A Life On Pause: Jarrion Lawson’s Career Hangs In The Balance As He Fights His Four-Year Doping Ban — And The Global Anti-Doping System
How do you prove something you ate over a year ago was contaminated with a substance banned for athletes — but not for cattle? That’s what Lawson, who in 2016 joined Jesse Owens as the only men in history to win the 100 meters, 200 meters, and long jump at the NCAA championship and came inches shy of Olympic gold, must do to prove his innocence and save his career.
Three years ago, Jarrion Lawson did something only Jesse Owens had ever done. Now he’s banned from track & field, his career in jeopardy because of something he says was out of his control.
By Jonathan Gault
August 19, 2019
Update: On March 6, 2020, it was announced that the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) ruled Jarrion Lawson was cleared to compete.
So it’s come to this. Jarrion Lawson‘s athletic career depends on whether he can establish, with actual evidence, three things.
1) At some point last year, a cow was injected with trenbolone — a substance perfectly legal for cows in the United States, but banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency globally.
2) The injection occurred somewhere other than the ear.
3) On June 1, 2018, at a Japanese steakhouse in Arkansas, Lawson subsequently ate a meal that included meat from that cow.
Lawson must do this in order to convince a three-person panel at the Court of Arbitration of Sport that he is not a cheat and that the trace amounts of epitrenbolone, a trenbolone metabolite, that were found in his urine in June 2018 arrived there by accidental, rather than intentional means. If he cannot, he will have to serve out the remainder of the four-year ban he received last year from the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) — the IAAF’s anti-doping arm — that is set to expire in August 2022. The career of one of the world’s best long jumpers is on the line.
A four-year ban isn’t a death sentence, but it’s close to it.
“[The] career path he was on [would] definitely [be] over,” says Paul Doyle, Lawson’s agent. “Because he’ll lose all his sponsors. When he comes back from his four-year ban, he won’t get sponsors. It’s catastrophic.”
That path was one of immense promise. As a senior at Arkansas in 2016, Lawson joined Jesse Owens as the only men in history to win the 100 meters, 200 meters, and long jump at the NCAA championships. Later that summer, he appeared to have jumped far enough for Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro, only for his fingers to brush the pit upon landing, keeping him in fourth place, just four centimeters shy of a medal. In his first full year as a professional in 2017, Lawson earned the silver medal in the long jump at the World Championships in London.
Now 25, Lawson is in his athletic prime. He still practices daily from 12-2 p.m. at his training base in Knoxville, Tenn., occasionally running hills with Kali, Skye, and Beacon, his three American Bullies. But he no longer enjoys the life of a professional track star. His sponsor, Asics, suspended his contract once his provisional suspension was announced last year. Trips to places like Melbourne, Osaka, and Rabat for competitions have been replaced by trips to the local bowling alley.
Lawson admits that, as his case has dragged on, it’s become harder to stay motivated chasing dreams he may not have the opportunity to realize. He thought he would be cleared by now. He expected to be at the USATF Outdoor Championships in Des Moines last month. That didn’t happen. He expected to be at the IAAF World Championships in Doha next month. That won’t happen, either. Yet he returns to the track every day.
“Practice is the only thing I have right now that is connecting me to the track,” Lawson says. “And so therefore, it’s not hard to practice at all. Being on the track is something I’ve loved doing since I was a little kid. So every little bit of it I can get, I’ll take the opportunity.”
Jarrion Lawson says he first heard the word trenbolone on August 3, 2018, when he received an email from the AIU informing him of his provisional suspension. An anabolic steroid commonly used to promote muscle growth in cattle (while it’s legal for use in cows in the United States, it’s outlawed in Europe), trenbolone gained infamy as one of the three ingredients in the doping cocktail that Grigory Rodchenkov administered to Russian athletes during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
After opening the email, he called Doyle, who was on a bike ride with his family. Doyle stopped pedaling, pulled out his phone, and started googling.
“You see a lot of really scary information,” Doyle says. “There’s this one article that shows that trenbolone is given to cattle in America, they urinate it out onto the ground, that gets washed into the streams and rivers and lakes, and it’s actually changing the gender of fish.”
Lawson and Doyle began scrambling to figure out how the trenbolone could have entered Lawson’s system. The positive test had been conducted out of competition early on the morning of June 2, 2018, at Lawson’s house in Springdale, Ark., where he was living at the time. Lawson quickly ruled out a contaminated supplement — he says he has never taken any sort of supplement. He then began thinking back to what he ate leading up to the test. Lawson combed through credit card statements and text messages and determined that most likely source of the trenbolone was a teriyaki beef bowl that he had eaten at a Japanese steakhouse in Fayetteville, for lunch on June 1, less than 24 hours before he was tested.
