The Brutal Uncertainty of the Shelby Houlihan Verdict
The multiple American record holder is a huge fan favorite—does that give us a biased view of her case?
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With less than a week to go before the track and field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Monday brought grim tidings for American distance running, to say the least. Several titans of the sport, including Molly Huddle, Shannon Rowbury, and Evan Jager, announced that they would not be taking part in the Trials due to injury. But the running gods saved the most depressing news for later in the day: Shelby Houlihan, the 1,500- and 5,000-meter American record holder, announced at an emergency press conference on Zoom that she had received a four-year ban from the sport after testing positive for nandrolone—a type of anabolic steroid that is on World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited substance list. Although she and her legal team challenged the ruling through the Court of Arbitration for Sport, they found out last Friday that the challenge was unsuccessful. Houlihan, who is 28, came into this year as arguably the American distance runner with the best chances of medaling this summer in Tokyo. If her current sanction isn’t overturned, the next Olympics where she would be allowed to compete wouldn’t be until 2028 in Los Angeles.
While news of elite distance runners popping on drug tests is frequently met with a feeling of resigned consternation that yet another superstar turned out to be a fraud, this time a number of prominent members of the U.S. running community came out in vocal support of Houlihan and instead directed their ire towards WADA and the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) for failing to protect an innocent athlete. Hence, one might ask whether the more sympathetic reaction is a consequence of the specific details of Houlihan’s case, the fact that she had a much better public relations team to present her side of the story, or some combination of the two.
Flanked by her lawyer, Paul Greene, and her coaches, Jerry Schumacher and Shalane Flanagan, Houlihan, who has not previously failed a drug test, said that the “most likely explanation” for the positive sample was a burrito that she had purchased and consumed from a Mexican food truck approximately ten hours before her out-of-competition drug test on December 15, 2020. The food truck serves pig offal, which has been proven to contain high levels of nandrolone. After the AIU notified her of the positive result on January 14, 2021, Houlihan says she put together a food log of everything she consumed the week of her test from which she concluded that the burrito was to blame. Greene was vehement in his assertion that the 5 ng/mL level of nandrolone found in Houlihan’s urine could very plausibly be explained by her pork consumption the night before, but that the AIU failed to even consider this possibly when subsequently testing her B sample. It was a failure that, per Greene, “undermines the entire anti-doping system.”
Houlihan’s coaches had more. Schumacher, who maintained that neither he nor Houlihan had previously ever heard of nandrolone, said that Houlihan’s conviction had “eroded all the faith he ever had” in the system’s ability to protect clean athletes. WADA, he said, seemed to be fine with “friendly fire casualties” in the war against doping, a position that he would never find tenable. Flanagan echoed the sentiment: “I would rather lose all my medals and wins to dopers than to witness one innocent athlete be robbed of a life that they have earned,” she said. For her part, Houlihan definitively stated that she has never taken performance-enhancing substances and that she felt “betrayed” by the sport to which she had dedicated her life.
It’s difficult to watch the press conference, which was put on by the Nike-sponsored Bowerman Track Club, and not come away with a sense that Houlihan is indeed an innocent victim. Unlike in the aftermath of Alberto Salazar’s suspension and subsequent disbandment of the Nike Oregon Project in 2019, the Bowerman approach at least had the sheen of transparency. Members of the media were invited and encouraged to ask questions. Although they were all reading prepared statements, Houlihan, Flanagan, and Schumacher all came off as sincere in both their sadness and their anger. What’s more, there had been other recent instances where prominent American track and field athletes, namely the 800-meter specialist Ajee Wilson and the long-jumper Jarrion Lawson, had their suspensions overturned after it was shown that meat consumption had resulted in a positive doping test. (After being informed of her suspension, Houlihan said she also passed a polygraph test and submitted a hair sample to prove that there was no build-up of nandrolone in her body, which she argued would have been the case if she had been taking the substance on a regular basis.)
But one could also argue that the extreme pathos of team Bowerman should prompt us to be, if not skeptical, at least somewhat measured in our acceptance of its claims. For years, the club has had the reputation of being the wholesome counterpart to the demon nest that is the NOP; as much as anyone else, I’ve perpetuated the narrative that Bowerman is the club that is doing it the right way. To balance the scale, I’ll say that it’s somewhat surprising to hear Schumacher, coaching genius extraordinaire, say that he’s never heard of nandrolone, when the steroid has played a prominent role in the downfall of superstars like sprinter Marion Jones and Roger “Rocket” Clemens.
Add to that the revelation, first reported by Letsrun, that Houlihan apparently ordered a (beef) carne asada burrito from the food truck, but suspects that she was given something else. Greene told Letsrun that Houlihan recalled her burrito as being “very, very greasy,” but that a private investigator who went to the same food truck had found that the carne asada burrito was “extremely dry,” which led Houlihan’s defense team to conclude that they “didn’t know what she was given” on that fateful night. With that element of uncertainty, it becomes more difficult for Houlihan to prove her innocence, which seems to have been critical. In today’s press release explaining its decision not to exonerate Houlihan, CAS stated that she had “had failed, on the balance of probability, to establish the source of the prohibited substance.”
The counterargument (or, at least, counter sentiment) here is that it should be up to WADA and the AIU to prove Houlihan’s guilt, not the other way around. At one point in the press conference, Greene claims that nandrolone offers no benefit to distance runners, so it’s illogical that Houlihan would intentionally take it. Although there is a record of power sport athletes like Jones, Clemens, or the boxer Tyson Fury being busted for nandrolone, the drug seems far less common among endurance athletes. A prominent exception, however, is the German Dieter Baumann, who won gold in the 5,000-meters at the 1992 Olympics, and was busted for nandrolone seven years later, receiving a two-year ban. (Baumann denied any wrongdoing and would eventually claim that someone had spiked his toothpaste.)
In any event, the merits of the nandrolone-offers-no-benefit argument will likely be given more consideration in the coming days and weeks. Those who are eager to point out the apparent hypocrisy of the American media in its treatment of Houlihan vs. athletes like Rita Jeptoo or Asbel Kiprop, would do well to remember that being busted for nandrolone is a different thing than being busted for EPO, a drug that is far more prevalent in the distance running world. That said, when it comes to the court of public opinion, the jury seems rigged in Houlihan’s favor in a way that doesn’t apply to those foreign athletes whose lives are mostly opaque to the U.S. running commentariat. Until more information is disclosed about what underpinned the AIU decision, and, by extension, CAS’s decision to uphold it, the Bowerman Track Club’s version of events is all we have to go off of.
The result, of course, is the same. Houlihan’s legal team can still try to appeal the CAS decision in a Swiss federal court, but the timeline for that almost certainly precludes Houlihan from taking part in the Trials next week. That’s the real crusher for those who believe that Houlihan is innocent—the knowledge that, when we finally get the whole truth, it will already be too late.