James Lawton: Daley's failure the legacy of perennial lack of perspective

On a day of unexpected glory, when an unheralded swimmer called Rebecca Adlington seized gold with the performance of her life, the celebrations were muted by the landing of the other side of a battered and all too familiar coin. It bore the elfin face of Tom Daley, the most lauded 14-year-old in the history of British sport.

The problem was not that he and his partner, Blake Aldridge, 12 years his senior, finished dead last but that they turned their competitive effort into a parody of what might have been reasonably expected on sport's ultimate stage.

There is an additional difficulty. We can blame the boy, as his team-mate did in the most sweeping terms, only if we free ourselves from any collective blame for heaping so much pressure and hype on shoulders too slight, on talent too unformed – and then wonder why it was that when Lin Yue, aged 17, and Huo Liang, a year older, were diving with the most beautiful synchronisation from the 10-metre platform for still more Chinese gold, Daley was yelling an expletive at his team-mate, who at the time was apparently taking a phone call from his mother in the stands.

It was, it has to be said once more, because of a huge fault line in the culture of our sport.

It was because we made Tom Daley not a potentially thrilling prospect for the London Olympics of 2012 – when he will be the age of Liang, the senior partner in yesterday's Chinese masterpiece – but a ready-made little hero.

Yesterday here in the Water Cube we saw what months of the glare of massive publicity, and even tuition in the art of slipping in plugs for sponsors as though it is a natural part of a 14-year-old's conversation, can do to a little hero. It can make him a little boy.

Whether he can be remade – perhaps healed is a better term – in time for his solo appearance on the 10-metre platform on Friday is the question that now occupies Steve Foley, the performance director of the British team. He is an Australian who knows a little of the competitive demands of the Olympics, having won two silver medals in his youth, and privately he has been aghast at the hysterical reaction to Daley's performance earlier this year when he became European champion. A few days ago, when the diving team faced a pack of media which included a large foreign presence and which directed more than 75 per cent of its questions to a boy who was obliged to peek over his nameplate, Foley said that many of the team, and not least Tom Daley, were essentially completing their apprenticeship.

Yesterday Foley wore the haunted expression of someone who had seen an accident about to happen without any means of stopping it.

"I'll see Tom when the coaches have debriefed him," he said, "but I have to admit I was concerned about how he looked up on the platform. He has a habit of showing tension by drawing his hands down across his face, but yesterday it was excessive. Also the way he was sponging himself down after every dive. I worried how his pulse was running."

What Foley couldn't know at that point was that the working partnership between Aldridge, desperate to make an impact on the Olympics after a series of injuries and in the knowledge that this was surely his only chance, was simply falling apart.

In the rituals of synchronised diving the partnerships practise the motion of their performance on the second level of the platform as they await their turn: yesterday the Chinese and the other medallists, the Germans Patrick Hausding and Sascha Klein, and Russia's Gleb Galperin and Dmitriy Dobroskok might have been joined at their hips and their shoulders. Aldridge and Daley though, after their disastrous third of six dives – the demanding inward three- and-a-half somersault – looked as if they needed a formal introduction.

Amid the debris Foley made a solemn if optimistic plea. "We need to give Tom a little space, we have to let him breathe. It's not just about his training, it's about the need for him to go to school; an education is important to a young boy. It's a fair point to say that a lot of pressure has been applied to him, in publicity, in commercial activity – and yes, I agree, there is a tendency in British sport to build too much on potential and expect it to automatically turn into achievement. Winning is hard, but to keep on winning, that is the hardest thing. There has been so much focus on Tom, and you have to think how much better it is for athletes when they win without so much expectation, as Nicole Cooke and Rebecca Adlington have done. For Tom, it is a case of coming into the real world today."

The boy had eight members of his family in the stands and it was as though he had been overcome by a desperation to please, an ambition that became steadily more elusive after the encouragement of a first dive which earned him and Aldridge joint third place with the Germans and the Australians. He said: "It was disappointing but it was a great experience. I really enjoyed myself. I had so much fun."

It was made, the moment Aldridge began to give his sharply different version of events, to seem the poignant attempt of a boy to fight off the worst and shockingly sudden disapproval of the grown-up world he had been encouraged to believe he had joined. Yet something Aldridge said gave an inkling of support to Foley's belief that Daley will indeed be able to rebuild himself.

When his new and, it seemed, terribly brittle world was falling about him he did produce something of the style of the champion of Europe he had become earlier this year. Aldridge recalled: "Tom said, 'What are you on the phone for? We're in competition and we've got another dive to do.' This is Tom just being over-nervous. That's how it was today. Tom should not be worrying about what I'm doing. Today he was worrying about everyone and everything and that is really the sole reason why he didn't perform today."

There were other breathtaking simplicities on the way to the most painful day in the life of Tom Daley. There was that belief that you can easily make a man out of a boy under the greatest pressure that sport can deliver to any competitor at any age. There was the faith that he could ride through the extraordinary attention he has received here and still maintain a vital equilibrium.

Blake Aldridge complained that on their big day together, Tom Daley worried about everybody and everything. But isn't that what you do when you are 14 and you're in a situation you've never been in before?

Isn't that when you need help more than ever before?

When you don't get it, at the Olympics in a sport which is supposed to be synchronised, there is a desperate inclination to ask why. It could just be that you have been made too much of a hero – and much too soon.

Seychelles mountain boy peaks young

Tom Daley is not the only youngster making a splash in the pool at these Olympics. In fact, he is not even the youngest. Dwayne Didon from the Seychelles, at just 13 years and 11 months old, is the youngest male athlete competing in Beijing and is taking part in the 50 metres freestyle, which is this tournament's designated wild-card event. Only Antoinette Guedia from Cameroon, 12 years and 10 months old and also competing in freestyle swimming, is younger.

And, despite the Seychelles boasting 305 miles of coastline, Didon grew up in a village at the top of a mountain and only learnt to swim at the age of nine when he started classes at a local pool.

He quickly made up for the late start, becoming one of the best swimmers in his east African archipelago nation in just four years. "When my parents told me I might be going to the Olympics I thought it couldn't be true," Didon said.

He found out two months ago that his nomination by the international swimming federation, Fina, had been successful, meaning he would compete in the same Olympic Water Cube pool as world record-breakers such as Michael Phelps. "When my friends at school heard the news they thought I was playing a joke on them," he said. "It's like a dream."

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