According to Lawson’s appeal hearing with the AIU, the restaurant provided the original receipt from Lawson’s meal, proving he had indeed eaten a teriyaki beef bowl there on June 1, a picture of the packaged meat received by the restaurant from supplier National Beef*, and an affidavit from one of the restaurant’s owners that the meat in the bowl was New York strip steak sourced by Performance Food Group. LetsRun.com reached out to Performance Food Group for this story but they did not respond.
*UPDATE: Three days after this story was published, National Beef responded. A spokesman wrote it “is very difficult to definitively link the portion served in a restaurant back to a specific packer/supplier” and that “much more detail would need to be provided to make the claim that National Beef was the supplier in this instance.” National Beef also stressed that they do not feed cattle but purchase cattle from approved suppliers which “must meet regulatory requirements, including stated label withdraw periods of any approved additives, drugs and implants prior to selling their cattle to packer/processors.” Furthermore, National Beef wrote that “all product produced by National Beef must benefit from inspection to receive the USDA inspection bug and qualify for sale for human consumption.”
Paragraph 35 (i) of Lawson’s appeal states that “it is undisputed the Athlete ate non-organic beef sourced from the National Beef Packing Company on June 1, 2018.”
National Beef’s full statement can be found here.
IAAF Anti-Doping Rule 10.4 allows an athlete’s suspension to be lifted if the athlete can prove that they bear no fault or negligence for the anti-doping rule violation. That is the explanation that Lawson and his lawyer, Paul Greene, provided to the AIU on September 7 of last year — the epitrenbolone was in his system because of the beef he had eaten the day before. But that wasn’t enough for the AIU.
To ban Lawson, the AIU required nothing more than the presence of a prohibited substance — and both sides admit that trace amounts of epitrenbolone were present in both Lawson’s A and B samples. That was all the evidence the AIU had that Lawson cheated, but under the WADA Code, it sufficed.
“There’s absolutely no other evidence whatsoever, just that 0.65 nanograms [per mL of epitrenbolone in his urine sample],” Doyle says. “They didn’t [look at his blood profiles]. And that’s one thing we’re trying to get and that’s something that we’re going to be looking at and showing as more evidence that he didn’t cheat.”
To overturn the ban, Lawson had to establish that it was “more likely than not” — i.e., more than 50% — that he ingested the prohibited substance unintentionally. And to do that, the AIU required that Lawson provide “actual evidence” that established the source of the contaminated meat and “demonstrate[d] that the suggested source produced the concentration of the substance detected in his sample.”
This meant Lawson and his team faced a virtually impossible task. On December 10, over three months after Lawson provided his explanation and over six months after his June 2 test, the AIU asked for that evidence — purchase orders, invoices, receipts, delivery notes, stock inventories, refrigeration records, storage records. Anything from the Japanese restaurant that could show that the meat in Lawson’s teriyaki beef bowl may have come from contaminated stock.
According to Lawson’s appeal hearing, “the restaurant replied that it did not have any of the requested records and, in any event, would not produce them without a subpoena” (Performance Food Group was also not prepared to assist without a subpoena). Doyle said Greene believes a subpoena would be unobtainable in both cases. And even with that evidence, it would still have been difficult to prove Lawson’s innocence.
Doyle says that, had the AIU responded faster, they may have been able to track some of those records down. Lawson’s sample was collected on June 2. It was then transported to a lab at UCLA, where it was analyzed on June 14, revealing the presence of epitrenbolone. Lawson was not notified of his positive test until 50 days later on August 3 — during which time he competed at four meets, including the USATF Outdoor Championships and two Diamond Leagues.
“That’s inexplicable, and it’s negligent,” Doyle says. “If he was ever going to have a chance to prove the source of this, he would have had to know right away. In their own rules (specifically, IAAF Anti-Doping Rule 7.3.3), it says the IAAF will ‘promptly notify’ the athlete of an Adverse Analytical Finding. I don’t think there’s any soul in the world that would say  days is promptly notifying.”
LetsRun.com reached out to the AIU for an explanation; the AIU said it does not comment on ongoing cases (Lawson’s case is considered ongoing because he is currently appealing to CAS).
Lawson is not the first athlete to test positive for a prohibited substance and blame it on contaminated meat. Among skeptics in track & field circles, that explanation generally produces the same reaction: Yeah, right. Doyle was once one of them.
“I thought it was bullshit most of the time,” Doyle says. “But I wasn’t educated on it, either.”
