You would expect Peter Elliott to resent not getting an Olympic ticket. Aged 17, he was the youngest Briton in the 1948 Olympics and is only one of a handful of survivors from those Games alive today.
But Elliott, who hasn’t been to an Olympics since he dived for Great Britain in Helsinki in 1952, just shrugs and says: “I’m not upset about how they’ve treated me. Somebody did phone me out of the blue and said, ‘Do you want tickets?’ I said I wanted tickets for the final of the diving but never heard any more. It seems a bit of a mish-mash. Nobody seems to know what they’re doing.
“Perhaps it’s because we didn’t do terribly well in 1948. If we’d won a medal, I would’ve expected something. But I came 23rd. After five dives I was fifth but my toes hit the board doing the reverse summersault with a double twist and I had points deducted for a double take-off. But I was very happy to beat 56 countries.”
What upsets him is that 2012 will be nothing like his Games. Talking with a real passion, the 81-year-old says: “I do not see the present Olympics as having any connection with us in 1948. Unlike us, today’s Olympic athletes are not amateurs. Tom Daley is a terrific diver. I would not have been able to compete with Tom because we did not have the equipment they have today.
“But he’s still got to do that bloody dive, hasn’t he? I do not resent the fact the 2012 British team have already made a lot of money through sponsorship. What I resent is that these people are professionals. That means they are not Olympians.”
When I mention that the 18-year-old has just published his life story and has his own PR and marketing advisers, Elliott looks at me in wonder and says: “Tom Daley is a great diver for his age but, for me, he is not an Olympian. The whole idea of the Olympics was to take somebody who’d trained from an early age to get to the top of their sport in their country. Not to be a great winner but to actually compete against people all over the world.”
Continuing the fact that things are so different now, Elliott can hardly contain his surprise when he hears the various rules imposed by the International Olympic Committee, such as specifying the height of the Olympic village. “That’s totally ridiculous.”
As we talk about the Olympic lanes and that London has promised that during the Games there will be no advertising by firms in competition with Olympic sponsors, he says: “It is a bit sad really because, for me, it’s lost what the Olympics was supposed to be.”
Elliott is aware that many will see this as an old man’s regret. “I hope I am not sounding too creaky,” he says. But the amateur status meant so much to him that, even in 1961 when he was well established as a West End singer and dancer, he initially refused to dive as stunt man in The Avengers. “Ray Austin, the stunt arranger for The Avengers, asked me to do a very spectacular dive. I said, ‘But I’m still an amateur,’ At that stage, nobody had paid me to dive.”
Austin persuaded him to go to Pinewood Studios and asked him, “Would you be prepared to dress up in Diana Rigg’s catsuit, wear a wig and do the fight and the dive? I’ll teach you how to do the fight.”
Pretending to be Rigg meant Elliott fighting the villain, another stunt man, on a seven-metre high board. He had to knock him off into the water and then do his spectacular dive. To play Rigg in ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station’, Elliott was paid £100. Later he moved from stuntman to actor and played a villain opposite Rigg in another film. He taught Tony Curtis to somersault and was also the first James Bond in a West End musical. To his great pleasure, a more famous Bond, Sean Connery, came to see his show and the two became friends.
But it is the memory of the 1948 Games that he treasures most, all the more because he had not given much thought to the Olympics as a child. Elliott had been diving since the age of 12 at the Marsham Street swimming pools when, in 1944, he was approached by Sid Dalton, an Olympic coach. That evening Dalton went to Peter’s father’s pub at Blackfriars to propose daily coaching sessions. Elliott Snr was worried about the cost but Dalton assured him: “This could be glory. He could be in the Olympics. Dad reluctantly said, ‘I shall give you a year.’”
Four years later, Elliott came second in the national championships and was selected for the 1948 team.
“My initial thought was it would mean foreign travel because I assumed the Olympics were overseas. Then I heard they were at Wembley and we were going to stay at an RAF camp on Uxbridge Road. I thought, where is all the glamour of the Olympics?” But the Olympics soon seduced him. “For four weeks around the Games, for the first time ever, the pools were free. And, wherever we went, people dished up a free cup of Bovril. And I was given three pairs of Y-fronts. I had never seen Y-fronts before.
“We had steak. It was just after the war and nobody had had steak. I saw bananas for the first time and there were oranges.” Best of all, though, was that he got to meet the Royal family.
“We were taken to the throne room at the Palace,” he says. “The Queen was there, Prince Philip and Princess Margaret. I could see that she fancied my diving mate, Tony Turner. She did not say so but the way she came over and started talking to Tony it was clear.”
However, Elliott got the jitters when he saw his father-in-law, who had driven him to the Palace, come up the stairs. “There I am talking to Princess Margaret and, suddenly, I saw him talking to a footman. I was worried he might be arrested. I went up to him and asked, ‘How did you get in?’ He said, ‘I just walked up the stairs. Nobody said anything. If anybody had stopped me, I would have said I am the Olympic diving coach.’”
It was just as relaxed at the 1952 Helsinki Games. “There I am walking from the camp to the pool. A jeep with three guys stops. They have seen Britain on the back of my tracksuit. One of them leans over and asks, ‘Are you going to the pool?’ ‘Yes,’ ‘Can we give you a lift?’ I said ‘Yes, thank you.’ It was Prince Philip, Prince Charles and a bodyguard. I could have been anyone.”
Elliott never made any money from diving but, throughout his showbusiness career, diving was always cropping up. So, after Frank Sinatra saw him perform in the West End, he invited him for a drink and said, “Okay, Pete, stand on the table and do me a dive.” Sinatra then said, “I always wanted to be a diver, I love it, and swimming.”
The sport, however, was not a factor when Ava Gardner came backstage after one of Elliott’s West End performances. She invited him to a party and they ended up at the Dorchester where she was staying. Elliott recalls: “She went up to her room. I was left with her gay manager so I decided to leave. The manager said, ‘She’s waiting for you, go in and say goodnight.’ I went in and she was lying in bed with cold cream all over her face! I thought that’s definitely a goodbye.”
But it wasn’t. It was the start of a two-day affair. Yet, for Elliott, all of this pales into insignificance compared with the emotion he experienced when he marched into Wembley for the 1948 opening ceremony. Elliott had not looked forward to it. His blazer was too tight, he hated the beret and the long rehearsals for the march-past. But as he entered the stadium, he found his partner, a six-foot-six wrestler, crying.
“Tears were rolling down his cheeks. I was thinking, what’s he crying for? But then I heard the roar of the crowd and I started crying, too. In 1948, the nation felt it was a great honour to host the games. We had come through a terrible war and we felt, ‘Wow, we have not done too badly have we?’”
So, does he think the 2012 team will cry? “I don’t think anybody will cry. They are professionals. The Olympics are no longer an amateur Corinthian event. It is a sponsored commercial enterprise.”