Shelby Houlihan’s Suspension Is a Track & Field Tragedy

By Jonathan Gault
June 15, 2021

If you are a track fan, you have a choice. It is the choice you make anytime you watch a world record get broken. It is the choice you made when you saw Christian Coleman win the World Championship 100-meter title after narrowly avoiding (the first time) a suspension for whereabouts failures. It is the choice you make, every day, consciously or unconsciously, to be excited or cynical, elated or frustrated.

Cycling fans know the feeling. Baseball fans too, more and more each day. But more than any sport, this choice has come to define track & field: do you choose to believe that what you are witnessing is genuine?

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This choice has never been harder to make than in the year 2021. We have the accumulated history of the sport, more than 100 years of race results and doping busts, upon which to consider when evaluating a performance. We have Instagram accounts to scour for any hint of questionable association. And testing is now so sophisticated that we have the ability to detect substances not just on the scale of nanograms (one billionth of a gram), but picograms (one trillionth of a gram). It is a level of sensitivity unimaginable a few decades ago, triggering positive tests that would have previously gone undetected. It is a powerful tool in the war against doping, one that must be wielded carefully.

Today, you have to make that choice about Shelby Houlihan, who announced last night that she has been banned from the sport for four years after testing positive for nandrolone in December 2020. Even before the positive test, you had likely already made that choice about Houlihan, 28, who has run over a second faster than any American woman ever for 1500 meters and over two seconds faster for 5000 meters. Perhaps your choice now is the same. Perhaps it has changed. Or perhaps you’re so frustrated by having to make this damn choice again that you closed the Twitter app on your iPhone, strapped on your running shoes and hit the streets for a hard 10 miles because the only person you can never truly question in this sport is yourself.

In the case of Houlihan, your choices are thus:

Option A

Houlihan won 12 US track titles from 2017-20 (Phil Bond photo)

You believe that the 5 ng/mL of nandrolone, the banned steroid the Athletics Integrity Unit found in Shelby Houlihan’s system in a test conducted on December 15, 2020, were there because she put it there intentionally, or that someone close to her put it there without her knowledge. You believe that the improvements Houlihan made at age 25 in 2018, when she went from finishing in the middle of the pack to outkicking the world’s best runners in Diamond League 1500’s and dropping her pb from 4:03 to 3:57, make a lot more sense now. You believe that it shouldn’t come as a surprise when an athlete whose sponsor, within the past 12 months, has been the subject of both a book and a feature-length documentary detailing a win-at-all costs culture including, but not limited to, the use of performance-enhancing drugs, tests positive for a performance-enhancing drug. You believe that Shelby Houlihan’s coaches, Jerry Schumacher and Shalane Flanagan, were taken in by her story when they issued passionate defenses of their athlete, or else they’re in on it too, because of course they are.

Option B

You believe Shelby Houlihan when she says that the 5 ng/mL of nandrolone came from the pig organs she ingested from the burrito she ate at a Mexican food truck the previous night near her residence in Beaverton, Ore. You believe that the improvement that Houlihan, who was one of the greatest high school runners in Iowa history, has made in the six years since she left Arizona State University, during which she lowered her 1500- and 5000-meter personal bests from 4:09 and 15:49 to 3:54 and 14:23, is the product of natural talent and hard work, logged under the supervision of one of the world’s greatest coaches on one of the world’s greatest running teams. You believe that the tears Houlihan fought back on a media Zoom call while describing how the ability to chase the dreams she has had since she began running as a five-year-old have been ripped away from her are real and not part of a world-class acting performance.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my bosses at LetsRun.com, Robert and Weldon Johnson, it’s to call out bullshit when you see it. If something doesn’t add up, if someone is getting screwed over in our sport, we write about it. It doesn’t always make a difference (though sometimes it does!), but one of the questions that comes up often around here is “What about the sport?” If we don’t like the answer to that question, we usually write something about it.

When it comes to Shelby Houlihan, I choose to believe Option B. Here’s why.

***

Spend enough time covering this sport, in infields, in mixed zones, in post-race watering holes from the Wild Duck in Eugene to Coogan’s (RIP) in New York City and your personal answers to the questions track fans have to ask themselves on a daily basis will eventually come up. I’ve heard plenty of them, from athletes, coaches, agents, my colleagues in the media, and have been known to share my own on occasion. Taken collectively, you get a general sense of how those inside the sport feel about each other.

I would be lying if I said I had never discussed Shelby Houlihan. Houlihan was a good runner in college, an NCAA champion, but when she started winning Diamond Leagues and running 3:54, naturally her name started to pop up. And when it did, the line I’d hear most frequently was some variation of the following: I know how fast she’s running, but I’d still be surprised if she was doping.