Lawson’s positive test caused Doyle to re-evaluate his position. He could have abandoned his client, but he felt he knew the man, knew his character. He didn’t believe Lawson would ever intentionally dope. So he stuck by him and chose to help Lawson fight the case.
Once the news broke, Lawson says he received messages of support from fellow jumpers telling him they didn’t believe he would cheat and they hoped that his name will eventually be cleared.
In a statement to LetsRun.com, Travis Geopfert, Lawson’s coach both at Arkansas and now as a professional, wrote: “I think the world of Jarrion Lawson. In my seven years of interactions with him, he’s proven to be a fantastic young man in the classroom, in society, and in sport…I’m hopeful the appeal process moves quickly and the facts brought forth promote change in WADA and the newly-formed AIU’s testing and procedures.”
2016 World Indoor champion Marquis Dendy, a collegiate rival of Lawson’s while at Florida who fondly remembers competing against Lawson at the 2016 Olympic Trials — one of the greatest long jump competitions in history — says he was “distraught” when he heard about Lawson’s positive test.
“I don’t believe he was going out there taking steroids, I don’t believe that at all,” Dendy says. “When I initially first saw it, it didn’t say much about eating something. It just gave out what [the substance] was. In my head, I just [thought], ‘This has to be a mistake.'”
Danish jumper Andreas Trajkovski, a former teammate and training partner of Lawson’s at Arkansas, echoes Dendy’s comments.
“When I dig more into it, I was like, ‘Nah, that can’t be true,'” Trajkovski says. “I know Jarrion wouldn’t do such things. From the bottom of my heart, I know that for sure. I think it was a mistake, it came from the beef.”
In fact, Lawson said that he hasn’t personally heard any negative comments from anyone in the jumps community. But he knows they’re out there.
Trajkovski said that after the news broke, another athlete approached him at his training track in Copenhagen and told him, “Your former teammate is taking drugs now.” Lawson said the lowest point for him came in May 2019, when the AIU formally rejected his appeal. It wasn’t just that his four-year ban had been upheld; it was that the AIU had officially labeled him a cheat.
“I felt the public humiliation, just putting it out in the open and knowing that you’re innocent but other stuff is being said,” Lawson says.
Even if Lawson is eventually cleared, his association with PEDs will always linger. After his IAAF bio and Wikipedia page, the first Google result for his name reads “Jarrion Lawson handed four-year ban.”
“It’s not really about the people in the track world,” Lawson says. “I feel like it’s about people who have never heard of me or they’ve never watched me compete. And obviously they don’t know my story and so therefore, that’s someone who automatically associates my name with what was put out there. People can read things wrong, all they see is my name and steroids, and therefore that association is made. Once it’s out there, it’s out there.”
Ajee’ Wilson and Will Claye are two athletes who know that feeling. In 2017, Wilson, a 10-time US champion and the American record holder in the 800 meters, tested positive for a substance called zeranol. A year later, Claye, a three-time Olympic medalist across the long and triple jump, tested positive for clenbuterol. Like trenbolone, both zeranol and clenbuterol are drugs that can be administered to animals destined for food production. And like Lawson, both Wilson and Claye argued that their positive samples were the result of contaminated meat (it’s also worth noting that, according to Doyle, National Beef was the supplier in the case of both Wilson and Lawson).
Unlike Lawson, however, Wilson and Claye were both cleared and faced no suspension. One key factor: in both Wilson and Claye’s cases, the United State Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) held jurisdiction — not the AIU, as in Lawson’s case.
Doyle says that he is vehemently against doping, and that he respects what anti-doping bodies such as the AIU try to do.
“They’ve got a really hard job,” Doyle says. “There’s no question about it. Cheaters always seem to be a step ahead of them.”
He also believes they could be doing that job better.
“I think a lot of these anti-doping agencies are fine with having these inadvertent positive tests because it sort of gives the indication that they’re doing their job,” Doyle says. “In reality, they’re not. They’re not catching the hard cheaters and the synthetic steroid users and that sort of thing, they’re catching people who are either stupid or unlucky and took something that was contaminated or took something they didn’t know was banned, those sorts of things. I wouldn’t call them innocent, but inadvertent positives. And they like that because it gives them justification to exist.”
USADA CEO Travis Tygart is aware of that reputation, and he wants it to change.
“Our saying around here is, ‘We’re gonna work as hard to exonerate the innocent as we do to convict the intentional cheater,’” Tygart says.
That approach perhaps explains why USADA cleared Wilson and Claye.
Tygart declined to comment on Lawson’s case specifically, but said that USADA is trying to effect change with WADA that would see positive tests in very specific circumstances — extremely low levels of a substance that could be found in contaminated meat, water, supplements, or medication — trigger an investigation, rather than an automatic ban. In May 2019, WADA adopted that policy for clenbuterol, but Tygart says he would like to see it extended to a handful of other substances.
