David Owen

Families around the world understand the meaning of the phrase "the bank of mum and dad".

When times are tough, parents with a little unearmarked cash will come to the aid of offspring who have perhaps encountered an unexpected bump in the road.

With coronavirus wreaking havoc with business plans, something a bit like that is happening in sport.

Comparatively wealthy organisations are offering a helping hand to the less well-off.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was first out of the blocks last year, giving loans to 15 Summer Olympic International Federations (IFs) as part of a $150 million (£109 million/€126 million) aid package for the Olympic Movement.

Now it has been confirmed that world football governing body FIFA has followed suit, lending $45.8 million (£33.3 million/€38.5 million) to national associations in the space of some six months, between approval of its COVID-19 relief plan in late June and the end of last year.

What is more, the sums involved could get - indeed, might already be - significantly bigger.

A recently-published breakdown of funds that might theoretically be advanced under the FIFA plan indicated that loans of almost $556 million (£404 million/€468 million) were actually available.

So by the end of the year, only a small fraction - 8.2 per cent - of what could conceivably be borrowed had been loaned out.

I have argued before that the IOC should use the leverage its wealth affords it to ratchet up pressure on borrowers, where necessary, to improve corporate governance standards.

If loans between sports bodies are to become more commonplace in these still unpredictable and difficult times, however, there is also a risk that pressure aimed at influencing behaviours in questionable or even pernicious ways might be applied by some of those holding the purse-strings.

I am sure it would never happen with the two lenders I have mentioned so far, so let us at this point depart into the realms of the hypothetical.

World Sailing has an interest-free loan from the IOC ©Getty Images
World Sailing has an interest-free loan from the IOC ©Getty Images

Let us say - hypothetically - that a key election was looming at a borrowing organisation and let us suppose, moreover, that the sports body which had loaned it the money had strong views on who should win this election.

It seems to me it would be all too easy for this lender to have a quiet word in a well-placed ear - something like, "Oh gosh I do hope candidate X wins because otherwise my colleagues might think we need to call in our loan".

Granted, if someone with power is sufficiently determined to attempt to influence the course of an election, they will probably find a way of doing so, with or without a convenient lending relationship; there is, as they say, more than one way to skin a cat.

But being able to demand immediate repayment of a loan at least in theory confers power on the creditor which can be exercised in good or bad ways.

What is more, this power relationship is implicit until the debt is expunged.

For this reason, out-and-out transparency regarding the size of inter-sports body loans, and the exact terms of their advancement is very highly desirable.

Alas, to return to the real world, neither the IOC nor FIFA is at present setting a very good example on this score.

We know in both cases that the loans are interest-free.

But as for who borrowed what under what terms - so far only scraps.

Regarding the IOC money, some details regarding its loan to World Sailing came out because the governing body’s subsidiary - World Sailing (UK) Limited - included a "Going concern" Note in its 2019  financial statements.

This stated: "The group has been granted a loan from the International Olympic Committee, which can be drawn over the period from June 2020 to April 2021.

"The loan is interest free and repayable in six equal annual instalments commencing on 31st December 2021."

FIFA will not say which national bodies it has lent money too under its COVID-19 relief plan ©Getty Images
FIFA will not say which national bodies it has lent money too under its COVID-19 relief plan ©Getty Images

Were the terms offered to the other 14 IFs the same? It seems possible, but we don’t know.

FIFA has not stipulated who has borrowed its $45.8 million either.

This seems odd because an 18-page "Annexe" covering FIFA Forward and COVID-19 relief plan funds spells out which national associations have received which grants in exhaustive detail.

When I asked FIFA for details about loanees, I received this response:

"The list of member associations benefitting from the COVID-19 Relief Plan both in terms of grants and interest-free loans changes on a regular basis.

"FIFA is expecting to provide a new update ahead of the upcoming Congress.

"As far as loan repayments are concerned, the terms of the loan vary depending on the case-specific circumstances of the application which is handled by the FIFA administration and reported to the Steering Committee in line with the relevant regulations."

Let us hope this "new update" duly includes a list of borrowing national associations and a summary of repayment terms and attached conditions.

After all, sport’s oft-voiced calls for "autonomy" will remain so much pie in the sky unless it can demonstrate the highest standards of transparency and rigour in its efforts to self-regulate.