Dubai: Win or lose at the Olympics, diver Tom Daley will be one of the most feted British athletes at the Olympics.
Daley, alongside his partner Peter Waterfield, embarked on his London programme by finishing fourth in the men’s synchronised 10-metre platform on Monday evening and will go on to compete in the individual 10-metre platform event on August 10-11 at the London Aquatics Centre.
The 18-year-old has been something of a sporting phenomenon in the UK in recent years, winning the BBC’s prestigious Young Sports Personality of the Year award three times since 2007.
These garlands owed much to his inspiring achievements on the global stage, including becoming Britain’s first-ever individual diving world champion three years ago.
A year before he won the 10-metre platform event in Rome, he made his Olympic debut at the age of 14 in Beijing, where he finished a creditable seventh individually and eighth with Blake Aldridge in the synchro event. His feats thrust diving, a sport most people see only fleetingly during an Olympics, well and truly into the limelight.
And those who tune in to watch Daley in action cannot fail to be mesmerised by a diminutive youngster performing gasp-inducing, mid-air contortions from vertigo-provoking heights, all topped off by picture-perfect entrances into the water below.
Daley’s pearly-white grin, immaculate tan, lithe physique and innate charm have also earned him ‘poster-boy’ status for Team GB. But another central part of the teenager’s appeal is the controlled and classy manner in which, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, he has met with triumph and disaster and treated those two imposters just the same.
In other words, he has conducted himself with immense dignity during both the peaks and troughs of his professional achievements and personal life.
When he revealed he was bullied by jealous school friends after emerging as a precocious talent in his early teens, his plight resonated with everyday folk, who praised him for being brave enough to reveal his torment. A move to a public school which boasts a number of gifted young sportspeople like him in his home city of Plymouth, south west England, thankfully addressed that unedifying episode.
But there was to be a far greater personal trauma for the youngster to contend with — and sadly this time there was to be no happy ending. His father and guiding light, Rob, who accompanied him everywhere, and who wept uncontrollably and hugged his son in emotional scenes following his worlds success in 2009, lost a five-year battle with a brain tumour in May last year.
Just a month before his passing, Rob, who gave up his job as an electrician to devote his life selflessly to supporting his son’s career, had defied his illness to watch the teenager win a World Series event with Waterfield.
Such was the overwhelming pride Daley senior felt towards his son that he wore a T-shirt bearing the message “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning”. Daley later explained: “I am his oil.”
Losing a father, who was just 40, is hard enough for someone in their teens to cope with. But the fact that his father had been such an inspirational driving force in Daley’s career since he began diving at the age of seven made the Briton’s loss all the more profound.
In a poignant message on the day of his father’s death, Daley wrote on Twitter: “If I could be half the dad that my dad was to me, then that would be my best achievement! I love you! Xx.” He later returned to the social media platform to thank the scores of well-wishers — including Britain’s double gold medallist from the 2008 Olympics, Rebecca Adlington — for deluging him with messages of support and sympathy.
His army of admirers was bolstered further when he displayed similar maturity and stoicism on being faced with more misfortune earlier this year.
Alexei Evangulov, Team GB’s Russian performance director, launched a public attack on the prodigy in which he criticised Daley’s commitment to the sport.
He claimed Daley’s Chinese rivals worked “three times harder than him”, and compared the teenager to the former glamourpuss of women’s tennis, Anna Kournikova, who became renowned more for being a paparazzi pin-up than a player of renown towards the end of her career. Evangulov also suggested that excessive extra-curricular commitments, such as media work, threatened to derail Daley’s hopes of glory in London.
It seemed a heartless and unjust assertion in light of Daley’s crushing loss the year before, which surely had a negative impact on his performances and caused him to lose focus somewhat. And, given the prodigy’s impressive list of achievements, most observers would never accuse him of being overly laidback and languid as far as his craft was concerned.
Daley could have responded to this brutal public flogging in true teenage fashion by throwing a tantrum and entering into a war of words with his critic. Instead, he politely rejected the assertion that he was not working hard enough and then pledged to use the Russian’s harsh words as a motivating tool in his quest for Olympic success.
After winning plaudits galore, Daley now faces the considerable task of trying to win an individual Olympic medal on home soil. The teenager’s task next week is a towering proposition, though, given China’s stunning dominance of the sport.
Chinese divers won all 10 medals on offer at last year’s world championships in Shanghai and, prior to the Games, had claimed 27 out of 40 gold medals available at the event since the 1984 Olympics.
And in Daley’s own event, the 10-metre platform, he is up against a phenomenon he has described as a “robot”, Qiu Bo. But rather than be cowed by this 19-year-old diving force of nature, who has not been beaten individually for two years, Daley has been in bullish mood about the mountainous challenge he faces in trying to conquer a mighty foe.
With impressive confidence, something which does not always come naturally to British sportsmen, Daley has said even the imperious Bo can be beaten. After all, he himself did this when he won the 2009 World Championships.
And, exhibiting mature psychological cunning and youthful audacity in equal measure, he has even suggested the seemingly superhuman Chinese could buckle under the pressure of the occasion at the London Aquatics Centre.
Furthermore, the vagaries of sport mean anything can happen, as Daley correctly points out: “We have all seen the YouTube videos of speed skaters crashing on the last corner at the Winter Olympics and the last man standing wins, so you don’t know what will happen.”
In a further bold pronouncement, Daley insists he would not settle for second best as he prepares for a once-in-a-lifetime Games in his home country. He said: “My dream is to win an Olympic gold medal. If I dive my best on the day, it can happen. I really believe that.”
Yet while Daley has become a man both in diving terms and in his life generally in recent years, he has not dispensed with childhood accoutrements just yet. A lucky toy monkey accompanies him to every competition and has done since he shot to prominence.
Daley and a monkey versus ‘a robot’ will be a contest worth watching at the Olympics, win or lose, that is for sure. And it is also certain that, in triumph or disaster, Daley will exhibit the same grace and class he exudes when he dives.