Shelby Houlihan Tests Positive for Nandrolone, Banned from Track & Field for Four Years After Her CAS Appeal Is Unsuccessful

Houlihan, 28, will miss Olympic Trials & next two Olympics

June 14, 2021

Shelby Houlihan, the US record holder in the women’s 1500 and 5000 meters, has been suspended from the sport of track and field for four years after testing positive for the banned substance nandrolone, it was announced today in a Zoom call with the media with Houlihan and her Bowerman Track Club coaches Jerry Schumacher and Shalane Flanagan.

Houlihan in happier times

Houlihan was notified of the positive test, which dated from a sample provided to the Athletics Integrity Unit in December 2020, in January and has spent the last five months appealing her case. 

After the AIU informed Houlihan of her positive test, she was provisionally suspended, but the AIU neglected to charge her immediately. Believing herself to be innocent, and with the Olympic Trials looming in June, Houlihan hired a lawyer, Paul Greene, who pressed the AIU to charge her with a violation so that she could appeal her case before the Trials. Rather than go through the regular AIU appeal process, Houlihan’s team requested an emergency hearing from the Court of Arbitration of Sport to resolve the situation before the Trials. On June 11, one week before the Trials were due to start, she was informed by CAS that her appeal was unsuccessful and that her four-year ban had been upheld.

Houlihan’s only remaining course of action is to appeal the decision to the Swiss Federal Tribunal, but that process would take months and require hiring a Swiss lawyer.

Houlihan and her legal team argued that the nandrolone stemmed from pork in a burrito she had consumed the night before the test and provided a receipt and iPhone locator data to back up her explanation. 

“In Shelby’s case, she ate a burrito about 10 hours before [her test] from a Mexican [food truck] that we concluded very, very early on that [the burrito] contained pig organ meat,” Greene said. “Pig organ meat is one of the sources for nandrolone. Ten hours before would have been perfect in terms of the timing of the level that was in Shelby’s system (5 ng/mL), which was an extremely low level.”

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Houlihan also took a polygraph and even had her hair tested by a leading doping expert but none of that swayed CAS. The rationale behind the CAS decision isn’t known yet – only the verdict is out – the rationale is coming later.

Her coach Jerry Schumacher didn’t hold back in ripping the decision. “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’s not OK. It’s not ok to be right 9 times out of 10 when you decide to execute someone’s athletic life and dreams. You don’t deserve this power,” said Schumacher.

Houlihan’s ban will rule her out of the Trials, which are set to begin on Friday in Eugene, Ore., and this year’s Olympics in Tokyo. She will also miss the next two World Championships (in Eugene in 2022 and Budapest in 2023) and the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Shelby Houlihan at USAs in 2020. Phil Bond photo

Houlihan is the latest of a number of high-profile Americans to test positive for low levels of a banned substance and argue that the positive test was the result of contaminated food/medication. But unlike Ajee’ Wilson, Will Claye, and Brenda Martinez, whose cases were presided over by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) — all of whom were cleared and assessed a “no-fault” finding — the Athletics Integrity Unit had jurisdiction in Houlihan’s case. Jarrion Lawson, another prominent American track athlete, also tested positive for a low level of a contaminated substance and, like Houlihan, his case was presided over by the AIU. He was initially handed a four-year ban and served almost two years of it before CAS overturned the decision and cleared his name.

 Here is a brief summary of each of those cases:

  • 2017: The US record holder in the 800 meters, Ajee’ Wilson, tested positive for zeranol but wasn’t suspended after USADA ruled that the zeranol likely stemmed from contaminated meat. 
  • 2018: Jarrion Lawson, the silver medalist in the long jump at the 2017 World Championships, was suspended by the AIU for testing positive for the steroid trenbolone. He was forced to miss almost two years of competition, but was ultimately cleared after a Court of Arbitration for Sport panel overturned his ban. LRC The amazing story of how Jarrion Lawson cleared himself: He showed the head of a WADA lab provided false testimony against him 
  • 2018: Will Claye, a three-time Olympic medalist in the long/triple jump, tested positive for clenbuterol but avoided a suspension after USADA believed his explanation of eating contaminated meat.
  • 2020: Brenda Martinez, the 2013 World Championship silver medalist in the 800 meters, tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic which can be used as a masking agent. USADA issued a no-fault finding and Martinez avoided a ban after she proved the hydrochlorothiazide stemmed from a contaminated antidepressant medication she was taking. 

