Are clean athletes taking the punishments for the dopers?

By: Ruby Wyles

In recent weeks, we’ve seen some very high profile athletes receiving drug related bans and suspensions from competition, exposing loopholes in the system and inequalities across the various drug testing agencies and processes. When looking at the 3 biggest cases in the US at the moment, those of Shelby Houlihan, Brianna McNeal (nee Rollins), and Sha’Carri Richardson, it's clear that not all bans are created equal.

Patrick Smith/ Getty Images Sha’Carri Richardson wins 100m at the US Olympic Trials

Doping bans and suspensions can be enforced for a whole variety of different reasons: testing positive for banned substances, repeatedly missing drug tests, tampering with testing procedures, and more. Banning athletes from competition is the harshest of punishments an athlete can receive, potentially career ending and certainly reputation damning. Given these implications, one would expect extreme care and due diligence to be taken when suspending athletes, and that the punishment fits the crime, but recent events have brought that into question.

Houlihan, Richardson, and McNeal could very well all be completely clean, or equally they could all be dirty: I’m not informed enough to make an opinion either way, and I have attempted to remove any personal biases. One can only hope that, in due course, the truth does come out.

Shelby Houlihan

In December of 2020, Houlihan tested positive for nandrolone, an anabolic steroid on WADA’s banned substance list. After a rushed appeal process, Houlihan received a 4 year suspension from the sport, meaning she would miss both the 2021 Tokyo and 2024 Paris Olympic Games. As a result of already having her appeal tried by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), Houlihan, unlike McNeal, was not allowed to compete in the US Olympic Team Trials. Statements by Houlihan and her team attribute this adverse finding to the consumption of a pork burrito, bought from a local food truck. 

Nandrolone does occur naturally in some uncastrated boar meats, though the amount of meat one must consume in oder to trigger a positive test remains ambiguous. If this attribution is to be believed, it brings into question the sensitivity level of the drug testing system; contamination in the food and supplement industry is fairly common, so are these tests catching cheaters or unlucky clean athletes? High sensitivity testing is required to disincentive athletes from micro-dosing: supplementing with barely detectable quantities of banned drugs that still provide a considerable performance enhancing benefit, but has testing gone too far?

Andy Lyons/ Getty Images Houlihan leads a 2019 race

Brianna McNeal

Allowed to compete in the US Olympic Team Trials as an athlete engaged in an active appeal process, Brianna McNeal won the women’s 100m hurdles, finishing in a time and position that qualified her for the Olympic Games. In the days that followed, McNeal’s case was tried by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) who upheld her 5 year suspension from competition. It is worth noting that this is the second time McNeal has received a ban from the sport, with the first lasting a year from 2016-2017. Both instances were related to Brianna evading testers, intentionally or not; in 2017 she was banned as a result of repeated whereabouts failures, and this second time was for tampering with the drug testing processes, again, as it pertains to her availability for testing. She has since released a statement attributing attempts to tamper with testing protocols and the associated whereabouts failure to the timing of her having undergone an abortion, something McNeal did not feel she was able to disclose at the time.       

It is important to highlight that McNeal has never failed a drug test. So is this another case of a clean athlete being banned? Are we punishing athletes for being disorganized and forgetful?

On a side note, given the outcome of McNeal’s appeal, the women’s 100m hurdles team for the Tokyo Olympic Games is Keni Harrison, Christina Clemons, and Gabbi Cunningham.

Sha’Carri Richardson

Finally, during the most recent US Olympic Trials, 100m champion and Olympic gold medal hopeful Sha’Carri Richardson failed a drug test due to the presence of marijuana in her sample. A specified substance on the WADA banned list, marijuana is not listed for its performance enhancing properties, but because of associated concerns surrounding athlete health and safety, risk-taking behaviors, and for reasons linked to an athlete’s reputation and image as a role model. The punishment associated with marijuana use is equally controversial and confusing, ranging from a 4 year suspension to only 1 month. Richardson has since been handed the latter, but even with this lightest of bans she is still ineligible to compete in the individual 100m at the Tokyo Olympic Games: her place in Team USA’s 4x100m relay is still to be determined.

Ashley Landis/ Associated Press Sha’Carri Richardson wins 100m at the US Olympic Trials

One starts to question whether it is World Athletics’ right to determine what makes a role model, and whether marijuana should even be on the banned substance list in the first place. Given the presence of marijuana and other recreational drugs in certain cultures and traditional practices, is its disapproval exclusive and discriminatory?

These cases indicate how varied and nuanced the field of anti-doping is and demonstrate the importance for each and every suspended athlete to be treated individually. There is no one size fits all when it comes to doping, and it is clear that the current ethics and practices are unsatisfactory going forward. Independent to the cases above, we must realize that cheating does not make someone evil, you can still be a good, likable person and dope: the two are not mutually exclusive. When examining doping allegations and suspensions, thinking critically and adopting an unbiased and discerning perspective is crucial: athletes are humans, banned athletes are humans too.