glittering than gold and more precious than rubies. In House of Morgan, the monumental biography of John Pierpont Morgan, America's greatest banker, Ron Chernow details how his son and successor, Jack, idolized his father in every way but one. He could not forgive him for his contemptible treatment of his mother, Fanny, and made a point of nurturing his mother in his father's presence as if to show his undisguised contempt. The prophet Malachi foretold of a time when "the hearts of the fathers will be returned through the hearts of the children." While many men spend their lives ignoring their families to chase money, their children are teaching them that one can earn gold and dedicate it to the family. In an age where many men are falling out of love with their wives, perhaps the time has come for them to look to their own sons to remind them that they need look no further than their own homes to discover their most valuable treasure. The writer hosts a daily US radio show on Oprah and Friends. His most recent book is The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him.