(14-Jun) -- Just four days before the USA Olympic Track & Field Trials are scheduled to open in Eugene, Ore., American 1500m and 5000m record holder Shelby Houlihan told reporters via video conference that she had been handed a four-year ban for a prohibited anabolic steroid, nandrolone, which had been detected in her urine sample on December 15, 2020. The athlete, and her attorney Paul Greene, said the adverse finding was likely the result of eating tainted pork in a burrito she purchased from a food truck ten hours before she was tested.
PHOTO: Shelby Houlihan in 2018 (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)
"I did everything I could to prove my innocence," a visibly distraught Houlihan said, explaining that she also took a lie detector test and had a sample of her hair tested to bolster her case.
In an unusual chain of events, Houlihan was first given a provisional suspension in January by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU). The AIU, which had her tested and was prosecuting the case against her, did not charge her for three months, her attorney said. With the Trials approaching and her status in limbo, Houlihan asked for, and was granted, an emergency hearing before the Court of Arbitration for Sport to get a more rapid decision. Her team mounted a vigorous defense, but the court ruled against her and notified her of their decision just three days ago.
"Shelby, I can tell you having done these cases hundreds if not thousands of cases involving anti-doping over the years, is an innocent athlete," said attorney Greene. "She's the latest athlete to fall prey to environmental contamination, and in my view what happened to her is entirely unjust."
Supporting Houlihan today were her Bowerman Track Club coaches, Jerry Schumacher and Shalane Flanagan, both of whom have been staunch supporters of the anti-doping movement for years. Schumacher, reading from a prepared statement, emphatically defended his athlete.
"Over the course of the last six months I've learned more than I've ever wanted to know about drug testing, about the procedures, and the organizations that govern our sport," said Schumacher. "What I've learned has eroded all the faith I had in their ability to fairly serve and protect clean athletes. Throughout this process I thought that the truth would lead to justice. What I learned instead is that anti-doping authorities are OK with convicting innocent athletes so as nine out of ten convictions are legitimate. That is wrong."
Other athletes have had positive drug tests tied to contaminated meat including middle distance runner Ajee' Wilson. Wilson tested positive for zeranol, a chemical used to promote cattle growth, and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) exonerated her after evidence showed she had consumed tainted beef. She lost an American indoor record at 800 meters because the test was conducted in conjunction with a competition, but she did not serve a suspension.
Wilson's case was handled by USADA and not the AIU. Greene said that although the rules were the same, he felt that USADA would have handled the case differently.
"This lab was supposed to get a second opinion and they didn't," Greene said, arguing that the level of nandrolone found, 5 ng/mL, was low enough to be considered only a possible adverse finding worthy of additional study. "It's not required, but it's strongly recommended, that they seek a second opinion as part of the 'B' sample analysis."
In Eugene, Houlihan would have been the favorite to win either (or both) the 1500m and 5000m titles, and her sudden ban changes the landscape for other athletes in those events. Assuming she made the Olympic team, she was widely viewed as being a medal contender. At the 2019 World Championships in Doha she finished fourth in the 1500m in an American record 3:54.99. Last July, she set a new American 5000m record of 14:23.92 making her competitive with the sport's top Africans. At 28 years-old she has already racked up ten national titles.
Houlihan was unequivocal in denying she had ever taken any banned substances. She said she had never even heard of nandrolone.
"I want to be very clear," a somber Houlihan said wearing a bright read Bowerman Track Club T-shirt. "I've never taken any performance-enhancing substances, and that includes that of what I am being accused. I believe in the sport, and I believe in pushing your body to the limit just to see where that limit is. I'm not interested in cheating. I don't do this for the accolades, the money or for people to know my name. I do this because I love it."