U.S. Record Holder Shelby Houlihan Banned Four Years After Positive Test For Banned Substance, Blames Meat in Burrito

U.S. Record Holder Shelby Houlihan Banned Four Years After Positive Test For Banned Substance, Blames Meat in Burrito

Shelby Houlihan tested positive for nandrolone in an out-of-competition urine test in December.

Shelby Houlihan, the American record holder in the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters, tested positive for the banned substance nandrolone in an out-of-competition drug test in December and has been banned for four years. The announcement came during a Monday afternoon virtual press conference.

On Tuesday morning, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) announced it has upheld the Athletics Integrity Unit’s charge and its panel unanimously decided to ban Shelby Houlihan for four years, starting Jan. 14, 2021.

“I feel completely devastated, lost, broken, angry, confused and betrayed by the very sport that I’ve loved and poured myself into just to see how good I was,” Houlihan said. “I want to be very clear. I have never taken any performance enhancing substances. And that includes that of which I am being accused. I believe in the sport and pushing your body to the limit just to see where the limit is. I’m not interested in cheating. I don’t do this for the accolades, money, or for people to know my name. I do this because I love it. I have so much fun doing it and it’s always the best part of my day.”

Houlihan says that she ate a burrito from a food truck near her home in Beaverton, Ore. approximately 10 hours before the drug test. The burrito contained pig meat, which Global Sports Advocates lawyer Paul Greene claimed can typically serve as a source for Nandrolone. The drug is an androgen and anabolic steroid that increases muscle mass. The positive sample recorded 5 ng/mL of Nandrolone. 

Houlihan was notified of the positive test on Jan. 14 by the Athletics Integrity Unit, which serves as track and field’s independent anti-doping watchdog. The positive test triggered a provisional suspension that barred her from competing. She compiled a food log of everything she consumed before the positive test.

She believes the positive test came from consuming the burrito before a 6 a.m. test.

Houlihan’s team called for a single hearing before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in hopes of proving her innocence. She underwent a polygraph test and also underwent a hair sample test by a toxicologist to present her case.

“Although my levels were consistent with those of subjects in studies who were tested 10 hours after eating this source and WADA technical guidelines require the lab to consider it when analyzing nandrolone, the lab never accounted for this possibility,” Houlihan said in the press conference. “They could have reported this as an atypical finding and followed up with further testing. The anti-doping experts I have reached out to say they should have. I did everything I could to prove my innocence. I passed a polygraph test. I had my hair sampled by one of the world’s foremost toxicologists. WADA agreed that test proved that there was no build up of this substance in my body, which there would have been if I were taking it regularly. Nothing moved the lab from their initial snap decision. Instead, they simply concluded that I was a cheater and that a steroid was ingested orally, but not regularly. I believe my explanation fits the facts much better- because it’s true. I also believe it was dismissed without proper due process.”

CAS informed her of the decision to uphold a four-year suspension on June 11. The ban would keep her from competing in major track and field events in the prime of her career including the U.S. Olympic Trials, the Tokyo Olympics, the 2022 World Championships in Oregon and possibly the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

The 13-time U.S. champion had not raced in all of 2021, which now is explained by her announcement. Last summer, she ran the American record of 14:23.92 in the 5,000 meters during a time trial with her teammates on the Bowerman Track Club. Her last race was a 15:02.55 for 5,000m in December that secured her a qualifying time for the U.S. Olympic Trials and Tokyo Olympics.

Houlihan, 28, made her first U.S. Olympic team in 2016 with a runner-up finish in the women’s 5,000 meters. She went on to place 11th at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Since the 2016 Olympics, she’s asserted herself as one of the most dominant U.S. middle distance runners and placed fourth in 3:54.99 in the women’s 1,500 meters at the 2019 world championships in Doha to set an American record.

Greene told reporters that the next possible step could be an appeal to the Swiss federal tribunal and is being considered. Greene has worked with fellow U.S. Olympians Jarrion Lawson and Ajee Wilson, who have been cleared in cases where positive tests were triggered by contaminated meat. After an 18-month battle, Lawson won his appeal to CAS in 2018. Wilson’s case was handled by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in 2017.

Houlihan’s coach, Jerry Schumacher, spoke out against the way the Athletics Integrity Unit and CAS handled Houlihan’s case.

“Shelby was treated unfairly at every step of this process,” Schumacher said. “The AIU refused to charge her for months, despite no additional evidence being presented, opting to leave her in a provisionally suspended state until they were forced by Shelby’s legal team to charge her and agree to a hearing before the CAS so that Shelby could compete at the Olympic Trials. I believe if this had been USADA handling her case it would have been handled differently. At the very least, I’m confident she would have been treated fairly.”