Lawson’s case would fit this criteria. Trenbolone, because of its use in the US beef industry, is one of the substances that would be included in Tygart’s proposal. And the levels of epitrenbolone found in Lawson’s sample were minute — .65 ng/mL in his A sample, .80 ng/mL in his B sample (for reference, .65 ng is 1/90,000th the weight of a grain of salt; when Wilson tested positive, she had 8 ng/ml of zeranol in her sample).
Under Tygart’s proposal, once an investigation begins for a violation such as this, where the level of the substance is minute (1 ng/mL or less, or wherever WADA eventually sets the limit), it could potentially proceed in one of two ways: 1) the burden remains on the athlete to prove that they ingested the substance unintentionally, but they would face only a six-month ban as opposed to four years; or 2) the ban remains four years, but the burden of proof shifts to the anti-doping agency, which would have to provide more evidence of intentional cheating beyond an extremely low-level positive.
In both situations, the goal is the same: ensure that genuine inadvertent positive tests are not unfairly punishing clean athletes.
“We firmly believe the system has to treat innocent, inadvertent positives with fairness,” Tygart says. “And we should be very strict, and obviously firm against intentional cheats. But a single drug test of a very, very low level for a substance that can be found in meat for example, or we know is coming through supplements or we know is coming through water or prescription medication contamination, to treat them, based on one fact — a low-level positive — the same as an intentional cheat that you have a bunch of evidence on and a scheme to beat the system, that system is just, in our opinion, not a fair one and is not one that can be sustained in the long term. And we really see it as an athlete’s rights issue.”
Tygart doesn’t believe that all low-level positives are necessarily indicative of inadvertent use; they could also represent the tail end of intentional use. But a single test is just one snapshot, and if that is the only evidence in a case, it can be impossible to differentiate between the two scenarios.
Also relevant: testing capabilities are constantly improving. Tygart says that he’s talked to lab directors that have reported a thousand-fold lower level of detection for certain substances over the past decade — “an awesome development that ought to be encouraged.”
But, as in any industry, improved technology can lead to complications. For one, not all labs can detect at the same level of sensitivity.
“If [Lawson] had given a sample in Morocco, the exact same urine sample, it would have come back as clean,” Doyle says. “Because the lab in Morocco can’t read below 5 ng/mL.”
Better detection technology also means that, while the labs should catch more intentional cheats, they’ll also catch more unintentional cheats. And that’s what Tygart is most concerned with.
“The rule needs to catch up to that innovation and that technological development to ensure that the application of the rules are as fair as they possibly can be,” Tygart says.
In April, the AIU appointed a panel to hear Lawson’s appeal in New York. Without the restaurant records, he could not prove the exact source of supposedly contaminated meat that he ingested. So his team relied on other means. They showed the results of a hair test conducted in August 2018 that proved Lawson is not a habitual user of trenbolone (regular use would show up in a hair sample). They called on Dr. Helmut Zarbl, the same Rutgers University toxicology expert who helped clear Ajee’ Wilson, as an expert witness; Zarbl concluded that Lawson’s use of trenbolone was unintentional. And they pointed to recent trenbolone positives from professional tennis player Marcela Zacarias Valle and 90-year-old cyclist Carl Grove — both of whom tested positive for a similar concentration as Lawson and faced no sanction after citing contaminated meat as the cause.
One by one, the panel struck those explanations down. Lack of habitual use does not preclude a single, intentional use. Zarbl’s testimony was criticized for a lack of objectivity — panel chairman Michael Beloff wrote that Zarbl “did not allow the science to speak for itself” (Zarbl declined to be interviewed for this story). And the Valle and Grove cases shared one key fact that Lawson lacked. Both Valle and Grove had tested negative within days of their positive test (Valle, three days earlier; Grove, one day earlier), suggesting contamination rather than the tail end of intentional use. Lawson’s last test before his positive test came on April 11, 2018 — 52 days earlier.
Lawson’s case ultimately came down to the intricacies of the American beef system. In the United States, trenbolone implants are supposed to be placed in the ear, which is later removed during the harvest process. Both parties agreed that only when the implant is injected incorrectly — i.e. directly into the muscle from which the meat is taken — can it produce a high enough concentration of trenbolone in the meat to trigger a positive test.
