It is a sunny day in the garden and there is a beautiful 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 medalist? Oh, I’m just glad I’m still standing,” he says, and John Peake, 96, laughs at himself with that.
Moments later, he has another. We are talking about then and now; about the 1948 London Olympics, where he won a silver hockey medal, and 2016, when the British women took gold in the same sport. The BBC postponed the 10 a.m. news to show it.
John Peake won silver at the 1948 Games, making it Britain’s longest-serving medalist
“It’s all a big problem now, isn’t it?” he says. ‘People make a lot of money from sports and become very famous. When I was at the Olympics, we got a tube of hair cream and some Y-fronts!’
His soft smile floats over the lawns here at Wimbledon Beaumont, the care home where he has lived for the past five years. He looks gorgeous in his Olympic-issue blazer and tie, with a small silver disc wrapped in a plastic bag inside his inside pocket.
No living Olympian from these shores is believed to possess an older one, and no Olympic medalist on these shores is believed to have an older owner. 22 others were won by British athletes or British teams at those 1948 Olympics, which followed the 12-year gap caused by World War II, but sadly, John stands alone as the lone survivor.
He has his days where he remembers more, and in the past six months there have been increasingly days when his family said he needed a little extra encouragement, but sports mail finds him in charming form.
Peake is the sole survivor of the British medalists from the 1948 London Olympics
“The medal stays in a drawer,” he says. ‘Since 1948 I’ve probably only looked at it three times. I’m sure it’s nice that you want to talk about it. I’m not sure if many people here would know and I’m also not sure if many people would have known when I first got it. The Olympics were still a big deal in 1948, especially the first after the war, but it was less important compared to now. There were no parties before.’
His sporting life offers a snapshot of that other time, and really is just a glimpse of his existence, as the CBE that has followed his name since 1986 has nothing to do with his athletic endeavors.
The sporting story goes back to the 1930s and early 1940s, when John studied mechanical engineering at Cambridge University.
“I met my late wife in Cambridge and we both played hockey, tennis and squash before college,” he says. “We were brought together through sports and it wasn’t long before we were told to go ahead and get married. But sports were a big part of my life for a while.
Peake represented Great Britain at the 1948 London Olympics
‘I was once a reserve for England in squash. In tennis, I made it through two qualifying rounds to get into Wimbledon, but I lost when I needed one more set to get in. Hockey was my strongest point.
“With the war and my training, I was sent to the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors, which meant 18 months in Devonport, six months at sea and two years at the naval school at Greenwich. I was lucky enough to be able to do a lot of sports because of that and I won the Naval Championships for tennis and squash. I played hockey for a London club and that’s how I got selected for the Olympics.’
Those London Olympics, held on a relatively small budget three years after the war ended, were somewhat different from what we saw in 2012.
“They had quite a bit of trouble as only the UK would host so soon after the war. It took two years to get ready and it was a lot of hard work, but I think in a way it was a celebration because the fighting was over.
“It meant for the participants that it was all a bit of a rush,” he says. Indeed, John’s first international appearance happened to be Britain’s first game at the Games. “There wasn’t time for a lot of training,” he says. “You were chosen and you went.”
At the age of 23, he was the youngest member of a team that included three schoolmasters, a doctor and two army instructors. “I remember a practice session,” he says. “There was a guy running across the field 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 greats of all time (the Czechoslovak won four Olympic gold medals in 5000m and marathon).”
At the age of 23, he was the youngest member of a team of three schoolmasters
With the hockey played at Wembley, then known as the Empire Stadium, Great Britain opened with a draw against Switzerland before beating the US and Afghanistan. After beating Pakistan in the semifinals, their opponents for gold were India, winners of each of the past three editions. Barely a year after independence, India won 4-0.
“They scored very early and I think that took some of the strength 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 spectators.
“I will not forget that the field at Wembley was full of holes. They had shot put on it. I remember one of the guys, the middle half, gave me the ball and I missed it. He’s had enough of me, but I’ll blame the field and the shot putters!’
John played for England a few more times, but his days as an international were wrapped up over the next two years. It was a short but rewarding career in athletics, then a longer one in engineering, with his eventual climb to become the director of Baker Perkins, which manufactured food processing equipment.
The 96-year-old enjoyed a short but bright sports career, before a longer one in tech
“I don’t think I played hockey after I turned 28,” he says. “The games were supposed to be on a Thursday and employers didn’t dislike that. After a while 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.
These days he doesn’t look so much on the sporting front.
“I like a bit of snooker on TV,” he says. ‘In 2012 I also did a bit of torchlight for the Olympics.
‘Furthermore, I haven’t had much to do with sports for a long time and now I have no reason to talk much about the Olympics. But I suppose it was a lot of fun.”