(Photo by Talbot Cox)

That opinion was due in part to the respect that many afford her coach, Jerry Schumacher. The consensus view — not the unanimous view, but consensus — is that Schumacher’s group, the Bowerman Track Club, does things the right way. Most of the people I respect in this sport hold that opinion. And I could not help but think of that as I watched Houlihan explain how she had never even heard of nandrolone before receiving the news of her positive test in January. How Schumacher, usually media-shy, delivered a fiery, impassioned critique of 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”) in defending Houlihan’s name. How Shalane Flanagan, her heart breaking, described “living a nightmare that we can’t seem to wake up from.” Again; if this was all an act, a ruse, it was extraordinarily convincing.

Houlihan is, after all, the same woman who last year elected to race in her 2013 Nike Zoom Victorys rather than the latest superspike being pushed on her by the higher-ups at Nike. She wore them because she liked the way they felt and because when she ran fast — like her 14:23 American record in the 5000 meters last July — she did not want there to be any doubt about who was responsible. When a Twitter user posting under the handle @Drugs_win_gold argued a 10-second personal best could only be achieved through the aid of improved footwear or performance-enhancing drugs, Houlihan waded into the comments to defend herself.

“I don’t want people to question what I do,” she told LetsRun last year. “I don’t want someone tweeting like, ‘Oh, is it because she was wearing the shoes?’ I’m just gonna nip that in the bud right now. No, it’s not because I was wearing the shoes. I did that myself.”

If Houlihan truly is a doper, my bullshit detector is broken.

That’s not to say there have never been questions about Schumacher or Bowerman. There always will be when your athletes run that fast, and Matt Hart did report in his book Win At All Costs that Schumacher, just like his banned rival/fellow Nike coach Alberto Salazar, sent his athletes to the now-disgraced Dr. Jeffrey Brown in Houston, where they were diagnosed with thyroid conditions, with Salazar alleging that no fewer than five of Schumacher’s athletes were on thyroid medication. The difference between Schumacher and Salazar, however, is Schumacher, upon noticing the trend, reportedly grew suspicious and, after asking his athletes to seek second opinions, ultimately stopped sending them to Brown.

Why, you might ask, didn’t I write this column defending Asbel Kiprop? Or Cyrus Rutto? Or Daniel Wanjiru? All denied cheating (Kiprop for EPO, Rutto and Wanjiru for Athlete Biological Passport irregularities). If they were innocent, as they claim, their bans are no less outrageous than Houlihan’s. The answer is because I have not covered their careers as closely as Houlihan. I have not interacted with as many people close to them. And because, frankly, Houlihan’s explanation is more plausible than the defense levied by any of those three men.

It is easy to be dismissive. It is easy to be skeptical. Heck, if you’re a track fan, you should be skeptical. Too many stars have fallen through the years. Athletes like Marion Jones and Jemima Sumgong lied, and those lies eroded faith in the sport, making it that much harder to believe innocent athletes. If Houlihan is innocent, then her ban is, as her coach Schumacher put it, a “great tragedy in the history of American distance running.” Unfortunately for Houlihan, there is simply no way to know that with certainty.

Yet there must be a difference between skepticism and blind dogma. Believing that any athlete who tests positive for any amount of any substance must be doping — that any sort of contamination is impossible — is almost as naive as believing that none of them are doping (even if the former is almost certainly closer to the truth). Yet this is the position that the Athletics Integrity Unit, tasked with the difficult, thankless job of catching cheats in our sport, has taken on this sort of case. Three years ago, Jarrion Lawson, an American long jumper, tested positive for .65 ng/mL of trenbolone — a concentration almost eight times smaller than the amount of nandrolone in Houlihan’s sample. Like Houlihan, he claimed the trenbolone was a result of tainted meat. Lawson served almost two years of his four-year ban before he was reinstated by CAS upon appeal, an option Houlihan has already exhausted.

Courtesy Talbot Cox

Distilling Houlihan’s situation to a one-sentence Daily Mail headline (US runner blames BURRITO for four-year doping ban) is a disservice. Facts and circumstances matter.

Yes, nandrolone is a performance-enhancing substance, so it can help a professional athlete who relies on their muscles to propel them forward even if, as her lawyer Paul Greene claims, “it’s not a substance any runner would take.” But it’s also a substance found in certain types of pig organ meat, also known as pork offal, and Greene contends that the levels of nandrolone in Houlihan’s system are consistent with the amount that would be present from consuming a burrito roughly 10 hours earlier.

There is a complicating factor, however. And this is the point where, for many, Houlihan will lose the benefit of the doubt.

“She actually ordered a carne asada burrito [the night before the test],” Greene says. “But based on what she ate, it was very, very greasy. The description of the others who actually ate with her was the same. We don’t know what she was given. But we know that the truck had pork offal in two of the eight burritos they were serving…When we hired the investigator, the carne asada burrito that she typically ordered was extremely dry, no grease at all. And the two [types of] burritos [that] had the offal, they both were very, very greasy.”