The IAAF, based on expert testimony from Christiane Ayotte, director of the WADA-accredited Doping Control Laboratory in Montreal, and Brad Johnson, the Gordon W. Davis Regent’s Chair in Meat and Muscle Biology at Texas Tech University, argued that such a scenario would not be possible. Johnson pointed out that, during the implanting process, the cow’s head is held in place by a restraining device that prevents access to the back of the cow. He also argued that, even if an improper injection occurred, the scabs and legions from such an injection would have been discovered once the meat was inspected, either at the slaughterhouse, the distributor’s, the butcher’s, or the restaurant itself.
Lawson’s team argued that an improper injection could have occurred in this case, just as it was accepted (by USADA) to have occurred in the Grove case (Valle’s case was slightly different as it took place in Mexico, where quality controls during beef production are less stringent). But finding evidence to estimate how frequently such a scenario occurs has been difficult. Zarbl cited a 2000 article from Feedlot magazine that said there is an eight percent defect rate with implants, but the article made no mention of how frequently the defect was due to placing the implant in the wrong part of the body. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services, which monitors levels of residues in US meats, stopped testing for trenbolone in 2009, according to Johnson.
The panel accepted that, despite Johnson’s testimony, “the placement of an implant directly into the muscle could occur, even if it would be contrary to industry regulations.” But it wanted evidence that such a scenario was “probable, not that it is possible.” With no records from the restaurant and no way of tracking down the cow that provided the meat for his teriyaki beef bowl six months after the fact, Lawson and his team could not supply that evidence. The panel upheld his ban.
Lawson isn’t done fighting. He has appealed the panel’s decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport; a hearing is set for November. In the meantime, Lawson, Doyle, and Greene have been trying to find any extra evidence they can to prove Lawson’s innocence. Doyle says they’ve had some success in that regard, but, because the case is still ongoing, he was advised by Greene (who declined to be interviewed for this story for the same reason) not to share specifics.
No matter how Lawson’s case is resolved, however, Doyle believes that change must come to the global anti-doping system. Without that change, Doyle says, clean athletes will continue to be banned in cases of unintentional ingestion. And not all of them will have the same resources as Lawson to fight those bans.
“I think WADA should be liable in this situation because they put athletes under an impossible standard,” Doyle says. “They know that these type of things are possible to happen yet they demand that the athlete be able to prove it in order to secure their innocence.”
Doyle believes it’s not just WADA that needs to change. He says that, prior to the hearing, the IAAF seriously considered dropping the case against Lawson and finding him with no fault, believing it would lose upon appeal. Ultimately the IAAF decided against it; according to Doyle, the IAAF felt it needed to show that athletes can successfully appeal against the system.
“To me, that’s so wrong,” Doyle says, the frustration bleeding through his voice. “We’re not talking about winning or losing in this situation. We’re talking about what’s actually happened. Let’s uncover the truth and make a decision based on the truth. It’s not winning or losing. In my opinion, they’ve really lost right now because they’re currently banning a clean athlete.”
Ross Wenzel, the lawyer representing the IAAF in the case, disputes Doyle’s version of events. In a statement to LetsRun.com, Wenzel wrote that Doyle’s statement that the IAAF considered dropping the case against Lawson and that the IAAF proceeded with it to show that athletes can successfully appeal is “completely inaccurate and misleading.” Wenzel declined to answer further questions due to the ongoing nature of the case.
What is indisputable: Lawson must now defeat the IAAF in court if he is to return to competition before August 2022. He remains surprisingly even-keeled for someone whose athletic career hangs in the balance. He’s confident that he’ll be cleared.
“I think we will find a way to show the panel that I’m not a doper,” Lawson says. “I don’t take steroids, I barely know what they are.”
And if the CAS appeal fails? Lawson hasn’t thought that far ahead, but he believes he will be okay, no matter what happens. He has his degree from Arkansas, in exercise science, and is six hours shy of his MBA.
“Life,” he says, “would continue.”
Right now, though, it’s as if Lawson’s life is on pause. He has no job and no income, relying on the money from his initial Asics contract to cover his living expenses and significant legal fees, which run well into the five figures (it could reach six by the time his CAS appeal is over). He tries to avoid eating beef, paranoid that it could trigger another positive (he’s still tested regularly, most recently in June). And he’s still at the track every day, training for a meet that may never come.
It has been 393 days since Lawson has competed, 393 valuable days of a career he has lost because of a substance he says he never knowingly took. Barring a reversal, he has another 1,080 days of his ban to serve. The World Championships will come and go without him this fall. But Lawson refuses to lose hope.
“I know I’m innocent,” Lawson says. “There is always a case to be made for the innocent.”
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Editor’s note: After publication, we removed the name of the Japanese restaurant where Lawson ate on June 1. Lawson signed an agreement with the restaurant in return for limited cooperation saying that they would not be publicly named as they fear a potential loss in business.