Day 3 of the Tokyo Olympics brought Great Britain’s first golds in mountain biking, swimming and diving where it was a story of at last for Tom Daley. Thirteen years ago in Beijing, the nation watched as 14-year-old Tom became a sensation reaching the final. Four years later, at the home games in London he was one of the “poster boys” with his good looks and friendly, amiable personality but could only win bronze in the 10 metre individual event. Another Olympic cycle on brought another bronze in Rio this time in the synchronised event. Many thought he might retire after his tears at not winning again but he rebounded to win gold in the 2017 World Championships.
An Olympic cycle is a long time. Tom has been lucky to have started early and is now in his fourth Olympics at only 27. Yesterday I read Uzbekistan gymnast, Oksana Chusovitina, has retired after her eighth games at age forty-six – her first was in Barcelona almost thirty years ago.
In the years since Rio, Tom has got married to American Dustin Lance Black and become a father. He credits that with helping him to arrive in Tokyo feeling less pressured to win. In the post-gold interviews Tom said he knew that whatever he achieved, good or bad, he’d go home and still feel loved by his husband and three year old Robbie.
It seems to me that buried somewhere in Tom’s psyche was a belief that he was only loveable when he was achieving. I don’t think it’s an unusual belief particularly among many of the younger generation who are constantly being set targets in school and herded into activities to bolster their future CVs rather than for the enjoyment of doing them. The success of our Olympic programmes in recent years has been down to a harder-nosed approach to success and failure, if you aren’t a medal prospect your lottery funding ends and a lifetime of hard work and trying in your sport is dashed in the stroke of an administrator’s pen. The TeamGB Olympic successes we celebrate every four years hide a darker fallout of athletes, swimmers, rowers, boxers, cyclists, martial artists and gymnasts, among others, who couldn’t make the cut.
But the trap of conditional love is also prevalent among older generations who were simply brought up in environments where love wasn’t easily expressed, mistakes were punished and you had to be a genuine winner for your success to be celebrated – they didn’t get participation trophies.
Unconditional love is a concept that most people don’t understand because they don’t see any further than skin deep. They don’t look at the real person beneath but instead choose to love or hate based on looks, behaviours and material success. They allow their own emotional reactions to project onto the other person rather than accepting them for both their flaws and strengths. They don’t understand unconditional love is about valuing people for who they are, not what they are.
Somewhere along the way Tom must have absorbed some kind of message like this. It’s not necessarily down to his parents, it could be his coaches, his teachers or anyone else he’s come into contact with. He seems a rather sensitive soul and was bullied when younger. Dents to his self-esteem may have been papered over through his diving success. Even when he wasn’t winning Olympic golds, he was still receiving love and affection for being one of the best divers in the world, not simply for being Tom Daley.