Daley led at the halfway stage after three successive 90-plus points scores.
Tom Daley missed out on the Olympic gold he has long coveted in the men’s 10 metre platform event as he settled for bronze despite a near-faultless display in the final.
Daley topping the podium alongside Matty Lee in the synchronised competition was one of the most enduring feelgood stories of Tokyo 2020 as he ended a 13-year wait for glory at the Games, but solo success continues to be elusive.
He led at the halfway stage after three successive 90-plus points scores but dipped below that standard of excellence with an 80.5 from his armstand back three somersaults with pike, which saw him slip off the pace.
While Daley rallied in his last two dives, an overall score of 548.25 was only good enough for a third-place finish as Cao Yuan (582.35) took the gold medal, with Chinese compatriot Yang Jian (580.4) collecting silver.
This result hands Daley his third Olympic bronze and second in this specific discipline – in which he won his first gong at the Games at London 2012.
Daley, who has captured the imagination in the Japanese capital after being pictured knitting in the stands and even in between dives in the last couple of weeks, may reflect ruefully on his one sub-optimal dive.
But while he was unable to breach the 100 points barrier, Cao was able to do so on three occasions, while Yang recorded an outstanding 112.75 with his final dive to put daylight between himself and Daley.
Daley had struggled with his reverse three and a half somersaults with tuck in the preliminaries and the semi-final, where he had qualified fourth on both occasions, but he nailed the dive when it counted in the showpiece.
A score of 98.6 was his best this week and set the tone for a mesmerising final, although the scale of his task was underlined when he was leapfrogged after the judges awarded Cao a tally of 102 for the same dive.
Daley was just about in the ascendancy at the midway stage at 0.8 points ahead, but he blinked first. He slipped 15.9 points behind Cao and 3.95 adrift of Yang with two dives to go.
Despite totals of 94.35 from his forward four and a half somersaults with tuck and 91.8 with his back three and a half somersaults with pike, the gulf between Daley and the top two widened.
In the end, Daley finished closer to fourth-placed Aleksandr Bondar (514.5) of the Russian Olympic Committee than he did to gold medallist Cao.