It’s a sunny day in the garden and there’s a lovely sparkle in those eyes that have seen so much. The old sportsman is chatting and laughing and, above all, he is blissfully indifferent to what he has just been told.
‘What was that? Britain’s longest-standing Olympic medallist? Oh, I am just happy I am still standing at all,’ he says, and with that, John Peake, aged 96, has himself a little chuckle.
A moment later he has another. We are talking about then and now; about London’s Austerity Olympics of 1948, where he won a field hockey silver medal, and 2016, when Britain’s women took gold in the same sport. The BBC delayed their 10 o’clock news to show it.
John Peake won silver at the 1948 Games making him Britain’s longest-standing medallist
‘It is all a big deal now, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘People get a lot of money from sport and they get very famous. When I was at the Olympics we were given a tube of hair cream and a pair of Y-fronts!’
His gentle laugh floats around the lawns here at Wimbledon Beaumont, the care home where he has lived for the past five years. He is looking magnificent in his Olympic-issue blazer and tie, with a little silver disc wrapped in a plastic bag in his inside pocket.
No living Olympian from these shores is believed to own an older one and no Olympic medal on these shores is believed to have an older owner. There were 22 others won by British athletes or British teams at those 1948 Olympics, which followed the 12-year gap brought about by the Second World War, but sadly John is out on his own as the sole survivor.
He has his days where he remembers more, and increasingly there have been those across the past six months where his family say he has needed some extra prompting, but Sportsmail finds him in charming form.
Peake is the sole survivor of the British medallists from 1948 London Olympics
‘The medal stays in a drawer,’ he says. ‘I have probably only looked at it three times since 1948. I suppose it is nice that you want to talk about it. I’m not sure many people here would know about it and I’m not sure many people would have known about it when I first got it either. The Olympics were still a big deal in 1948, especially being the first after the war, but compared to now it was lower key. There weren’t any parties for it.’
His sporting life offers a snapshot of that different time, and really it is only a glimpse of his existence, too, given that the CBE that has followed his name since 1986 has nothing to do with his athletic endeavours.
The sporting tale goes back to the Thirties and early Forties, when John studied mechanical engineering at Cambridge University.
‘I met my late wife at Cambridge and we both played hockey, tennis and squash for the university,’ he says. ‘We were brought together by sport and it wasn’t long before we were told to get on with it and get married. But sport was a big part of my life for a time.
Peake represented Great Britain at the 1948 Olympics held on London
‘I was a reserve for England once at squash. In tennis I made it through two rounds of qualifying to get into Wimbledon, but I lost when I needed one more set to get in. Hockey was my strongest.
‘With the war and my training, I was sent to the royal corps of naval constructors, and that meant I was 18 months in Devonport, six months at sea and two years at the naval college in Greenwich. I was lucky to be able to do a lot of sport through that, and I won the Navy championships for tennis and squash. I played hockey for a London side, and that is how I was able to be picked for the Olympics.’
Those London Olympics, staged on a relative shoestring budget three years after the end of the war, were somewhat different from what we saw in 2012.
‘They had quite a lot of problems because only the UK would agree to host so soon after the war. It took two years to get ready and it was an awful lot of hard work, but I suppose it was a celebration in a way because the fighting had finished.
‘What it meant for those competing was it was all a bit of a rush,’ he says. Indeed, John’s first international appearance happened to be Britain’s first match of the Games. ‘There wasn’t time for a lot of training,’ he says. ‘You were picked and you went.’
Aged 23, he was the youngest member of a team comprising three school-masters, one doctor and two Army instructors, among others. ‘I remember one practice session,’ he says. ‘There was a man running around the pitch when we started and he was still running when we finished.
‘I asked someone who it was and they said it was Emil Zatopek, who was one of the all-time greats (The Czechoslovak won four Olympic gold medals across a range spanning the 5,000m and marathon).’
Aged 23, he was the youngest member of a team comprising three schoolmasters
With the hockey played at Wembley, then known as the Empire Stadium, Britain opened with a draw against Switzerland before trouncing the US and Afghanistan. After beating Pakistan in the semi-finals, their opponents for gold were India, winners of each of the past three editions. Barely a year after gaining independence, India won 4-0.
‘They scored very early and I think that took some of the power out of us,’ he says. ‘I remember thinking how noisy it was. Normally we played hockey in front of a few people but there were 25,000 watching.
‘I won’t forget that the pitch at Wembley was full of holes. They had been doing the shot put on it. I remember one of the chaps, the centre half, passed me the ball and I missed it. He was very fed up with me but I will blame the pitch and the shot putters for that!’
John played a couple more times for England but his days as an international were wrapped within the next two years. It was a brief but bright sporting career, before a longer one in engineering, with his eventual climb to become the managing director of Baker Perkins, who manufactured food-processing equipment.
The 96-year-old enjoyed a brief but bright sporting career, before a longer one in engineering
‘I don’t think I played hockey after I was 28,’ he says. ‘The games would be on a Thursday and employers didn’t take much of a view of that. After a period you do other things.’
In 1986 he was awarded the CBE for services to industry and his silver past was increasingly forgotten. His daughter Cathy recalls not knowing her father had been an Olympian until she was nine or older, and even then it was only because her grandmother mentioned it in passing.
Nowadays, he doesn’t watch so much on the sporting front.
‘I like a bit of snooker on the television,’ he says. ‘I also did a bit of the torch relay in 2012 for the Olympics.
‘Other than that, I haven’t had much to do with sport for a long time and I don’t have reason to talk much about the Olympics now. But I suppose it was very nice.’