There is a special brand of scrutiny that accompanies the hometown kid in whom such heavy hopes are vested.
And the eyes of the United Kingdom will be focused squarely on the youthful frame and movie-star looks of teenaged diver Tom Daley, a gold-medal hopeful who is literally the poster boy for the British Olympic team.
When Daley steps out on to the 10-metre platform, there will be at least one athlete in a Team Canada jacket who will feel a special kinship.
For Alex Despatie knows, more than anyone, what it’s like to be the fresh-faced golden boy of the sport.
“I understand a lot of what he’s going to be going through, it’s not always going to be easy,” Despatie said in a recent interview. “He already knows that.”
The Daley story is a stirring one – he’s a nice kid from a good family who’s diving for a father he lost to cancer last year – but so is Despatie’s.
After missing most of 2011 because of serious knee tendinitis, the 27-year-old three-time medalist from Laval, Que., enters his fourth Games barely six weeks after hitting his head during a training session in Madrid and ripping open his scalp.
Despatie won a surprise silver medal in the springboard at the 2008 Games in Beijing, and will once again be measuring himself against the all-powerful Chinese in London.
Were he to win a medal, it will be as enticing a storyline as Daley’s pursuit of gold on home soil.
It’s hard not to notice the similar trajectories and points of intersection in their career arcs.
Daley made his Olympic debut in 2008 at the ripe old age of 14 – he finished seventh – Despatie at 15.
Daley won the world title at 15, Despatie was Commonwealth champion at 13 and won the first of his three world titles at 18.
And even though it wasn’t the Olympics, Despatie won the 2005 world championships when it was held in Montreal.
The 27-year-old and the 18-year-old have a bond through their sport, and Despatie said they have had frequent conversations on the international circuit, which is as close-knit a sporting community as there is.
“He’s a great kid, and a tremendous champion. … He and I have talked about that sort of stuff, the diving world is pretty small, but he already has a good handle on dealing with pressure and the media,” Despatie said.
And the pressure will be immense.
Daley, who like Despatie is a successful pitchman for a range of companies, is on billboards in London and has been the subject of BBC feature documentaries. He reportedly has more than 800,000 Twitter followers in China alone.
In London, a fortnight that “means everything to me,” he is a favourite to win the 10-metre individual – he’ll have to beat Chinese teenager Qiu Bo, the reigning world champion – and also has dreams of gold with partner Peter Waterfield in the synchronized pair event.
“It’s about time we got some good news in our family, to be honest,” Daley told Britain’s public broadcaster.
Despatie may also argue persuasively that he is due some good tidings.
Since suffering his gruesome injury on June 12 – his parents’ 30th wedding anniversary – Despatie has redoubled his efforts in training.
He nailed the dive on which he hit his head – an inward three-and-a-half – and put the video on YouTube.
And for the past three weeks, he has been in training camps in Italy and the south of England – at Daley’s home base in Plymouth – where he is preparing in relative seclusion.
Former Olympic champion Greg Louganis, who recovered from hitting his head and won the gold the next day at the 1988 Olympics, told The Globe and Mail recently that Despatie’s biggest challenge would be psychological.
To that end, he has been working with sports psychologist Wayne Halliwell. “I’ve faced adversity in the past, but this is a big challenge for me,” Despatie allowed at a press conference before leaving for Europe earlier this month. “The main focus is to have fun.”
Despatie’s first taste of the London Games will come next week when he and partner Reuben Ross of Regina compete in the three-metre synchro event.
A podium finish ahead of the individual three-metre would doubtless meet Despatie’s definition of fun.Report Typo/Error