“It is now my understanding that “friendly fire” casualties in the war on doping are acceptable, and we should all be outraged by that,” he added. “No clean athlete should have to go through what Shelby is right now, and we need to demand better for our athletes.”

Shalane Flanagan, who also serves as an assistant coach for the Bowerman Track Club and used to train alongside Houlihan before coaching her, also spoke out in defense.

“I have experienced plenty of heartache in my own career,” Flanagan said. “I have lost out of medals and dreams to those who cheat but I would rather lose all my medals and wins to dopers than to witness one innocent athlete to be robbed of an athlete they have earned. If this is where the sport I love is headed, then I don’t know if I can continue to be part of it.”

The U.S. Olympic Trials begin on Friday.

A full statement from Houlihan can be read below:

“Since I started running when I was 5 years old, I’ve had dreams of running professionally, setting records, winning an Olympic gold medal and being one of the best in the world. I have always blindly believed that I was good enough to achieve those things.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve put in more time, more miles, have become more dedicated, and have learned to genuinely love this sport. It’s what brings me the most joy. It’s where I feel the most me. I have always done it the right way. I’ve put my head down and just worked at being better year after year. I’ve stayed patient and trusted that the work and consistency would show.

I still have all of the same dreams I had when I was 5 and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been able to have achieved some of them. I still have others that I’m working towards. But the thing that truly drives me is the love and joy I get from what I do and the curiosity to find out what my potential is.

On January 14th, 2021, I received an email from the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), informing me a drug testing sample that I provided on December 15th, 2020 has returned as an Adverse Analytical Finding for an anabolic steroid called Nandrolone and that I am therefore subject to an immediate Provisional Suspension. When I got that email, I had to read it over about ten times and google what it was that I had just tested positive for. I had never even heard of nandrolone.

I have since learned that it has long been understood by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) that eating pork can lead to a false positive for nandrolone, since certain types of pigs produce it naturally in high amounts. Pig organ meat (offal) has the highest levels of nandrolone.

In the following 5 days after being notified, I put together a food log of everything that I consumed the week of that December 15th test. We concluded that the most likely explanation was a burrito purchased and consumed approximately 10 hours before that drug test from an authentic Mexican food truck that serves pig offal near my house in Beaverton, Oregon. I notified the AIU that I believed this was the source.

Although my levels were consistent with those of subjects in studies who were tested 10 hours after eating this source and WADA technical guidelines require the lab to consider it when analyzing nandrolone, the lab never accounted for this possibility. They could have reported this as an atypical finding and followed up with further testing. The anti-doping experts I have reached out to say they should have. I did everything I could to prove my innocence. I passed a polygraph test. I had my hair sampled by one of the world’s foremost toxicologists. WADA agreed that test proved that there was no build up of this substance in my body, which there would have been if I were taking it regularly. Nothing moved the lab from their initial snap decision. Instead, they simply concluded that I was a cheater and that a steroid was ingested orally, but not regularly. I believe my explanation fits the facts much better- because it’s true. I also believe it was dismissed without proper due process.

On June 11th, I received the news that the Court of Arbitration did not accept my explanation of what had occurred and has subsequently banned me from the sport for four years.

I feel completely devastated, lost, broken, angry, confused and betrayed by the very sport that I’ve loved and poured myself into just to see how good I was.

I want to be very clear. I have never taken any performance enhancing substances. And that includes that of which I am being accused. I believe in the sport and pushing your body to the limit just to see where the limit is. I’m not interested in cheating. I don’t do this for the accolades, money, or for people to know my name. I do this because I love it. I have so much fun doing it and it’s always the best part of my day.

This sport means everything to me. I believe doping and cheating is weak. It shows a disbelief in yourself and not only shames you but also shows a complete disregard for people that support you. I would never disrespect the sport, my competitors, my teammates, my coaches, my family, my fans or myself in this way. I love and respect this sport too much. The drive that keeps me going is the curiosity to know how far I can push my natural limits and reach my potential. I have always wanted to be able to stand at the top of that Olympic podium with a gold medal around my neck knowing that I did that. Now, I’m not sure I’ll ever get the opportunity to truly pursue that dream.

I’m going to continue fighting to prove my innocence. I will not sit down and accept a four year ban for something that I did not and would never do. I absolutely respect and whole-heartedly support the fight to catch athletes who disrespect the sport by cheating and doping. But I am not one of them. In the meantime, I ask for respect and privacy while I continue to navigate this stressful time. As devastating as this experience has been, I do feel very fortunate to have such an amazing group of people that have been fighting alongside me and supporting me throughout this nightmare. Thank you.

