Standout American runner blames tainted burrito after getting banned for failed drug test
Shelby Houlihan, the American record holder in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters, was banned for four years after failing to prove that tainted pork caused her positive test for an anabolic steroid, sport’s highest court said Tuesday.
Houlihan blamed a pork burrito bought at a Mexican street food truck when she revealed her doping case in an announcement on her Instagram account Monday.
A case that went ahead in secret for five months was published days before the start of U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three in each event earn a spot to the postponed Tokyo Games. Houlihan finished 11th at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics in the 5,000 meters.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport confirmed Tuesday its panel of judges “unanimously determined that Shelby Houlihan had failed” to prove how the anabolic steroid nandrolone got into her system.
The case was fast-tracked with the consent of all parties to be heard on June 4 by video link with the court in Lausanne, Switzerland. The verdict was announced without a detailed verdict.
It stayed confidential until Houlihan’s own announcement of the positive doping test and ban that runs to January 2025. It also rules her out of the 2024 Paris Olympics and the first track worlds to be held in the United States, next year in Eugene.
The 28-year-old Houlihan said she received an email from the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) on Jan. 14, notifying her that a drug testing sample returned a finding for nandrolone.
She said she’s since learned it has “long been understood by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) that eating pork can lead to a false positive for nandrolone, since certain types of pigs produce it naturally in high amounts. Pig organ meat (offal) has the highest levels of nandrolone.”
Houlihan made a list of all the food she ate leading up to a Dec. 15 test that detected the anabolic steroid.
“We concluded that the most likely explanation was a burrito purchased and consumed approximately 10 hours before that drug test from an authentic Mexican food truck that serves pig offal near my house in Beaverton, Oregon,” Houlihan wrote. “I notified the AIU that I believed this was the source.”
An email and text were left with her agent.
Houlihan added that “although my levels were consistent with those of subjects in studies who were tested 10 hours after eating this source and WADA technical guidelines require the lab to consider it when analyzing nandrolone, the lab never accounted for this possibility. They could have reported this as an atypical finding and followed up with further testing. The anti-doping experts I have reached out to say they should have. I did everything I could to prove my innocence.”
She said she passed a polygraph and had a hair sample analyzed by toxicologists.
“WADA agreed that test proved that there was no build up of this substance in my body, which there would have been if I were taking it regularly,” Houlihan wrote. “Nothing moved the lab from their initial snap decision. Instead, they simply concluded that I was a cheater and that a steroid was ingested orally, but not regularly. I believe my explanation fits the facts much better – because it’s true. I also believe it was dismissed without proper due process.”
Houlihan said she was informed last Friday that CAS “did not accept my explanation of what had occurred and has subsequently banned me from the sport for four years.”
The court said in a statement its judges decided by a 2-1 majority the athlete had not proven her claim that her case and sample were improperly managed.
“I feel completely devastated, lost, broken, angry, confused and betrayed by the very sport that I’ve loved and poured myself into just to see how good I was,” Houlihan wrote.
She set the American 1,500-meter record of 3 minutes, 54.99 seconds at the world championships in Doha, Qatar, on Oct. 5, 2019.
Last July, Houlihan broke the U.S. 5,000-meter mark with her time of 14:23.92 in Portland, Oregon.
“I want to be very clear. I have never taken any performance enhancing substances,” Houlihan wrote. “I’m not interested in cheating. I don’t do this for the accolades, money, or for people to know my name. I do this because I love it.”