PAUL ZETTER CBE ON 45 YEARS OF SPORTSAID AND GETTING THINGS OFF THE GROUND

Ask an aspiring sportsman or sportswomen about their biggest goal and you’ll get a plethora of wide-ranging answers. They may picture walking out at Wembley or Twickenham or Lord’s. They may dream of an Olympic or Paralympic medal glistening proudly around their neck. For others, just having a chance to play or do the sport they love is everything they could want and more. Whatever the ambition, it is a given that talent, hard-work and dedication are a must.
14 April, 2021

Paul Zetter CBE, pictured above right, alongside Sir Eddie Kulukundis as they commemorate the latter's five year anniversary as Chairman

Ask an aspiring sportsman or sportswomen about their biggest goal and you’ll get a plethora of wide-ranging answers. They may picture walking out at Wembley or Twickenham or Lord’s. They may dream of an Olympic or Paralympic medal glistening proudly around their neck.

For others, just having a chance to play or do the sport they love is everything they could want and more. Whatever the ambition, it is a given that talent, hard-work and dedication are a must if an aspiring athlete is to reach their potential. But no matter how big or small the dream, money should not stop it from coming true.

For the past 45 years, that’s where SportsAid have come in. A SportsAid athlete and their family will spend more than £7,000 each year in meeting the costs of their sport. Without the charity's support, many of these young prospects, typically aged 12 to 18, would face a tough decision on whether to continue training and competing.

Generations of talent potentially lost to the purse strings. With everything beginning just over 45 years ago, who better than the man himself – Paul Zetter CBE, first Chairman and an original founder of the Sports Aid Foundation, the precursor to SportsAid – to take a trip down memory lane and recount the role the charity has played for nearly five decades. 

“We started the Sports Aid Foundation following Munich 1972. Sir Robin Brook, the chairman of the British Olympic Association, and the team came back from the Games having met the German equivalent of SportsAid,” explains the 97-year-old.

"They told Denis Howell, the Minister for Sport at the time, and he suggested we should pull together a British version. I became chairman of the Sports Aid Foundation in 1976, recruited Alan Weeks as my chief executive, who was absolutely marvellous, and a lovely chap called Eddie Kulukundis who helped financially.

"It was never a long-term ambition. I asked Sir Robin what sort of money he wanted us to make: 'If you can make £20,000 in the first year, I'll kiss your boots'. And I made £20,000 in the first month! I didn't intend to go on for longer than a year, and I told Sir Robin that. But when it came to it, I found that I was really enjoying it and didn’t want to stop.”

With success coming almost immediately, Paul and co had no reason to call it a day early on. Swimmer David Wilkie was the first Sports Aid Foundation recipient, with the university student in Miami deemed a strong medal hope at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games.

Come Games time, and David’s gold in the 200m breaststroke was the only men’s Olympic title not won by an American. Suddenly, SportsAid’s ambition was being met by achievement.

"I got on BBC’s Sports Report speaking to David Coleman about it, and it was all rather fun,” Paul said of David's success. "It's amazing, wonderful memories for me. Going through that, and meeting all these people, I got to learn and realise how vastly important sport was to people. 

"To go to foreign countries, and to meet people and find the power of sport, I was realising how much of a role sport played in modern humanity. It's nice to think that what we did was pretty special – but it was never my main motivation. I was just there to enjoy the ride!

"I went to Olympic Games, Winter Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games – you name it, we just wanted to be there as much as possible. It was a new life for me, great fun, meeting great, wonderful people. Tessa Sanderson, Daley Thompson, Steve Ovett – I had a chance to meet all these incredible people.

"I met Torvill and Dean in Sarajevo, sitting next to Princess Anne – what an exciting situation for someone born-and-bred in Bethnal Green.”

Sport in Great Britain had never seen anything akin to the Sports Aid Foundation as a new age was dawning. During the early years, Paul met His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, who sadly passed away last week, and had a conversation with him about the ambitions of the Foundation. 

“Prince Philip was the president of the Central Council of Physical Recreation, and Alan Weeks got me to meet him," said Paul. "And there's me, meeting him in Buckingham Palace! He felt that sport should just be for fun and for enjoying it. 

"But if we were to compete against the best in the world at Olympic Games and international events, our sportspeople had to be given the opportunity to train and compete. He came around to the idea and we had many future interactions after that. 

"Princess Anne became a great fan, and she was sat beside me when Torvill and Dean won their gold medal in Sarajevo. The Royals loved it. And that has stayed with us, and SportsAid, all these years later.”

As Paul himself attests, that royal assent has not disappeared decades on. Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge became SportsAid's Patron in 2013, with her support helping to shine a brighter light on the achievements and potential of Britain's most talented young athletes.

She has spent time with many of the country's up-and-coming sports stars at the charity's training days and workshops, while recognising the dedication and commitment shown by young athletes and their families through her backing of SportsAid Week.

The Sports Aid Foundation was there for the top echelon of elite athletes in Britain - with funding from The National Lottery taking on that mantle in 1997. Thereon, SportsAid has switched attentions to the next generation of stars who may not otherwise have a path to the top.

Whether it’s Royalty, the fantastic work done by SportsAid partners, the vision of those such as Paul, the army of fundraisers up and down the land, the parents and support network of those competing, or the athlete themselves, the direction is always the same.

Paul concludes: "You can't ask a young person who's leaving school and is a fine athlete, to not have support, which was where the Sports Aid Foundation was able to come in and help.

"Even now, I keep a very keen interest on sport. I love athletics and would have loved to have gone to another major athletics meeting. I still enjoy it, I can't read about it but I do follow it closely. And my chums tell me all about it. Sport changed my life, there's no doubt about it.

“The Lottery did a huge effort to take that burden away but SportsAid saw an opportunity to look after the young people, which is amazing. To still be talking about it now, it shows we've created something of value with the Sports Aid Foundation.

"And for SportsAid to still have a major impact now is absolutely wonderful.”