Greene believes that pork offal is the only logical source of the nandrolone. If it did not come from the pork, he says, there are two ways it could have entered her body: an injection or via an oral supplement. The AIU conceded that it was not injected. If it had been, traces would still have remained in her system by the time of her next test on January 23 — which she passed. That leaves only the oral supplement, a method Greene says an athlete would have to be “a moron” to employ because, when ingested that way, the nandrolone leaves the body within 24 hours.

“To catch someone taking an oral steroid [and find a concentration] under 15 ng/mL, the window of detection is less than an hour. They couldn’t identify one time it’s ever happened. They kept saying how unlikely it was that she could have eaten boar. It’s more unlikely that they would have caught her this way…You can look at nandrolone cases. All the studies — go read them, they’re all publicly available — it’s all injectables…This was a purely theoretical determination.”

So far, however, we have only heard one side of the argument. When CAS releases its full decision — which could take months — the AIU’s case deserves to be heard as well. Because right now, we can only speculate as to the specific reasons why her appeal was denied.

Here’s what we do know about the CAS hearing. When Jarrion Lawson appealed his case to CAS, there was one key factor that allowed him to win the appeal. Greene — who also represented Lawson — was able to show that one of the AIU’s expert witnesses, Professor Christiane Ayotte, director of the WADA-accredited doping control lab in Montreal, provided false testimony in Lawson’s original AIU appeal.

Houlihan’s sample was tested in Ayotte’s lab. Ayotte was the one who decided to report the result of Houlihan’s test as an adverse analytical finding (i.e. a positive test), rather than an atypical finding (which would have triggered an investigation rather than suspension), as is done in potential food contamination cases. She testified as her own expert witness in Houlihan’s CAS hearing.

A significant part of Houlihan’s defense rested upon the fact that, among the most-tested American track & field athletes, a growing number have tested positive for low levels of a banned substance and have successfully argued their innocence, claiming they ingested contaminated meat/medication. In the last four years, Ajee’ Wilson, Will Claye, and Brenda Martinez have all found themselves in a situation similar to Houlihan. Unlike Houlihan and Lawson, all avoided a suspension and all were cleared because their cases were handled by USADA, rather than the AIU.

Again, there is a choice to make. Were Wilson, Claye, and Martinez — all of whom have won major medals for the United States — cleared because it is in USADA’s interest to protect its best athletes? Or were they cleared because they were genuinely innocent?

USADA CEO Travis Tygart, the bulldog who brought down big names like Salazar and Lance Armstrong, would have you believe it’s the latter.

“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,” Tygart told LetsRun in 2019. “And we really see it as an athlete’s rights issue.”

Indeed, on June 1, WADA announced that the presence of a number of substances common in meat contamination cases — including clenbuterol (the substance Claye tested positive for) and zeranol (the substance Wilson tested positive for) — would trigger an investigation rather than immediate suspension if the concentration in the urine sample was 5 ng/mL or less. Nandrolone, however, was not on that list.

***

Houlihan’s case is significant for a number of reasons. The timing. Houlihan’s status as America’s leading female distance runner. Perhaps most importantly, the impact on a young woman’s life.

A four-year ban is essentially a death sentence for the career of a 28-year-old professional runner. Houlihan may be a superstar, but she is a human being above all. When the Court of Arbitration for Sport handed down its decision last week, the life she knew was ripped to shreds, with no instructions on how to proceed. If you are inclined to believe her, that is a tragedy.

More broadly, the Houlihan case forces members of the track community to re-evaluate those choices we are constantly making. Because those choices, about who to believe in, do not just apply to athletes and their performances. They also apply to the institutions tasked with guarding our sport. If you choose to believe Houlihan is guilty — that she is a cheat worthy of punishment — then you are also choosing to believe the global anti-doping system worked properly in this case. If you choose to believe she is innocent, you are also choosing not to believe in the AIU and WADA, the institutions whose policies and decisions laid the framework for the situation in which Houlihan currently finds herself.

And when I think it all through, when I ask myself “What about the sport?” I do not like the answer. We at LetsRun.com are firmly anti-doping. But just as important as busting cheats — scratch that, it’s more important — is protecting innocent athletes. 

Testing sensitivity is going to continue to improve. These sorts of cases are not going away. The track & field community must choose to believe either that justice is being done or that AIU and WADA are complicit in a broken system in need of overhaul. And if you believe the latter, why would you not scream it from the rooftops as loudly as you screamed for them to catch the cheats?

Talk about this article on the LRC messageboard / fan forum: MB: Big development: Woman who falsely testified in Jarrion Lawson case is one who popped Houlihan. Houlihan ordered carne asada.


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

You can now watch or listen to the full near-hour-long press event where Houlihan’s positive test was announced. We have published it as a 51-minute 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: 

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