James Lawton: Oldest teenager Tom Daley labours under pressure

He came to his first dive with the demeanour of a condemned man

The Aquatic Centre

Tom Daley, who for so long has been a delight of the sporting nation, was last night fighting not just for his Olympic life but his status as an authentic contender for the highest prizes of his sport. It was as though he was in the dock rather on top of a diving platform.

He made it through at the desperate finish, producing a decent final dive in the 10-metre platform preliminaries and ranking 15th of 18 qualifiers.

An additional discouragement was that the red hot Chinese favourite Qui Bo, a 19-year-old who has not been beaten for over two years, was operating almost entirely on a different planet.

Daley, in a mood of cranked up optimism the other day, said that there was something robotic about the world's No 1 diver and that sometimes robots fall apart.

Qui Bo may be a robot but all the evidence is that he is perfectly wired.

By comparison it is necessary to say that if life was ever easy for Daley, if he had a certain momentum that insisted he would be a superstar, it is beginning to seem like a rather long time ago

Plainly shaken, he headed off for this morning's semi-finals – when he must improve by three places to join the 12 finalists – confessing, "It was far too close for my liking. It was a tough competition out there. I don't normally compete at that time of night for one and there was the 32 competitors in it as well meaning you had to wait half-an-hour between dives."

He also blamed the pressure created by the home crowd and the fact that his legs were tired after four dives.

It didn't quite explain why he looked so nervous at the start and why his first effort – a back two and a half somersault with two and a half twists – was a disaster which left him at 18th – the final qualifying place – after the first round.

He had come to the platform with the demeanour of a condemned man.

Even at this early point you had to wonder when the self-belief first began to drain away.

Maybe it was four years ago, in Beijing, when the grooming of the 14-year-old superstar-elect had become so intense he had already developed the trick of slipping a sponsor's name check into most of his answers. But that was the greening of Tom Daley, the instant 14-year-old commodity.

By the fourth round, he had moved up to seventh and there was a little more lightness in his stride up the steps to that platform which can suddenly be one of the loneliest places in all of Olympic sport.

For a little while Daley's recovery may just have persuaded his Russian performance director Alexei Evangulov to soften if not withdraw from his position that these are the pivotal days in the career of the 18-year-old who was supposed to be a sensation both in Beijing and here in London – but instead is deep in crisis.

Before this latest ordeal, Daley was saying, "Pressure isn't a bad thing. I quite like pressure going into a competition. Divers either handle pressure or they don't. And I've had it going into competitions for a long time and I've had the Olympic experience. There was certainly a lot of pressure in Beijing.'

There has been quite a bit in London, too, and it was the dispensing of some of it that was maybe Daley's greatest challenge last night.

It did not help that Qui Bo performed like a demi-god of a most demanding discipline, a man of infinite calm and judgement.

"Competing in London," Daley had said, "I can use the experience of Beijing and remember that I have plenty of success in competition and the only difference with this one is the five rings on the wall.

"Going into Beijing, really, it was a lifetime ago, and I just didn't know what to expect. Now I know what I have to do. Mainly I have to focus completely on the process of each individual dive and not on its outcome.

"Me and my coach don't do outcome goals, we talk about the six dives and the results look after themselves." He said it with a cheery grin, the kind he wears when he speaks about how the people who come up to him in the street and say, "Now look, Tom, just go out there and get it done, bring home that gold medal." "They make it sound like the easiest thing. It isn't but I'm not complaining, I've had a great time getting here and I'm still confident I can do something."

It is a bold resolve from arguably the oldest teenager in these Olympics, the one who has already felt some of the harshest pressure, and not least from the internet troll who last week said that he had let down his late, beloved father.

That was a piece of random cruelty. What happened last night was something that Tom Daley imposed upon himself. This morning he simply has to dive for his professional life.

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