Five Thoughts on the Shelby Houlihan CAS Decision: Why She Was Banned, Why Her Explanation Was Rejected, And Where Does She Go From Here?
By Jonathan Gault
September 2, 2021
Eleven weeks ago, the Court of Arbitration of Sport announced it had upheld the Athletics Integrity Unit’s four-year ban of American women’s 1500- and 5000-meter record holder Shelby Houlihan, who tested positive for the steroid nandrolone in December 2020. On Wednesday, the CAS released the much-anticipated full 44-page decision outlining its logic for upholding the ban.
The panel, which consisted of Danish law professor Jens Evald, Swiss law professor Dr. Ulrich Haas, and Canadian attorney Janie Soubliere, was unconvinced by Houlihan’s explanation that the nandrolone entered her system via a contaminated pork burrito that contained organ meat (offal) from an uncastrated pig (boar). The AIU offered two expert witnesses: John McGlone, a professor in the Animal Welfare department at Texas Tech University; and Christiane Ayotte, the director of the WADA-accredited lab in Montreal that handled Houlihan’s sample (and co-author of a key study on nandrolone levels in urine following boar consumption).
McGlone explained that there was a “near-zero chance” that a boar with nandrolone levels high enough to trigger a positive test could enter the normal pork supply chain, while Ayotte explained how the data from Houlihan’s specific sample could only come from exogenous nandrolone — i.e. from a source other than boar meat.
“A meal of pork meat (even assuming it was boar) could not have caused the finding (based on both the concentration of [nandrolone] and the carbon isotope signature),” the panel wrote of Ayotte’s findings.
Houlihan’s team presented its own expert witnesses to rebut those findings, as well as character witnesses in the form of Houlihan’s Bowerman Track Club teammates Courtney Frerichs and Karissa Schweizer and her then-boyfriend, 2016 Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz.
While the CAS panel described Houlihan as a “credible witness” and concluded it was possible (but unlikely) that Houlihan’s burrito contained boar offal, and possible (but not probable) that ingesting boar offal could have led to the concentration of nandrolone in her drug sample, it largely sided with the evidence of McGlone and Ayotte. And because the burden was on Houlihan to show that her explanation was correct “on the balance of probabilities” (more than 50%), the panel felt she had not cleared that bar and upheld her ban.
So did anything change? Here are the biggest takeaways and questions after reading the decision, which you can view in its entirety here.
1) This decision doesn’t change much — and it does nothing to bolster Houlihan’s case.
The CAS decision outlined, in detail, why Houlihan was banned. But in terms of the big picture, we did not learn much more than we already knew back in June based on the explanation of the case from Houlihan and her team. We knew that Houlihan tried to explain that the nandrolone in her system was present because she ate a burrito that contained boar offal. And we knew that CAS rejected that explanation because it relied on a confluence of unlikely factors. None of that changed with Wednesday’s decision, but we did get to see the specific evidence the CAS relied upon to make its decision.
In terms of setup, Houlihan’s CAS appeal was very similar to the Jarrion Lawson’s CAS appeal in his trenbolone case last year. Lawson and Houlihan used the same lawyer (Paul Greene), the same explanation (contaminated meat). And the AIU used very similar expert witnesses: Ayotte was an expert witness in both cases, while the other expert witness in each case was a professor at Texas Tech (McGlone in the Houlihan case, Brad Johnson of the Meat Science & Muscle Biology department in the Lawson case).
The verdicts in the two cases were obviously completely different. The Lawson case turned when Greene was able to show that Ayotte provided false testimony about the concentration of trenbolone in doping cases. But there was no major revelation like that in Wednesday’s decision. The fact that Ayotte provided false testimony in the Lawson case was never addressed in the CAS decision of the Houlihan case.
Greene’s main argument in the decision is exactly what he explained when Houlihan’s initial ban was announced: they asked the lab to perform an extra test that Greene believed could have helped to clear Houlihan, but the lab refused. The CAS panel agreed with Ayotte — the director of the lab — when she said that Houlihan’s initial test was enough to confirm her guilt. Let’s take a closer look at that…
2) Houlihan’s camp wanted an extra test performed on her sample. The CAS panel agreed with the AIU, who said it wasn’t required.
Houlihan’s biggest argument was that the lab analyzing her sample neglected to conduct a key test that could have helped to prove her innocence. The test that was used to convict Houlihan is known as a gas chromatography combustion isotope ratio mass spectrometry test (GC/C/IRMS). One of the things that test does is tell whether the nandrolone in a urine sample is endogenous (from an animal source, such as boar meat) or exogenous (from a non-animal source, such as a synthetic supplement).
However, WADA has a 10-page Technical Document explaining how to handle nandrolone cases, and one of the points in that document is that, in certain situations, the GC/C/IRMS test is not always reliable. The document states that if an athlete invokes boar offal as an explanation, has a concentration of nandrolone below 10 ng/mL in their sample, and a delta delta value between -15 and -25 ‰, the lab may conduct what is known as a pharmacokinetics study to determine whether the nandrolone is exogenous or endogenous.
Christiane Ayotte, the director of the Montreal lab that analyzed the sample, did not conduct the pharmacokinetics study even though all three conditions above were met. Her expert opinion was that the numbers in Houlihan’s sample proved that the nandrolone had to be exogenous. Specifically, Ayotte pointed out that Houlihan’s carbon isotopic signature of 19-NA at -23‰ was “extremely unlikely to have come from the consumption of a farm animal raised in North America” — though Houlihan’s lawyer Paul Greene noted to LetsRun.com that one of the subjects in the study she relied on to make this claim came very close, at -22.46‰. Ayotte also added that the carbon isotopic signature of oral supplements of nandrolone precursors are typically -23‰ — matching Houlihan’s sample.
