Alex McLin '99

April 20, 2010Duke Law News

As secretary general and CEO of the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), Alex McLin oversees the governance and operations of equestrian sport across seven disciplines in 135 countries. It’s a job that requires expertise in sports law, business, and management, but equestrian skills are purely optional.

With a laugh, McLin calls the fact he doesn’t ride a likely advantage in making objective decisions in an institution traditionally run by insiders and governed, at its highest levels, by European aristocrats and royals.

“One typically comes to work here because of interest and involvement in the sport,” he says of the FEI. “It’s not uncommon to find somebody who at the same time is a horse owner and a veterinarian and a rider or an event organizer. There are so many roles within the sport that actually dealing with the issue of where one comes from and whose interest is being represented is tricky.”

Having started his legal career at Baker & McKenzie in New York, where he practiced litigation and international arbitration, McLin returned to his native Switzerland, where he had previously worked for the World Economic Forum, in 2000. He joined CNET Networks as general counsel for it data-licensing division, CNET Channel. When he was approached in 2005 and asked to look into an opportunity to join the FEI as general counsel, McLin says he was quickly intrigued.

“I scratched the surface and the more I scratched, the more it really looked interesting in terms of everything that needed to be done and how I could contribute to it,” he says, explaining that the FEI is restructuring and modernizing on a number of fronts, including its governing structure, approach to commercialization and branding of the sport, and response to the challenges posed by doping and the pursuit of “clean” competition.

Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, McLin and his staff of 60 work closely with a parallel structure including committees and a board of international volunteers, the members of which are elected by the FEI’s general assembly. Together they develop and enforce the rules for the disciplines of show jumping, dressage, and three-day eventing, all of which are Olympic sports, as well as endurance riding, reining, vaulting, carriage driving, and their corresponding para-equestrian competitions. The FEI’s member federations adopt and enforce the rules at national level.

McLin joined the FEI in the aftermath of doping incidents and controversy in equestrian competition at the 2004 Athens Olympics. “It was clear that there needed to be a better definition of the roles of the in-house prosecutor and that of the decision-making body,” which is now called the FEI’s tribunal, he says. “Essentially I came on board to establish a legal department that could act as the in-house prosecutor for those cases and represent the interests of the federation or international sport as a whole before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is where our cases go if they are appealed.”

The use of prohibited substances by athletes remains a challenge in equine sport as it does in others; riders and mounts again were disqualified from the 2008 Beijing games amid allegations of doping. As a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Code, the FEI tests its two- and four-legged athletes in and out of competition, but concentrates the bulk of its efforts on horses; for the animals, McLin notes, the medication-control program reaches beyond cheating and into animal welfare.

“We have a big debate, for example, about the use of common non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs, which are not a concern for human athletes and are not banned,” says McLin, who became FEI secretary general in 2008 after serving in the role on an interim basis. “But you could give a drug to a horse that would otherwise be lame and unable to compete and make it compete. That creates a welfare issue.”

Along with current FEI president Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, a former Olympic equestrienne and member of the International Olympic Committee, McLin launched the federation’s Clean Sport initiative to address issues of conflicts of interest, fair competition, and use of prohibited substances. Recommendations from two expert commissions, one focused on doping, testing, and disciplinary protocols and another on integrity and anti-corruption, came into effect this year. One significant development is the proactive formation of the FEI’s “Integrity Unit,” something that McLin says is fast-becoming a “best practice” in sport.

“This is essentially a private, investigatory arm of the FEI, which will allow us to make sure we have solid evidence to go on if we need to bring a disciplinary action,” McLin explains. It also will serve a deterrent, preventive, and educational function, he adds.

On other fronts, McLin has worked to modernize the FEI’s governing statutes, implementing corporate mechanisms, such as an audit and compliance committee, to ensure checks and balances and transparency throughout its operations. He continues efforts to commercialize the sport and the FEI brand, expanding media coverage of its disciplines with considerable success. Its flagship quadrennial event, the World Equestrian Games, which will be held in Lexington, Ky., Sept. 25 to Oct. 10 — the first ever held in a non-European venue — has a corporate title sponsor for the first time.

McLin, who was raised both in Switzerland and the United States and has traveled widely, says his job calls on all parts of his varied background, from his language skills and comfort in navigating different cultures to his legal training, which included participation in Duke’s first summer transnational law program in Geneva.

“I will typically dissect an issue with a legal approach, first and foremost,” he says. “But I’ve had to learn that that is only part of the analysis that needs to happen. I need to also make an assessment as to the political ramifications of a given decision. ... An initiative can be sound from a commercial perspective and it can be sound from a legal perspective, but if it doesn’t have the political support, it could be dead in the water. So it’s really about referring to all of those skills and dialogue and diplomacy — really speaking to people on their own terms and in their own language and being open to the multiple points of view.”