The Last Word: Daley is a poster boy for hysteria

Fuss over young diver shows that our national lust for Olympic gold is out of control – and the Games haven't even started

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The Independent Online

Ever since California discovered that a shovel and a sieve could yield a fortune, gold rushes have enjoyed the perception of romance but the reality of despair. For San Francisco in 1849, substitute London in the second decade of the new millennium.

Tom Daley was destined to be the poster boy of the 2012 Olympic Games. But the only poster he now seems likely to adorn is one from the NSPCC, reading "heroism screws you up". And shrill their warning they might, because the headlines about Daley last week were truly despicable.

Not shocking in the sense that a 17-year-old boy – who, lest we forget, has been forced to cope without experiencing much of a childhood and then the premature death of his father and mentor – has taken his eye off the ripples beneath him. But that a teenager still not legally allowed to buy an alcopop has been engulfed by a tidal wave of hype. It is not Daley with whom we should be disappointed, but everyone ofus who is approaching London2012 with the promise of success commanding our anticipation.

The genuinely terrifying fact for Daley and the other would-be icons of "Britain's" sporting spectacular is that the thirst for the podium is still only at its wetting-the-lips stage. Wait until the country becomes interested. These poor dolts will disappear in a single gulp.

At the moment it is just the media flocking to these new venues, to check the wi-fi works and to give a teaser of the jingoism to follow.

Daley probably doesn't knowyet that he has signed forms to become a professional footballer at the top end of the Premier League. In effect, he has. Granted, the weeklysalary won't have the requisite noughts, but the celebrity already possesses the value-for-fame demands. "Your country expects, young man. Don't moan about it. You could be in Afghanistan."

Daley might well be the oldest 17-year-old in the country, but the suspicion must be that he isn't ready for it. Nor, most definitely, is the British diving coach. Alexei Evangulov, a hard-nosed Russian, evoked the name Anna Kournikova when declaring that the boy's chances are being floored by a succession of photo-shoots. Forgive him, because he did not know what he does – or, at least, he is ready to do everything in his power to attain his bonus. Maybe now he has seen the hysterical reaction, Evangulov might learn there isn't much between giving someone a kick in the arse and giving them a slap in the face. He has hindered Daley's chances with his rant, not helped them.

Daley's narrative has now changed from golden child to adolescent also-ran. From prodigy to apology in one huge splash. It doesn't matter that the world order in diving is famouslyvolatile and champions come and go in the time it takes your pair of trunks to tumble past your vision a few hundred times. It doesn't matter that,at best, Daley is a top-three hope.It's podium or nowhere, medal or bust. It's utterly distasteful, that's what it is.

There is a tipping point in sport when the expectation negates any enjoyment.There are times when it is understandable (see New Zealand in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final) and times when it is plain baffling (see England at any major finals). So how to judge the success of London 2012? By how the nation presents itself in the window of the world? Or by how often "God Save the Queen" is played? You may believe they are connected, but they don't have to be and shouldn't be. Not if the fansintent on that once-in-a-lifetime experience remember the barest outline of the original mission of the Olympic movement.

It wasn't to see kids covered in logos on a sponsor's stage; it wasn't to see self-serving politicians wrapping themselves in the flag. Does anyone seriously believe that the bods in Westminster have set medal targets – surreptitiously, through their grants to sports councils – because they want home heroes to inspire the youth? They have done so because they want themselves to look good, to look regal, to be connected with glory. The reality of their belief in sport as a force of good can be seen in the crumbling facilities in the shires, in the sale of schools' pitches, in the slashing of schools' sports budgets. That British Olympic Association motif on the politicians' lapels really is the most shameless badge of convenience.

But then, what did we expect? Did we believe all that Lord Coe codswallop? The answer was yes, in the majority we did, just like he probably did. But now we enter the exhausting run-in to the starting line we realise this is not about the future but about the present.

It's about Jessica Ennis fulfilling a hijacked dream; it's about Mark Cavendish earning a knighthood which never figured in his youthful slumber; it's about Britain finishing fourth in the medals table. To hell with the ideal, this is the deal. Succeed and be a millionaire; fail and face our wrath. And all the Corinthian spirit of those five rings.

To think Simon Cowell was once castigated for daring to profit from the dreams of trodden-upon schoolchildren.