What We Know and What We Don't Know From the Shelby Houlihan Doping Case (Updated 6/17)

 By: Patrick Larson

UPDATES (as of 6/18 at 9:30am)

USATF has apparently reversed course as Shelby Houlihan's entry is now showing as "not accepted" on the start list.

At 11:30am cst, Shelby Houlihan released a statement on Instagram.

Maybe our last update? who knows. 

UPDATES (as of 6/17 at 7:30pm)

In response to USATF saying that Shelby Houlihan would be able to compete at the Olympic Trials, the Athletics Integrity Unit issued the following statement:

In their statement, they make it pretty clear that Shelby will not be able to compete at the Olympic Trials since USATF is part of World Athletics. USATF and Bowerman Track Club has yet to respond to this.

As of 7:30pm cst, Shelby Houlihan is still listed on the start list for the 1500m.

Reaction from the track community

Some notable reactions form the track community include The Clean Sport Collective publishing an open letter calling for Shelby Houlihan to not compete at the Olympic Trials. The letter was signed by many professional runners including Des Linden, Molly Seidel, Emma Coburn, Mason Ferlic, among others.

Other runners who have spoken out on the issue include Kara Goucher, Steve Magness, Des Linden, and Noah Droddy.

UPDATES (as of 6/17 at 9am)

Houlihan to compete at the Olympic Trials?

There has been some swirl in the last 24 hours over whether Shelby will be competing at the Olympic Trials. She is currently on the 1500m start list that has prelims starting tomorrow. While it hasn't been officially been confirmed anywhere, Shelby would most likely have needed to be granted an injunction to be able to compete at the Trials. However, this does not mean that she will be allowed to compete at the Olympics if she qualifies. 

USATF confirmed the morning of June 17th that Shelby will be allowed to compete given there is an ongoing appeals process. However, this is technically the second appeals process as the first appeal that went to CAS resulted in the confirmation of the 4-year ban. 

I reached out to the great people at Fast Women to see if they knew more and this is the subsequent conversation that occurred. 

There is some precedent for USATF to allow athletes to keep competing while an appeal is occurring. Brianna McNeal, the reigning gold medalist in the 100m hurdles, is appealing the 5-year ban given to her by the AIU. USATF is allowing her to compete under the same grounds they are allowing Shelby to compete. However, one significant difference is that this is McNeal's first appeal while Shelby has already unsuccessfully appealed her ban. 

First interview since the BTC press conference

Shelby made her first public appearance in a Fox News interview last night. At first I was a little confused why she would choose to appear on Fox News but after just a bit of digging I realized that Fox News has some of the biggest viewership of any cable news channel. If she is trying to make her case, it only makes sense to do it on a platform that reaches the most people. As a runner looking for answers, I was a bit disappointed, but not surprised, that the interviewers asked very soft ball questions. No matter where you stand on the issue, there definitely are some red flags/areas of suspicion that need to get fleshed out--but the Fox News interviewers didn't even get close to touching them.


How does nandrolone work?

I hope you all got a good laugh out of this meme I posted yesterday to The Harrier Instagram account. But, I don't think it's too far from the truth with regard to the depths people have been going to in order to make some sense out of the situation. I don't have a science background and won't pretend to know how nandrolone works. However, there are people who do know what they are talking about! One of those people is Steve Magness.
Steve posted a really great Twitter thread yesterday that outlines how someone can test positive for nandrolone. I'd highly recommend taking a look.

What's Next

Well, it would appear that after all the drama of the last couple days, Shelby will still have an opportunity to compete at the Olympic Trials. If she ends up qualifying in the 1500, which she is a heavy favorite to do, then it will be up to the IOC if they let her compete at the Olympics. Stay tuned! I'll keep updating this blog post as new information comes out.

What a 24 hours it has been. With the Olympic Trials quickly approaching in the next few days, one of America’s brightest stars and strongest contenders for an Olympic medal was sentenced to a four-year ban from the sport for doping. Shelby Houlihan has maintained her innocence, and many of the biggest players in running including her coaches and teammates have rushed to her defense. To be expected, there has been wild speculation the last 24 hours and many people quickly taking sides. In this piece, I’ll try to weed through everything we know and don’t know in the hopes of grounding everyone in the best available information as opposed to falling into the trap of the rumors that are swirling.


ORIGINAL ARTICLE (published 6/15)

What we know based on Houlihan’s statement

On the evening of June 14th, Shelby Houlihan dropped a bomb on the running world as she announced that she had been handed a four year ban from the sport for using performance enhancing drugs. Read her Instagram post here.

