Paul Zetter, head of his family’s pools firm who as founder of the Sports Aid Foundation advanced the careers of numerous athletes – obituary

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Torchbearer Ryan Hodd Jarvis, left, passes the Olympic flame to Paul Zetter at Cass Sculpture Park in West Sussex during the Olympic torch relay in July 2012 - LOCOG via Getty Images
Torchbearer Ryan Hodd Jarvis, left, passes the Olympic flame to Paul Zetter at Cass Sculpture Park in West Sussex during the Olympic torch relay in July 2012 - LOCOG via Getty Images

Paul Zetter, who has died aged 98, led his family’s football pools business and was founder and chairman of the Sports Aid Foundation, which provided financial support for elite British athletes.

In its heyday, Zetters was Britain’s third largest pools operator, behind Littlewoods and Vernons. As its chairman from 1972, Paul Zetter was increasingly drawn into discussions with government and sports bodies about the need for additional funding to improve British standards and medal chances.

The result was the launch of the Sports Aid Foundation (SAF) by Labour’s Minister of Sport, Denis Howell, in advance of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Zetter was initially asked to serve as vice-chairman under the mercurial media tycoon Peter Cadbury – who immediately departed in protest at constraints on his freedom to appoint board members and set terms for commercial sponsorship.

The mantle thereby passed to Zetter, who presided at the Foundation’s first big fundraising event, an Elton John concert at Earls Court that raised the then-princely sum of £20,000. Zetter relished his many contacts with celebrity and royalty while shrewdly driving a strategy that built long-term partnerships with businesses such as Tesco and British-American Tobacco; as chairman until 1985, he garnered some £2 million for a roll-call of top British sportsmen and women.

Among the first recipients of SAF funding were the swimmers Sharron Davies, Duncan Goodhew, and David Wilkie, whose world-record gold in the 200 metres breaststroke at Montreal was the only mens’ swimming title at that Games not won by an American (Sharron Davies and Goodhew would go on to win medals at the 1980 Olympics).

Other beneficiaries in Zetter’s era included Sebastian Coe and the gold medal-winning skaters Robin Cousins, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. The rower Chris Baillieu, a silver medallist at Montreal, called Zetter “the giant in the room… Very much a people person, he encouraged all of us; his enthusiasm never dipped.”

Zetter carries the Olympic flame through Duncton, West Sussex
Zetter carries the Olympic flame through Duncton, West Sussex

Paul Isaac Zetter was born in Bow, east London, on July 9 1923, the son of Simon “Syd” Zetter and his wife Esther, née Stodel. Their Zetter forebears were cigar-makers but Syd made his living, after Army service in the first world war, as a “picture faker” — a door-to-door salesman offering to turn family snapshots into framed portraits.

Later Syd was an agent for the Irish Sweep, a lottery linked to horseracing. But when a police officer who was one of his customers warned him in 1933 that a clampdown on lottery sales was imminent, he turned his entrepreneurial eye to football pools – essentially a bet on which league fixtures would end as “score draws” – that had been pioneered in England by the Moores family’s Littlewoods venture. Zetters Pools was founded above a sweet shop in Borough High Street, with the family at home stuffing weekly coupons into envelopes for posting.

Paul was educated at City of London School, which was evacuated to Marlborough at the outbreak of war. On leaving school, he became a City bank clerk and joined the Home Guard before enlisting in the Royal Armoured Corps soon after his 18th birthday and training in tanks at Bovington.

Promoted to lance-corporal, he displayed such proficiency in Morse code that he was transferred in 1944 to be a wireless operator for “Phantom”, a special reconnaissance unit headquartered at Richmond Hill. One of his officers was the actor David Niven – who “told unrepeatable stories about Hollywood”, Zetter recalled – “but I hope what he said about Dorothy Lamour was true.”

After a secondment to the Control Commission in Germany at the end of the war, Zetter was demobbed in January 1947 to join what was by then – though still a small player in a crowded field – Zetters International Pools Ltd. Two years later he helped to transform the firm’s fortunes with the introduction of coupons for Australian football matches played between May and September; later diversifications included betting shops, bingo and cinemas.

During the war, Zetter had displayed such competence with Morse code that he was transferred to a special reconnaissance unit
During the war, Zetter had displayed such competence with Morse code that he was transferred to a special reconnaissance unit

Zetters became a public company in 1965 and went on to become the first pools operator to accept credit card payments and offer internet betting; after Paul Zetter’s retirement in 2000, the residual pools business was sold to Littlewoods.

Paul Zetter remained a governor and vice-president of SAF, which as SportsAid now focuses on promising younger athletes while the National Lottery funds Olympic and Paralympic contenders. He also served on the Sports Council and the Foundation for Sports and Arts, and was president of the Restricted Growth Association.

Beyond the boardroom, Zetter lived life to the full. In the 1950s he competed in Monte Carlo Rallies in an Allard sports coupé. In his early married years he often commuted to London from a home on the Riviera, earning (from his wife) the nickname “Jet Zetter”. He went on to be an enthusiastic racehorse owner, with horses such as Jazzy Refrain and Zero Risk in training with his son-in-law Lawrence Wells at Billingshurst – though big-race wins eluded him.

Proud of his Jewish heritage, Paul Zetter was also a man of words: he wrote poetry, and in later years a series of light novels. In 1992 he published a jaunty memoir, Bow Jest, “the story of a man who has had a happy life and who has brought much happiness to others,” as Sir Denis Thatcher wrote in the foreword. “No one can ask for, nor do more.”

Zetter and Sir Denis became firm friends through serving together on the SAF board. They were due to lunch at the Savoy Grill on Thursday 22 November 1990, but when Margaret Thatcher announced her resignation as prime minister that morning, Zetter feared her husband might cancel. Instead he arrived and accepted his customary dry martini “as composed as ever”, while many lunchers from other tables came over to offer sympathy. But when the head waiter asked whether a BBC reporter could also come and ask a few questions, Thatcher’s unhesitating response was “Tell him to f--- off.”

Paul Zetter was appointed CBE in 1981. In 2012, aged 89, he was one of 8,000 Britons selected to carry the Olympic flame – in his case through the Sussex village of Duncton – on its progress to London.

He married, in 1954, “the girl next door” – Helen Lore Morgenstern, from a German-Jewish refugee family. She died in 2019 and he is survived by their daughter and son.

Paul Zetter, born July 9 1923, died May 14 2022