Opinion: The decision by USATF is appalling and ridiculous

By: Sam Ivanecky

It seems like every time things settle down a bit, someone throws gas on the fire and the track world goes back up in flames. Yesterday, I wrote this piece only to come back today to the news that Houlihan would in fact be racing the Olympic Trials, as allowed by USATF. Remember when track folks were all clamoring to make the sport more exciting? Well, it looks like they got their wish.

First off, if you haven’t gotten all of the details of what’s going on, go check out this piece for a factual breakout of the events timeline since the news broke. I’m not going to lay out everything - that’s already been done elsewhere. Anyways…

Let me get this out of the way. It’s probably too early to be condemning Shelby as a cheater or to be screaming for her innocence. As I said, it hasn’t even been 72 hours since the news broke. The idea that a bunch of track fans could solve this situation that quickly despite the case being passed through months of legal proceedings is ludicrous. So if you’re expecting me to stake some bold claim, you’re going to be disappointed. 

That said, when I wrote this yesterday, I used “way too early”, so clearly things are shifting…

With that in mind, let’s talk about the immediate reactions of the public. When the news broke, the general sentiment seemed to be a mix of shock and disbelief, followed by fans quickly rallying behind Houlihan and the Bowerman Track Club. “#FreeShelby” was quickly circulating Instagram and Twitter, with the entire Bowerman team posting heartfelt remarks and stories to build Shelby up as a standout character. 

Where has that energy been every time an East African or non-American runner has tested positive? Americans are quick to condemn the actions of their competitors but when it comes to someone they idolize, the narrative seems to change. Is it because Shelby is an American? Is it because she’s white, and for better or worse, is easier to relate to for many U.S fans? Is it that Bowerman has built up the trust of us as a fanbase? 

The answer is probably a mixture of all three, but that doesn’t change the fact the difference in reactions is distinct and wrong. I understand that details vary between stories, and I’m not saying Houlihan should be thrown to the wolves, but if she is afforded this grace, then other athletes should also receive it. 

Further, there’s clearly some race element here. To address the elephant in the room, American fans in particular are hyper-critical of athletes of color who get banned, and particularly those from other countries. That’s not saying all those who support Shelby are doing so but there’s a clear divide in how white, American runners are treated versus those of color. Again, all athletes should be given the same grace, or lack of, when it comes to these situations. 

Coming back to the notes from her Bowerman teammates, many fans were citing these, and Houlihan’s previous opposition to cheating (or wearing super spikes), as a character that would clearly never cheat and therefore this couldn’t be intentional. Well, I hate to break it to people out there, but they could be lying. If Bowerman as a whole was doping, then obviously they would denounce it. No doper in the history of the world has ever publicly promoted doping. Just because someone seems like a good person, or even is a good person, doesn’t mean they are free from suspicion. 

And even if Bowerman is a clean team and Shelby chose to do this on her own, then these athletes are speaking to the character they know, not the whole picture. Think about how many of even your closest friends have secrets. Even when you think you know everything about someone, odds are you don’t.

The Burrito

Getting to the whole burrito debacle… Geoffrey Burns from the University of Michigan had an excellent thread on the likelihood of meat consumption causing her nandrolone levels to spike. The quick version: it’s extremely unlikely that Houlihan would register nandrolone levels that high based on her story. I’d say things sound fishy, but the meat in question is pork.

Speaking of pork, Houlihan didn’t even order pork BUT her camp opted not to provide that information in her original statement. It seems rather suspicious that they would opt not to release that information up front. If you’re as clean as you say you are, then put all the facts on the table. It shouldn’t matter, right?

Another oddity was that Evan Jager conveniently made his announcement that he would not be racing the Olympic Trials roughly 15 minutes prior to Shelby’s press conference. Why wait? He clearly has known for at least some time that he would not be racing, so why announce it at the same time? And you might argue that he was doing so at the same press conference but he actually posted the announcement to his Instagram 15 minutes before that conference started. 

The more I look at this situation, the more I find things not to like. 

Of course, there are things helping Shelby too.

No one from Bowerman has ever tested positive for PEDs. The group is about as transparent as they come and with how much social engagement they drive, it seems that would make it harder to hide something. Along those same lines, Bowerman athletes tend to be regarded as generally good people. The closest thing they’ve ever had to “negative press” was the Lomong/Chelimo beef and if anything, that only made races more exciting.

