US Runner Shelby Houlihan Gets Four-Year Doping Ban Days Before Olympic Trials; She Blames Pork Burrito

By Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
June 15, 2021 Updated: June 15, 2021

By Dennis Young
From New York Daily News

Shelby Houlihan, the American record holder at 1,500 and 5,000 meters, hadn’t raced since December of last year. With the Olympic Trials less than a week away, it was a mystifying absence.

Monday night, she explained it: She had been fighting a suspension for a positive steroid test.

Houlihan and her coaches offered a passionate defense Monday night, saying that they believed the test was caused by pork offal (organs) in a burrito she ate in December, the night before the positive test.

“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,” she said Monday night. “I want to be very clear. I have never taken any performance enhancing substances.”

Houlihan and her team said that they had lost their case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Friday and that she was banned from track and field for four years.

The suspension knocks the 28-year-old Houlihan out of next week’s Olympic Trials, where she would have been a prohibitive favorite to make her second Olympic team. She finished fourth in the 1,500 meters at the last track world championships in 2019.

On its face, the defense might sound silly, but several top American athletes have mounted persuasive cases in recent years that their positive tests were caused by contaminated beef or prescription medications. That isn’t quite what Houlihan is arguing, though. “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,” she wrote. “I notified the (Athletics Integrity Unit) that I believed this was the source.”

At least one study has tied pork consumption to positive tests for nandrolone.

Most recently, 800-meter runner Brenda Martinez narrowly avoided a suspension after successfully making the case that her positive test was caused by an anti-depressant. Runner Ajee’ Wilson and jumpers Jarrion Lawson and Will Claye were tagged for what everyone involved agreed were positive tests caused by tainted beef; they eventually were cleared in their cases.

Houlihan’s coach, Jerry Schumacher of Nike’s Bowerman Track Club, has long positioned himself as a clean coach, privately and publicly calling for vigorous drug testing. He ripped track’s governing bodies in a statement Monday night.

“What I’ve learned has eroded all the faith I had in their ability to fairly serve and protect clean athletes,” he wrote.

“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.”

Innocent people getting swept up in heavy-handed enforcement is the inevitable outcome of any war on drugs anywhere, something Schumacher has a hard time squaring in his statement.

“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 …. 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.”

Tellingly, U.S. anti-doping head Travis Tygart—someone who has doggedly pursued doping cases—has been ripping the World Anti-Doping Agency over situations like this for years. “We’ve had dozens of cases where athletes are dealing with low-level positives caused by meat contamination or intimacy with a partner, multivitamin, mineral or supplement contamination,” he said when an Australian swimmer was suspended earlier this year. “The only question is going to be how many innocent athletes are railroaded before the rules finally change?”

In her statement, Houlihan wrote that she had her hair tested and “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. … Instead, they simply concluded that I was a cheater and that a steroid was ingested orally, but not regularly.”

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