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 in a prepared statement.

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.”

The Houlihan news capped an awful day for the Bowerman Track Club, as just minutes before her announcement, seven-time US steeple champion and 2016 Olympic silver medalist Evan Jager announced he will not be competing at the Trials.

*Read Shelby Houlihan’s statement *Watch it here
*Read Bowerman TC head coach Jerry Schumacher’s statement *Watch it here
*Read Bowerman TC assistant coach Shalane Flanagan’s statement *Watch it here

Quick Take: The timing for Houlihan could not have been worse

Normally a first doping ban costs you one Olympics. Because of COVID-19 and the three-year gap between the 2020 and 2024 Olympics, Houlihan will now miss two.

Even if she is ultimately cleared by the Swiss Federal Tribunal, which is a really long shot, she will miss her best shot at an Olympic medal. At 28, and coming off three terrific years, Houlihan is in her absolute prime. Even if she somehow manages to get her ban overturned and make it back for Eugene 2022, she will never be able to get this year back. She could still medal in 2024, but her chances at age 31 will be smaller than they were at age 28.

Moreover, things were lining up in 2021 for Houlihan to earn her first Olympic/World Championship medal. Houlihan finished 4th in the 2019 World Championships in the 1500 in an American record of 3:54.99. One of the women who beat her in that race, world champion Sifan Hassan, looks likely to skip the 1500 in Tokyo in favor of the 5k/10k double. The bronze medalist in that race, Gudaf Tsegay, ran the 5000 meters at the Ethiopian Trials and may not be running the 1500 at the Olympics either. The stars were aligning for Houlihan to earn a medal, possibly gold.

She just might be the best 1500m runner in the world this year, but we will never get the opportunity to find out,” her coach Jerry Schumacher said. “And that’s a tragedy.”

And if Houlihan’s ban is not overturned, she will have missed the four most valuable years of her career: a span with two Olympics and two World Championships, one of which will be contested on home soil.

Of course, if you believe Houlihan is guilty, you would argue the timing could not have been better.

Quick Take: Whether you believe Houlihan, Wilson and/or Lawson or whether you don’t, the system needs to change

If the US food supply is tainted, then WADA and the AIU need to change the level needed to trigger a positive test or mandate that athletes not eat certain foods — or tell them if they do eat those foods and test positive, they are out of luck. What we have going on right now isn’t good for anyone. We can’t have the stars of the sport testing positive and then sometimes getting banned and sometimes not.

If you believe the athletes, then three different athletes did the same thing — went out to eat and had three different results. One missed no time (Ajee Wilson), one basically lost two years (Jarrion Lawson) and one seems poised to miss four.

We are certain of one thing, having people test positive and then be forced to put their careers on hold for months/years only to clear them later as was the case with Lawson is terribly unfair.

Related: JG Column: Shelby Houlihan’s Suspension Is a Track & Field Tragedy Either Houlihan is lying, and today is a victory for clean sport. Or her case exposes fissures in an anti-doping system in need of overhaul. Jonathan Gault knows which one he believes. Plus Gault reveals two huge facts that weren’t previously known that work in opposite directions. 1) Christiane Ayotte, who was proven to have provided false testimony in the Jarrion Lawson case, was the one who labeled Houlihan’s test as a positive. 2) Houlihan didn’t actually order a pork burrito  – she ordered carne asada. * MB: Big development: Woman who falsely testified in Jarrion Lawson case is one who popped Houlihan. Houlihan ordered carne asada.

You can now watch or listen to the full near-hour-long press event. We have published it as a podcast here. Watch the zoom here. Or you can listen to it in podcast form here.

Talk about the Houlihan ban in our world famous fan forum/messageboard: 

LRC Note: The paragraph about the decision not being out as well as Jerry Schumacher’s quote was added a few hours after publication.

Related: LRC The amazing story of how Jarrion Lawson cleared himself: He showed the head of a WADA lab provided false testimony against him 

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