The other main component is that, based on what has been released, it sounds like the AIU and CAS have not been particularly “fair” to Shelby and Bowerman throughout this process. The whole process of all these different anti-drug groups is pretty confusing and I’m also confused why USADA hasn’t been mentioned at all. Shouldn’t they be involved here? From an outsider perspective, I think whatever rulings these groups make should be made public and clear, as well as the details laid out. If you’re going to ban an athlete, the world deserves to know why. Further, make the punishments at least logical. Ajee Wilson barely got anything for her tainted meat case. Jarrion Lawson had to go to court (CAS) and finally won after two years. Will Claye got nothing. The inconsistency is maddening, confusing, and makes you wonder what exactly goes into how these decisions are made.  

So while things seem to be going against Houlihan, there can be at least some argument for her.

And this was where we were yesterday, before the news from USATF today. ESPN provides a nice overview of the situation here, but the short version is Houlihan will be racing the Trials. Since her situation is currently in an “active appeal process”, Shelby is afforded the opportunity to race. If you read further, ESPN notes “In time-sensitive cases, that court can issue an injunction that would allow an athlete to participate while a case is decided.” What’s unclear there is whether or not that also applies to the Olympic Games, not just the Trials. 

To put it bluntly, this decision is a disgrace to the sport, to the athletes who earned their position at the Trials, and to those chasing their dreams of making an Olympic team.

Max Siegel, the CEO of USATF, said “"You can always resolve the outcome later, but you can't re-run a race", which may be the worst thing you could say at that moment.

Yes, time travel still isn’t possible, but just because humans have failed to adapt doesn’t mean we should allow potential dopers to compete in the most sacred event of the sport. Every round that Houlihan moves through means one less clean runner who moves on. That’s one less clean runner with a chance at the Olympics. 

You can say “Well if she’s clean, she deserves the chance”, but does she?

If Houlihan is clean, and the nandrolone was due to contaminated meat, the fact of the matter is she still chose to eat at a restaurant that serves offal, putting herself in the situation to begin with. It’s not ridiculous to suggest maybe world-class athletes just avoid these situations altogether. It would be one of the many (and easier) sacrifices required to be at the peak - I’m sure you can get a burrito somewhere else. Shelby put herself into that situation, and even if her ban gets overturned, missing out on the Trials should be the unfortunate consequence of careless actions. 

Coming back to the other runners competing in the next 10 days, imagine the toll it would also take on them. First, you have those who would not advance through the rounds because Houlihan was taking a spot. Then, consider the runner who finishes 4th if Houlihan does earn a top-3 position? If Houlihan remains banned, that athlete would get a trip to the Olympics but would be robbed of the moment of joy at the Trials, a moment for many that will never come again. 

And what about the athletes who may finish behind Houlihan, potentially missing out on sponsor bonuses for place or qualification? These athletes are competing for results, but also their livelihood. Finishing 3rd vs 4th could mean the difference between an athlete earning a future sponsorship, or quitting the sport in a few months. 

Maybe you can resolve the outcome for Houlihan, but you can’t necessarily fix it for others. 

So where does that leave us? 

The reality is that no one really knows.

Maybe Houlihan is doping. Maybe the whole Bowerman team is as well. Maybe it really was a bad burrito. No matter what way you slice it, we all lose. If she (and/or Bowerman) are dirty, the skepticism and cynicism that track fans have grown accustomed to prevails and we’re left with even more doubt every time a result “wows” us. If she’s clean, Houlihan misses out on the biggest stage(s) in the prime of her career and Bowerman’s identity is dragged through the mud with her.

Of all the actions to take, the best one right now might be nothing. I’ve spent the past 72 hours torn, wanting to condemn Houlihan, angry at the sport for yet another facade. I’ve long been in favor of lifetime bans for dopers. Kick them out, get rid of them. The sport doesn't need you.

But right now, there’s still a lot we don’t know, and blindly throwing accusations doesn’t do any good either. We as fans can speculate all we want, but no matter how much we convince ourselves, or others, the situation is still up in the air. 

Knowing that, it’s also okay to be angry. The decision by USATF is appalling and ridiculous. You can’t put that blame on Shelby. If you’re going to be angry, direct it towards the governing body that so often fails the sport. 

And in my best efforts to avoid being engulfed in frustration, we need to take a moment to look at the bigger picture. 

You can hate doping. You can want dopers banned for life. But you shouldn’t necessarily hate someone because they doped. I’ve never doped (my pitiful TFRRS will validate that). For athletes that have, I do at least understand why they might have done it. Maybe it’s pressure from those around them, the risk of losing their job, or the need to earn a paycheck to get by. None of those make doping right or justify doing it, but it’s worth considering why good people sometimes do bad things. Does that then make them a bad person? I don’t know, but I would lean towards no.

At the end of the day, you are going to be responsible as judge and jury for how you feel about Houlihan, about Bowerman, and about the sport of track & field. Let's choose our actions carefully. Continue to ask questions, to consider the situation, but avoid overzealous accusations in hopes of a quick “solution”. As they say, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”