The centre step of an Olympic podium is only about half a foot taller than the others. But as Tom Daley stepped onto it for the first time, alongside his 10m synchronised diving partner Matty Lee, the air he sucked deep into his lungs seemed that little bit crisper. The view out onto the pool and to the support of his Team GB teammates looked that littler clearer. The high oh so much greater than anything he has experienced in his sporting career.
Finally, after four Games and 13 years, Daley has his coveted gold medal. Lee had the honour of draping the 27-year-old with this most elusive prize. Four years younger and a champion in his first appearance at this level, the relevance of Daley’s achievement was never going to be lost on Lee. That he held his own on the toughest stage, alongside one of the country’s most well-wished personalities, told of his character. Just as the responsibility and execution to excel spoke of sympathy for Daley’s cause.
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Their combined excellence will be immortalised as part of an early Magic Monday for Team GB. However, the differences of their stories will never be more evident than what happens from this point on.
Lee’s life will change. More so than when he left his family and friends behind in Leeds to move to London and commit to diving. This success, timed perfectly for a Monday morning audience back home, will open up any number of marketing opportunities. Brands, broadcasters and punters will want a piece of him.
For Daley, here comes the quiet. This is not simply the realisation of a dream that began as a 14-year old at the 2008 Olympics, but the missing piece from his jigsaw. The vindication of his sacrifice and the realisation of the hype that was never of his volition.
Sport loves a wunderkind, and he was ours. Disney sparkle, uncapped talent, eloquent even then. Yet even in a niche pursuit, he fell victim to the usual precocious quandary where athletic career and human life become intertwined.
What you do becomes what you are at a stage when working out “who” you are is challenging enough. The lines blur and anxiety multiplies as personality and performance are stirred together in the same pot. One polluting the other, depending on which side you are most invested in.
And Daley’s story until now has been too many invested with the boy and man away from the pool. A fame that has morphed over the last 13 years, ever since he was mobbed in Beijing as if he were Justin Bieber.
There was a broader sense his popularity was not earned. He’d not won anything and yet, here he was, on our television channels, on our chat show couches, talking about, exuding and simply being Tom Daley. Which, boiled down, is simply being a nice kid. That seemed annoying to some.
Such recognition is courted, no doubt. But amid the toxic elements, such as having to grieve in public after the passing of his father in 2011, or the invasions of privacy when he came out as gay in December 2013, you began to wonder if he might pull the plug out of the narrative and step away. That led to serious rumours of retirement in 2014.
The offshoot of that fame, however, was to inspire others. Such as Lee, who remembers running after Daley to pester him for photos and an autograph in 2008. “All those years back I was a fan,” remembers the 23-year-old. “A little kid looking up to him. Now we’re best mates and Olympic gold medalists.”
Beginning just after 3pm local time at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, they established a solid base, occupying a silver-medal spot with their first dive, behind China’s Cao Yuan and Chen Aisen. They held their line through to their fourth, which ended up being their go-ahead effort. An exceptional 93.96 on the back three-and-a-half somersaults put them in the lead, leapfrogging the Chinese duo who had been in gold until then, with a 5.18 point advantage.
Coach Jane Figueiredo was the third part in sync, living every descent into the water. And her fist-pumps increased in ferocity for dive five, only for China to cut the gap by grabbing the top score on the routine to reduce that deficit to just 1.74 into the final attempt.
With little wiggle room, Daley and Lee braced, bounded towards the end off the board and took off for their forward four-and-a-half somersaults. The entry into the water was perfect: the little splash and delicate plink of the water acting as the most subdued of starter pistols for the GB contingent to go wild in the stands.
It asked something special of China to trump them: specifically an effort in excess of 102.75. They came damn close. Enough for Lee to turn Daley and offer a “s***, that was good”. Enough for Daley to look younger than he ever has as he grabbed his towel that little bit tighter like a comforter. Enough for the Chinese contingent in the adjacent block of seats to do as the British had done and cheer wildly.
But not good enough. An exemplary 101.52, finally revealed after a wait Daley described as feeling more like an hour, was 1.23 short. And with that smallest of margins came the loudest of cheers.
Daley jumped into Lee’s arms. Lee held him up and squeezed him. The symbolism of it all far too on the nose: the younger man carrying the older, having dealt with the pressure of Olympic competition and the extra stress of not letting his partner down.
With the next Olympics just three years away, and the singles competition of this one to come from Friday, Daley batted away any talk of retirement. Yet given how long he has been around, there did feel a sense of finality to it all.
Perhaps, though, it is about starting the rest of his life rather than walking away from the board. The latter was parked in 2001 when he was first transfixed by divers at his local swimming pool in Plymouth. The whirlwind began then, and the summit has been reached now.
He has lost much in that time. Pieces of his youth he will never get back, and a father who never got to see him win an Olympic medal, passing before the first one of bronze in 2012. Two aspects of what it is to be that you can never replace.
There has also been gain, and growth. He has shown the courage to be himself, standing up as a champion of the LGBT+ community. He is a husband, and a father to a three-year-old son, who will both be embraced when he returns home.
Finally, with the help of Lee, he has the gold medal that brings all parts of him together. He stated that, above all, “I’m a father and husband”. And in his most powerful statement, stated his pride in being an openly gay man who had reached this peak: “When I was younger I didn’t think I’d ever achieve anything because of who I was. To be an Olympic champion now just shows that you can achieve anything.”
He will always be one of Great Britain’s most well-known faces. This medal, along with whatever he achieves in the singles, will not enhance that.
It will confirm his standing as one of the country’s most admired Olympians. But most importantly of all, it will allow him to celebrate every aspect of a life and sport no longer at odds with each other.
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