A full statement from coach Jerry Schumacher can be read below:

To The Track and Field Community:

In January of this year, I was notified that Shelby had recorded a positive drug test in December 2020. The positive test was for a substance called nandrolone, something that neither Shelby nor I had ever heard of. Shelby was placed on a provisional suspension as we tried to understand how this test could have happened.

Over the course of the past six months, I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about drug testing—about the procedures and organizations that govern our sport. What I’ve learned has eroded all the faith I had in their ability to fairly serve and protect clean athletes.

Throughout this process we were confident that the truth would lead to justice. What I’ve come to learn instead is that anti-doping authorities are okay with convicting innocent athletes so long as nine out of ten convictions are legitimate. That is wrong. It is my understanding that our drug-testing technology is now becoming so sensitive that anti-doping labs are catching increasing numbers of clean athletes. Shelby’s positive test was for an exceedingly small amount of a substance that is known from WADA’s own studies to be present in certain types of pork—less than 12 hours after she ate at a Mexican food truck that served pig organ meat. I do not understand how any competent and unbiased body could fail to conclude that Shelby is innocent.

Shelby was treated unfairly at every step of this process. The AIU refused to charge her for months, despite no additional evidence being presented, opting to leave her in a provisionally suspended state until they were forced by Shelby’s legal team to charge her and agree to a hearing before the CAS so that Shelby could compete at the Olympic Trials. I believe if this had been USADA handling her case it would have been handled differently. At the very least, I’m confident she would have been treated fairly.

Shelby, I know you and I know the type of athlete you are and, far more importantly, the type of person you are. I don’t have the words to articulate the depths of sadness I feel right now for you. I want you to know that you are not alone, and I can only hope that in the coming days and weeks that you will feel supported by the very best aspect of our sport: the track and field community.

To my coaching colleagues and friends in track and field: You are the ones who know me. You know me as a friend. You know me as a competitor. You know me as an imperfect and flawed human. But you also know how I feel about doping and know that I would never disrespect you by allowing or supporting it in any fashion. I will lean on you the most during this time because we have been gifted with an incredible opportunity to work with young, passionate people and none of us should ever have to watch one of them go through this. It is now my understanding that “friendly fire” casualties in the war on doping are acceptable, and we should all be outraged by that. No clean athlete should have to go through what Shelby is right now, and we need to demand better for our athletes.

To the clean athletes that I’ve coached against: You have every reason to be confused and distrustful of people in this sport. You are forced to witness and compete against dopers all the time. You are also led down roads of confusion that make you question everyone and everything. I understand. I do it too! All I can tell you is that I’m sorry this adds another layer of doubt. Shelby, your competitor, friend, and teammate has had her entire career taken away from her for something she didn’t do. Not all of you will believe me and many of you will be skeptical. But to those that do, you should be outraged that this can happen. You should be outraged that the powerful organizations in our sport are not protecting you. You should be outraged that it happened to Jarrion Lawson, Ajee Wilson, Brenda Martinez, and now Shelby. You should be outraged that it can happen to you. You should demand better from your sport. You need to demand better from your sport.

To the powerful organizations that can enact change: Where are you? What are you doing? Why does this continue to happen to clean athletes? My understanding is that here in America we come into contact with many contaminants that can lead to positive tests in our food, fluids, and supplements. It is also my understanding that USADA is aware of this and accounts for this in their analysis of each case. Yet Shelby is still in this position. To borrow a leading anti-doping official’s response to me, “how many lambs will be led to the slaughter” before we address this issue?

Finally, to the AIU and WADA: Shame on you! Shame on you for not caring about the truth. Shame on you for using athletes in a political chess match. You got it very wrong this time and that is not okay. It’s not okay to be right nine out of ten times when deciding to execute someone’s athletic life and dreams. You do not deserve this power.

What we are witnessing here is a great tragedy in the history of American distance running. Not only is Shelby an exceptionally talented athlete, but she has also developed her talent through hard work and discipline. She is tough as nails. She is an exceptional teammate. She loves to compete. She just might be the best 1500m runner in the world this year, but we will never get the opportunity to find out. And that’s a tragedy.

Over the past six months, I’ve learned that certain organizations in track and field have abandoned clean athletes. We need drug-testing, and aggressive drug-testing at that, to work towards a cleaner sport. I will always support that. But the system is broken. It is a system that no longer protects clean athletes and instead ruins them. We can only assume that this will continue to happen if we, coaches and athletes, continue to accept it. I hope that we demand better from our sport, because our athletes deserve it.

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