The drug in question is an anabolic steroid called Nandrolone. Houlihan completed a drug test on December 15th, 2020 but first learned of the results of the test on January 14th, 2021. She was subsequently subject to an immediate provisional suspension from the sport. As the track world quickly learned, nandrolone can be found in pork and potentially trigger a false positive drug test. After learning about the failed test, Houlihan says she put together a food log of everything she consumed the week of the December 15th and came to the conclusion that a burrito she consumed 10 hours before the drug test was to blame for the failed drug test. In the days following the failed drug test, Houlihan says she informed AIU (Athletics Integrity Unit) of her findings. Despite this, the lab that conducted the test didn’t perform any additional drug tests. 

In the months leading up to the final sentencing, Houlihan has utilized multiple avenues to try and prove her innocence. Since the failed test, she has passed a polygraph test and had her hair sampled by a toxicologist to prove there was no build up of the substance in her body, but instead that this was an isolated incident triggered by pork consumption. Despite her efforts, Houlihan’s case was dismissed and she was ultimately handed the four-year ban on June 11th. Given the timing the punishment, a four-year ban from the sport will eliminate any possibility of competing at the next two Olympics.

What we know based on Jerry’s statement

In addition to Shelby’s public statement regarding the ban, her coach Jerry Schumacher issued a statement last night further re-iterating why they believe Shelby is innocent.

In his statement, Jerry claims that neither him nor Shelby were even aware of what nandrolone was and had to spend time understanding what she had failed the drug test for. He pointed out that even WADA has conducted studies to show that nandrolone is present in certain types of pork. Much of Jerry’s statement is spent being critical of the lack of due process that Shelby received as well as the governing bodies that oversaw the handling of this case. After the last six months, Jerry said that “I’ve come to learn is that anti-doping authorities are okay with convicting innocent athletes so long as nine out of ten convictions are legitimate. This is wrong.” He goes on to point out instances in the past where he believes the governing bodies have failed athletes including with Jarrion Lawson, Ajee Wilson, and Brenda Martinez.

Reaction from BTC Teammates:

After Shelby’s initial announcement, most of her teammates have been very vocal on social media and have vigorously defended her as well as BTC’s practices.

Instagram posts from Chris Derrick, Courtney Frerichs, Nessa Fraser, Emily Infeld, Karissa Schewizer, Shalane Flanagan, Elise Cranny, and Sinclaire Johnson

The only notable "Bowerman Babe" who has yet to post publicly about the matter is Gwen Jorgenson.

Who are these governing bodies?

If you’re at all like me, you might be confused by all the different governing bodies that play a role in regulating doping in athletics. I’ll do my best to break down each of the key players.

United States Anti-Doping Agency: USADA is an anti-doping organization specifically dedicated to managing the United States anti-doping program for all Olympic sports.

World Anti-Doping Agency: WADA manages anti-doping regulations worldwide and ensures that national anti-doping organizations are in compliance with the Anti-Doping Code.

Athletics Integrity Unit: The AIU is an organization solely dedicated to regulating anti-doping in just athletics. They follow the rules set by World Athletics and the World Anti-Doping Code. The AIU functions independently from the IAAF.

Court of Arbitration for Sport: CAS is an independent institution that provides services to facilitate the actual settlement of sport-related disputes.

So how are all these players interacting in the Shelby Houlihan case? The Athletics Integrity Unit has been on point for handling this investigation. The AIU is a relatively new governing body that was starting in 2017. Jerry Schumacher was adamant in his statement that he believes this would have been handled differently if USADA had jurisdiction over the case. In this case, Shelby tried to appeal the AIU decision to the Court of Arbitration for Support but was unsuccessful, thus resulting in the final four-year ban being given to her.

Relevant studies on nandrolone

There are a number of relevant studies on nandrolone as a performance enhancing drug as well as nandrolone in pork. We’ve created a short list for you to reference and ensure you’re getting the best information possible.

  1. Consequence of boar edible tissue consumption on urinary profiles of nandrolone metabolites (Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry)
  2. Significance of 19‐norandrosterone in athletes' urine sample (British Journal of Sports Medicine)
  3. Nandrolone Decanoate: Use, Abuse and Side Effects (Medicina)

There is precedent for blaming positive drug tests on meat in the past

This is certainly not the first time in recent history that meat has been thrown under the bus when an athlete tests positive.