There was a lot of debate about whether the Montreal lab should have followed the 2019 Technical Documents or the 2021 Technical Documents, but the CAS panel ultimately decided it didn’t really matter. And the AIU defended Ayotte by saying that even if a lab “should” seek a second opinion and pursue the pharmacokinetics study, it is not obligated to — “should” is not the same as “must.”
The key thing to know here is if the lab conducts the pharmacokinetics study, it can no longer immediately charge Houlihan with an anti-doping rule violation (and this is obviously a major reason why Houlihan’s team wanted it to be done). If the lab chooses to rely on the results of the pharmacokinetics study, it can either issue a negative finding (in which Houlihan is cleared) or an atypical finding (which would require further investigation before Houlihan could be charged). But if the lab relies only on the results of the GC/C/IRMS test — which is what happened in Houlihan’s case — then it can register an adverse analytical finding and charge Houlihan with an anti-doping rule violation.
This article, from an anonymous author named “Twoggle” does a good job of explaining it all. Seriously — if you have some time, read the article and you’ll get a better understanding of why Houlihan’s team feel they got screwed. WADA itself admits that consuming pig meat can lead to inconclusive results. In fact, had Houlihan’s GC/C/IRMS test been conducted under the 2015 Technical Document, her carbon isotopic signature would have fallen within the “normal” human range and she would not have registered an adverse analytical finding.
So what, exactly, is the problem in taking the extra step and doing the pharmacokinetics study? If it’s negative, and Houlihan is cleared, then justice is done. If it’s positive, then the AIU has to take extra steps to get a conviction. And based on Ayotte’s testimony, the evidence was clear that Houlihan took oral nandrolone — therefore it should be easy to get a conviction. Why not take the extra step? The goal of the anti-doping system should not be to get as many athletes banned as possible. It should be to discover the truth and ban athletes accordingly. It doesn’t seem as if that happened here.
3) The AIU made it very clear: to believe Houlihan is innocent, you need to believe in an extraordinarily unlikely chain of events
Houlihan’s explanation for how the nandrolone got in her system is that it came from ingesting organ meat from an uncastrated pig. The AIU pointed out that such an explanation would require “a cascade of factual and scientific improbabilities, which means that its composite probability is (very) close to zero.” The AIU pointed out eight such “improbabilities,” including:
- Houlihan receiving a pork burrito when she ordered beef.
- The pork would have had to have come from an uncastrated pig (a boar), which, according to expert witness McGlone, constitutes just 0.33% of the US pork market.
- Even if Houlihan did consume boar organ meat (offal), the most likely organ she consumed was the pork stomach (which was a menu item at the burrito truck in question). When cooked, the stomach is stripped so that only the muscle remains — a part of the boar with low levels of nandrolone, according to McGlone.
It seems very unlikely that all of those things came together to produce a positive test, but in any large enough sample (WADA analyzed more than 278,000 samples in 2019), “unlikely” things will happen.
If you are to believe the AIU, you have to believe that Houlihan took nandrolone (a curious choice of drug for a distance runner since its primary purpose is to increase muscle mass), and, in addition, that Houlihan ingested that nandrolone orally (an inefficient method for realizing gains), then was unlucky enough to be tested during the brief window in which the nandrolone was still in her system. You’d also have to believe that Houlihan was dumb enought to keep her one-hour testing window at 6-7 a.m. rather than push it to later in the day when most, if not all, of the nandrolone would have vanished from her system.
The other possible alternative is that Houlihan took a supplement that was unknowingly contaminated with nandrolone.
4) About the concentration of nandrolone in Houlihan’s urine…
When the Houlihan news broke in June, Houlihan’s lawyer Paul Greene noted that the concentration of nandrolone in her samples was 5 ng/mL. In the CAS decision, that concentration is listed as higher — 6.9 in her A sample and 7.8 in her B sample. What gives?
Greene explained to LetsRun that, while 6.9 and 7.8 were the numbers listed in the decision, they were not adjusted for specific gravity — in essence, for how dehydrated Houlihan was at the time of the sample. For the purposes of whether Houlihan tested positive or not, Greene says the concentrations that the lab actually used were those that were adjusted for specific gravity — 5.2 and 5.8 ng/mL, respectively.
5) Houlihan is appealing to the Swiss Federal Tribunal
Greene told LetsRun that Houlihan has engaged a Swiss law firm and will appeal the CAS decision to the Swiss Federal Tribunal. That appeal is a longshot — there is no guarantee the tribunal will even agree to hear the case — but Houlihan is not done fighting yet.
Regarding the decision that was released on Wednesday, Greene told LetsRun:
“There are two presumptions, neither of which she could overcome. One, they presume she took it intentionally. Because of the way the system is written, that’s the way it is, athletes are presumed to be cheaters. It’s just the way it goes. And also, the lab is always presumed to do everything correctly, even if they screw it up.
“As I read that case, it’s almost impossible — in fact, it probably is impossible — if an athlete actually did eat boar meat, as I believe she did, to prove it. Because how can you go back and find the pig afterwards? You can’t.
“…What it really says is the system is effectively broken if you’re an athlete in her position. Because she can’t win. It’s impossible, virtually.”
Discuss the Houlihan CAS decision on the world-famous LetsRun.com fan forum / messageboard: MB: Full Shelby Houlihan Report is Out from CAS.