Tom Daley, at the fourth time of asking, won Olympic Gold, in Tokyo
There will, as sure as night follows day, be a film made about how Tom Daley brought his life to its ultimate fulfilment here at a deserted Tokyo diving pool. Given that his husband, Dustin Lance Black, is an Oscar-winning writer, he has a ready-made candidate to produce the screenplay. A Hollywood statuette and now an Olympic gold medal: the couple are not exactly devoid of distinctions with which to decorate their London flat. It was at Black’s instigation that Daley agreed to throw himself into one final tilt at Games story. Neither could have guessed that the plan would culminate as exquisitely as this.
Almost his entire life, Daley has grown up in the public eye. Many still picture him as a cherubic 12-year-old in train-track braces, talking about his love of Nintendo, about how much he missed his brothers due to his training commitments, about the ambition he still harboured of changing course and becoming a Blue Peter presenter. But when it came to his defining performance, there was only serene silence, eyes closed in concentration as he and Matty Lee produced the dive of their lives to take the title. They needed to be near-flawless to have any hope of vanquishing the Chinese pair – and they were.
The contribution of Lee to this drama can hardly be trivialised. In Rio five summers ago, there was a fearsome public backlash when Dan Goodfellow found himself excised from photographs of the moment that he partnered Daley to bronze. It takes two in this competition to achieve immaculate synchronicity, executing 4½ forward somersaults off a 10-metre board, and Lee discharged his role to perfection, especially given that he was only paired with Daley a year ago. But it is Daley’s back-story, the mingling of childhood precocity and family tragedy, of the tortured decision to announce his sexuality on YouTube and the agonised pursuit of a gold he feared would never come, that elevates this accomplishment to the realm of the epic.
Daley’s significance as an athlete has long extended beyond the contortions through which he puts his body in his leaps off the high board. He is a vlogger, activist, father, not to mention eloquent spokesman for the LGBT community, a role of which he did not lose sight as he began to absorb this feat. “I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion,” he reflected, gold around his neck in the depths of the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. “And I feel very empowered by that, because when I was younger I felt I was never going to achieve anything because of who I was.”
He would return several times to this theme: the self-doubt, the corrosive sense of inadequacy. The initial perception of Daley is of a figure coursing with confidence, his delicate frame belying a prodigious strength. But psychologically, he has often been scrambled. He had to move schools due to relentless bullying, and he has often seemed jaded by the merciless scrutiny that has come with fame. It is astonishing to recall how, as long ago as 2014, murmurs were spreading that Daley was about to call time on his career at 20, ready to embrace opportunities as a TV celebrity. He denied it, but if indeed he had reached a fork in the road, he can reflect that he chose the right path to continue.
Many still picture Daley as a cherubic 12-year-old, talking about his love of Nintendo
Credit: SOUTH WEST NEWS SERVICE
It is of a piece with Daley’s life under the lens that he came up with the gold when everybody least expected it. For one whose craft is distilled into tiny bursts of acrobatic brilliance, he has the most theatrical sense of timing. He disclosed here that he had torn the meniscus in his knee only last month, that he had required an operation almost ruling him out of the Games. The comeback was close to not happening at all. The eventual outcome was just about too good to be true.
There was, of course, one conspicuous, acutely-missed absentee from Daley’s Tokyo celebrations: his father, Rob, who died from a brain tumour in 2011 at the age of 40. Daley would acknowledge later that he did not even give himself time to grieve, that he hurled himself into his preparations for London 2012 to palliate the pain. It was in the aftermath that he sensed his life was falling apart, that he had nobody in whom to confide, that even as he clutched his first Olympic bronze, he felt at his lowest ebb.
Daley's father, Rob, died from a brain tumour in 2011 at the age of 40
Credit: CAMERA PRESS
At this point, Daley evolved from the diver who internalised everything to somebody determined, in every department of his life, to turn off the filter. He released a short video to say: “Come spring this year, my life changed massively when I met someone. And they make me feel so happy, so safe and everything just feels great. And? Well? That someone is a guy.”
The man in question was Black, who had won an Oscar for Milk, the 2008 biopic about the campaigner Harvey Milk, and who, in an echo of Daley’s own loss, had lost a brother to cancer. The two married in 2017, confirming nine months later that they were expecting their first child through surrogacy. With a powerful sense of grace, their son was named Rob, a permanent reminder of the father who did so much to inspire Daley’s ascent to these dazzling Olympic deeds. Together, from Tom’s first practice sessions in Plymouth, they had envisaged this crowning day. How richly cathartic that it should finally come to pass.
Daley married Dustin Lance Black in 2017
Daley and Black have a surrogate son, Robbie
Jane Figueurido, the Zimbabwean coach who could not conceal her emotion as Daley and Lee’s triumph was sealed, perhaps put it best when asked to describe the athlete who had conjured his dream finale. “Tom is still a boy in my mind,” she said. “But he’s a man in every area.” At 27, in what is all likelihood his final Games, Daley can declare with conviction that his life is complete. He has had his every growing pain played out in front of millions. Now, he has his perfect ending. Nobody deserves it more.