  • In 2017, Ajee Wilson tested positive for Zeranol after breaking the American Record in the indoor 800m. USADA ultimately determined that Wilson tested positive as a result of ingesting tainted meat. She was stripped of her 800m record but not banned.
  • In 2019, long jumper Jarrion Lawson was handed a four-year ban after testing positive for trenbolone. After a long appeals process, Lawson was ultimately cleared by the CAS after it was determined that the positive test came as a result of consuming contaminated meat.
  • The contaminated meat explanation is not limited to athletics as boxing superstar Canelo Alvarez recently pled meat contamination as the reason he tested positive for clenbuterol.

Accuracy of the hair sample

In her statement, Shelby said that she even provided a hair sample to prove her innocence. Just how accurate is hair testing? Well the answer is “somewhat accurate.”

A study in 2014 ultimately concluded that “Hair testing can be useful in studies with moderate-risk drug users, but the potential for under-identification of low-frequency use suggests that researchers should consider employing low detection cut-offs and using hair testing in conjunction with self-report.”

This is not to say that the hair sample shouldn’t be considered, but more so that it shouldn’t be the basis for proving or disproving guilt.

How do you take Nandrolone?

This question is fairly significant as it different intake methods can result in different performance impact. Essentially there are two ways to take nandrolone: orally or via an injection. According to Houlihan’s lawyer, WADA agreed that the substance had not built up in her body as would be expected if injecting it directly. Additionally, her lawyer has stated that she tested negative on January 23, 2021 which further re-iterates the low likelihood that Houlihan was injecting nandrolone. If not injecting, then the other option would be to take nandrolone orally. When taken orally, nandrolone only stays in your system for a few days. This fact alone has led Houlihan’s lawyer to exclaim that you’d have to be a “moron” to take nandrolone orally because of the short time it actually stays in your body.

How much nandrolone is actually found in pork?

In the study listed above, three participants were given 310g of pork (roughly 11 ounces) and had urine samples taken within 24 hours. They found that all three participants had nandrolone levels reach 3.1-7.5 ng/L which is consistent with the 5ng/L that Houlihan’s test result showed. However, we don't know how much meat was in the burrito that Houlihan consumed. This is just one study and doesn’t exonerate Houlihan on its own, but certainly does show that having increased nandrolone levels is a very real thing after consuming pork.

What we don’t know

Why wouldn’t AIU do a follow up test?

In both Jerry and Shelby’s statements, it's unclear why the AIU opted to not do a follow up test on Shelby. If Shelby was truly doping and this wasn’t just an atypical result that came as a result of pork consumption, then one would think that it would be logical to do a follow up test.

What kind of burrito did Shelby order?

I’m in disbelief that this is a question that could prove crucial in the development of this case. As we’ve already mentioned, nandrolone can be found in pork and after reading Shelby and Jerry’s statements, they make it seem as though Shelby ordered a pork burrito. However, Shelby’s lawyer, Paul Greene, has publicly stated that Shelby ordered a carne asada burrito the night before the test. Given this information, the next step one has to take in trying to defend Houlihan is to fault the food truck for giving her a pork burrito on accident. This isn't a crazy assumption to make as I'm sure most people have had their food orders messed up at some point in their lives. But, it certainly muddies the waters a bit.

Why a four year ban?

The AIU formally announced today via Twitter that CAS has upheld the AIU’s charge and will publish the full decision from CAS when it becomes available. At this point, the public has been given Shelby and Bowerman’s side of the story, but there has yet to be an explanation for why the AIU and CAS is confident in banning Shelby for four years. All we know is the CAS press release that states their decision and ends by saying “The CAS Panel has issued its decision only, without grounds which will be notified in short order.” Given the close proximity to the Olympics, we can only hope that “short order” truly means soon in order to provide better clarity into the decision.

How does Jerry not know what Nandrolone is?

Something I’ve seen many people quickly grasping onto is the fact that Jerry didn’t know what nandrolone is. Is it possible that Jerry simply didn’t know about this because they have been running such a clean system? Personally, I think this is an extremely small part of the story and really isn't that compelling in proving or disproving guilt.

What’s next?

The road only gets longer and more complicated for Shelby as she undoubtedly seeks further appeal on the ruling. Houlihan will need to appeal the ban in Swiss court where the CAS is based. Jarrion Lawson ultimately was cleared after going this route. The timing for this is unclear, but there is little to no chance the decision would be overturned or that she would receive an injunction prior to the Tokyo Olympics.