TONY ALI reckons he's the biggest diver in the world. He is built like a heavyweight boxer, but, at 6ft and 14 and a half stones, is more of a Marciano than his namesake - appropriately enough since his parents are Italian. But around this time next year, Ali believes that he, too, will be the greatest, winning the Olympic three-metre springboard title in Sydney to add to the gold medal he acquired in the recent European Championships.
It was a rare achievement for this nation. Britain hasn't had a decent diver for nearly 20 years, not since Chris Snode won a European bronze in 1983. Before that we have to go back to 1962 when Brian Phelps won the European high-board title two years after getting a bronze in the Rome Olympics.
Ali's victory on a thundery afternoon in Istanbul, underscored the belief that there's a whole lot of successful sport out there beyond the fringes of football, if only we care to look. It was also a timely reminder that, cushioned by windfalls from the Lottery, British sport is now entering a welcome comfort zone with competitors like Ali able to concentrate their minds on perfecting their performing art without worrying where the next portion of egg and chips is coming from.
Ali's tale is one of triumph over both adversity and penury. The Londoner suffers from congenital partial deafness - lip-reading most conversations - and was once so broke that he infamously sold off his Olympic kit to tourists in Atlanta. He was upbraided by a furious Blazer from the British Olympic Association who told him: "You are a disgrace to Britain. You are behaving like a poor Russian athlete."
"No, I'm not," retorted Ali. "I'm behaving like a poor British athlete."
Ironically, it was this unseemly incident, plus the paucity of Britain's medal haul in 1996 which sparked off the inquest into the state of our Olympic sport and led to the infusion of Lottery cash that could be its salvation in Sydney and beyond. Ali claims it also saved his career. "I was at breaking point, so close to saying, `Sod it, I've had enough'." Now the Lottery grant and the win in Istanbul have secured his immediate future as an elite performer.
Yet when he and his team-mate Bob Morgan went out on to the streets of Atlanta like beggars, you would have thought they were selling their souls rather than their T-shirts and track suits. Ali denies emphatically that they wanted the money, a few hundred pounds between them, to spend on post-Games partying.
"I'm not ashamed of what we did. I feel no guilt, no embarrassment. In fact, I'm proud. I needed that money for one reason only - to pay my bills. My mum was still paying off loans she took out before the Olympics to support me and basically I had been living on handouts from friends and family. With the money I got from selling my kit it was quite nice to come home and go to Sainsbury's to do a full shop."
There was a time, even before Atlanta, when Ali did more ducking than diving. Soon after moving to Sheffield, to be close to the Centre of Excellence at Ponds Forge six years ago, he was involved in a Bothamesque brush with the authorities involving cannabis; then a year later he received a six- month suspension from his governing body for failing to show up for a drugs test. He says it was a misunderstanding because of confused travel arrangements and insists: "I have never ever taken performance-enhancing drugs and I never will."
Out of that period of turbulence has emerged a new spell of inner calm. Ali acknowledges that his has been a long and tough coming of age, but at 26 he has acquired strong self- belief cemented by his partnership with his fiancee, Wendy MacDonald. When they met five years ago she was a recreational assistant at Ponds Forge and had a two-year-old son, to whom Ali has become a surrogate father.
"Tony has dedicated his life to his sport as much as anyone ever could," says Wendy. "But it is hard to imagine the financial deprivations he suffered. When you are on the edge of the board it is difficult to get out of your mind that you may not have enough petrol in the car to get home.
"To us, getting this money from the Lottery is just like winning it. It has given Tony the freedom to achieve his God-given gift, to aim at being number one in the sport."
It took three applications before Ali received his full five-figure annual grant 18 months ago. He thinks that maybe he was still being knuckle-wrapped over Atlanta. "But that's all behind us now. I started out with nothing and now I've got a little and it makes me appreciate the sport all the more. Everyday I dive it is for me. I'm not being selfish but I'm the one who is doing it and always have done. But everything that comes out of it will be for everyone else."
He and Wendy plan to marry, but not until after the Olympics where, after defeating the best in Europe, including the Russian world champion Dimitri Sautin, by a massive 13- point margin, Ali will find himself catapulted into the list of favourites for gold. "After Istanbul I don't fear anyone and I no longer have to envy anyone. Not even the Chinese. They'll produce a few surprises, of course. Sometimes they don't seem to be human, they spin like robots. They're very, very good but how they go about being so good, no one really knows."
Much of the Chinese success in aquabatics has been exposed as chemically assisted but Ali says his own emergence has been achieved by sheer hard graft. Born in south London - his father came here from Sicily and his mother from Naples - he suffered at school because of his deafness, which will get worse throughout his life, and he found his talent for diving at the local pool as a nine-year-old almost as a refuge from the classroom. He was both junior and senior national champion by the time he was 12 after being talent spotted by Snode, and diving has been his life ever since. "I always knew I could go all the way. I never needed any encouragement to get out of bed at five in the morning to go to the pool.
"I'm not an emotional person but to win the European title after 15 years of hard slogging made my heart sing. It wasn't a great shock because I always knew I could do it but deep down I sighed and thought `Thank God for that'. I was more relieved than overjoyed, mainly because the gold medal gives me something to look back on for the rest of my life. It was also a thank you to all those who supported me and never lost faith, especially my coach, Mike Edge. I know that there's more to come, my career isn't over yet. My body is reaching its physical peak and I can keep on diving for another six or seven years.
"Diving is my life, my passion. When I go to the pool, whether it is to train or compete, I haven't got a care in the world. I'm in dreamland. All I've got are my swimming trunks and the diving board. I love that diving board, I could sleep on it if I had to. With diving there's something new every day, whether it is a technique, an emotion or even a fear. It's such an artistic, graceful sport, but a difficult one. The knack is making it look easy."
Ali certainly did that in Istanbul, introducing a complex manoeuvre of, in the jargon, a reverse two-and-a-half somersault and one-and-a-half twist with pike, hurling himself through the air at 30 miles an hour. Ten years ago, such a dive would have been deemed impossible but, as Ali says, in another 10 years it will probably be old hat.
It was in 1960 when Brian Phelps gained his Olympic bronze that the then plain Cassius Marcellus Clay caused a ripple in Rome. Now, 40 years on, this latter-day Ali is poised to make a bit of a splash himself in Sydney.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies