Erriyon Knighton Cleared to Compete at Olympic Trials after Provisional Suspension Is Lifted

Knighton had been provisionally suspended since April 12 after testing positive for the banned substance trenbolone

The track world finally has an answer for why Erriyon Knighton has not been competing this spring. The 20-year-old Knighton, the fifth-fastest 200-meter runner in history (19.49 pb) and reigning World Championship silver medalist, had not raced since the Florida Relays on March 30. It is notable when one of the world’s best sprinters is not competing an Olympic year, and today, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) revealed the reason for his absence: Knighton had been provisionally suspended on April 12 after testing positive for the banned anabolic steroid trenbolone. Knighton appealed the suspension to an independent arbitrator, who cleared him to compete on Wednesday, just two days before the US Olympic Trials are set to begin in Eugene, Ore.

Knighton’s positive test stemmed from an out-of-competition test conducted on March 26 and was for trenbolone, the same substance at the heart of the Jarrion Lawson case from a few years ago. Because it can be used to build muscle, trenbolone is often used as growth promoter in livestock, with USADA noting that it “is used legally in beef cattle produced in and exported to the United States.” Knighton and Lawson both said contaminated meat was the source of their positive tests.

Knighton winning in Oslo last summer (THOMAS WINDESTAM FOR DIAMOND LEAGUE AG)

Knighton requested an expedited hearing so that his case could be heard before the start of the Olympic Trials (Knighton is entered in the 200 meters, which begins on June 27), and the hearing was conducted on June 14 and June 16, presided over by a sole arbitrator, Florida-based Jeanne Charles. Because the hearing was expedited, the full decision is yet to be published, but Charles’s operative award can be found here.

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“We did what the rules require us to do in all positive cases,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a press release. “We can take comfort that justice was served and transparency as required by the rules was achieved.”

Knighton argued that the trenbolone stemmed from a meal containing oxtail at a Tampa-area restaurant a few days before his drug test. Knighton’s lawyer Howard Jacobs told that there were some issues with determining the exact level of trenbolone metabolite in Knighton’s sample, but said the concentration was “low, at or below 1 ng/ml.” Jacobs also said the meat in question came from Nicaragua via a Mexican producer.

“There was a sample of the oxtail that was taken from a different shipment but the same supplier that USADA obtained independently from them and had tested and it had detectable levels of trenbolone in it,” Jacobs said.

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Drug testing of American track athletes is overseen by two entities: USADA and the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), both of which conduct separate tests. Historically, USADA has been more willing than the AIU to clear American athletes who cite contaminated meat as the source of their positive test. When Lawson (trenbolone) and American 1500m record holder Shelby Houlihan (nandrolone) used meat contamination as an explanation for their positive tests, the AIU was unconvinced and pursued four-year bans in both cases (though Lawson’s case was eventually overturned on appeal by the Court of Arbitration for Sport). Meanwhile when World Indoor 800m champion Ajee’ Wilson (zeranol, which she said came from oxtails) and three-time Olympic medalist jumper Will Claye (clenbuterol) tested positive in tests conducted by USADA, each was cleared after a USADA investigation.

In this case, however, USADA did not clear Knighton after hearing his explanation.

“They had questions about whether the meat was the source and of course said if it’s not from the meat then we haven’t proven where it came from and it should be [a four-year ban],” Jacobs said. “…Their case was that we could not meet our burden of proving that [the trenbolone] came from the meat but that if we did meet that burden, they agreed that it was a no-fault case.” reached out to Tygart about why the case went to arbitration. He provided the following explanation via email:

Under the rules and precedents on these low-level positives for known meat enhancers, there needs to be a causal link between the contaminated source and the positive finding in the urine. Particularly since we were under a tight timeline to investigate and have this resolved in advance of the Trials, we felt that it was best for the technical scientific evidence on this question to be fully presented to an independent arbitrator as the process calls for and to allow WADA, in particular, who has appeal rights, to also be satisfied with the outcome as determined by that independent arbitrator. I would certainly hope they would be following our robust investigation and thorough presentation of the relevant evidence but only time will tell.

Ultimately the arbitrator determined Knighton’s positive test “was more likely than not caused by consuming meat contaminated with trenbolone” and lifted his suspension with immediate effect — though WADA and the AIU, both of whom had observers at the hearing, still have the right to appeal the decision.

“It’s been very stressful [for Erriyon],” Jacobs said. “His ability to run at Trials was up in the air until today, and he runs in [eight days]. And he hasn’t been able to compete since April. That’s obviously not ideal. But he’s a super level-headed guy and he’s handled it as well as anybody can handle it. I expect he’ll be ready next week.”

Jacobs also said he felt it was unfortunate that USADA was required to announce Knighton’s positive test.

“It would be nice if the rules allowed for no announcement on a meat contamination case,” Jacobs said. “…No-fault, it’s a very high bar in anti-doping cases, very hard to meet. The fact that they found no fault and no sanction means exactly that, that he did nothing wrong. You can’t expect someone to not eat beef.”

Talk about Knighton being cleared to run on the world-famous Letsrun fan forum / messageboard:

Erriyon Knighton Cleared by USADA After Provisional Suspension for Trenbolone (Tainted Meat Deemed Likely)

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