Daley's golden smile prepares world for a feast after breakfast of champions
Only commercial pressures threaten the diving prodigy making a global splash. James Lawton reports from Beijing
Saturday 09 August 2008
Tom Daley, aged 14, admits that maybe it is too soon to expect to step up to the Olympic podium here, but already there is a score of compensations, including breakfast with one of the great champions of sport, tennis superstar Rafael Nadal.
"He just came up to my table, sat down and started talking – it was very exciting," says the boy from Plymouth as he peeks over his nameplate at a battery of cameras only marginally less wide and deep than the one that earlier in the week greeted Michael Phelps, the American lord of the swimming pool who is anticipating adding another eight medals, this time ideally gold, to those he won in Athens four years ago.
Yet there is undoubtedly gold here, too, for the youngest Olympian.
It is just probably not the kind, for the moment at least, that you hang around your neck and is accompanied by a laurel leaf and the playing of the national anthem. It is the variety that tends to come from sponsors when you wield their names with something approaching subliminal ease.
Young Tom also says – with the unaffected candour that has marked for some time now his astonishing emergence not only as the talismanic little brother of the entire British effort here but as an international celebrity – that the sudden blast of fame was a little "weird" at first. But yes, maybe, he will be able to deal with it as adroitly as he does the challenge of making beautifully co-ordinated dives into the pool.
Already, though, the salesmanship has become as seamless as the diving.
He is, for example, very happy with the room he shares with his synchronised diving partner, the near ancient 26-year-old Blake Aldridge, in the athletes' village.
You see, he points out in an aside for which their corporate office would almost certainly hand out an instant 10, it has been very nicely fitted out by B&Q. A family entourage of parents, siblings, two sets of grandparents and an aunt is in town and they all have seats in the soaring Aquatic Centre. Was that a problem? Not at all, it took just a phone call to Sportsworld.
Also most helpful in the matter of advice has been Sir Steven Redgrave. He is, arguably, Britain's greatest Olympian and, if you had by some mischance forgotten, Young Tom is quick to remind us, also a member of Visa's Olympic team.
So is British sport's golden boy also becoming a swiftly fattening cash calf while still two years away from taking his GCSEs at Eggbuckland Community College in Plymouth?
Maybe it was inevitable from the moment he charmed the nation when accepting his BBC award as the Young Sports Personality of the Year. Yet there is still good news. It is that the little brother whose voice is still to break continues to shine light on what the tough-minded team leader, the Australian Steve Foley, believes can grow into the most promising diving squad Britain has ever assembled.
Foley was asked whether Daley is a bonus or a distraction with the weight of the media attention he has attracted – and which yesterday filled a conference room to overflowing. Foley's reaction could not have been more emphatic. "Tom Daley is great for the team – and the sport in general.
"The Chinese are in their own backyard and it would not be surprising if they had a clean sweep of golds, but they have been so dominant they carry great expectation. We are going through our apprenticeship stage but if we show the right approach here we will have a lot to build on in the London Olympics in four years' time. Tom is obviously a big part of all of this."
Aldridge agrees: 'Tom has had a lot of attention, a lot of media, but it's been good for everyone. We have been lucky in having good chemistry. We have gelled very well in the teamwork and it is just great having him around. He is the messiest member of the team, but that's no problem for me.
"I've had my ups and downs with injuries and at my age London will probably be my last chance of a medal if one doesn't come here. So I just hope I can hang on. What I do know is that Tom's presence is keeping me young – in body and mind."
Daley is also candid about the fact that he is still comfortable with some of the attachments of fairly extreme youth. The clutter around his Olympic cot includes an ageing toy monkey. Eagerly, he is asked if it has a name. "No, it hasn't, and I don't even know if it brings me luck. But I brought it here because I just thought it was the wrong time to stop doing things I have been doing for so long."
At his current rate of progress it will not be so long before the signing of autographs is included in that number. "It is so exciting being here. I can hardly wait for the competition to start but in the meantime there is so much to do. It's phenomenal. It was a bit strange being asked for my autograph in the street so far from home but, of course, diving is a big sport here."
Though he stumbled over the word phenomenal, and then repeated it with almost grave precision, there was something almost eerily mature about the willingness and the ease with which he answered a good 75 per cent of the questions directed at the team and the coaches.
One that wasn't posed – perhaps because most suspected they knew the answer – was whether he was entirely sure Nadal had made Britain's most luminous young sportsman his No 1 target for breakfast conversation. Young Tom was, after all, sitting with his team-mate Tonia Couch at the time. She is blonde and beautiful and her voice has broken – into a West Country burr some might say was as appealing as cider and roses.
Young Tom says he will pursue a serious girlfriend only after the London Olympics and his 18th birthday. The odds, on yesterday's evidence, are that the sponsors will still be besotted, along with the nation of course.
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