On Wednesday, the Athletics Integrity Unit released the full decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on Shelby Houlihan’s appeal of a four-year ban from competition after testing positive in December for nandrolone. The three-member panel concluded that Houlihan’s explanation that she ingested the substance unknowingly by eating a tainted pork burrito was “possible but unlikely.”
CAS decided that although Houlihan was a credible witness and brought “compelling character witness evidence in support of her defense,” she failed to establish the source of the nandrolone that was detected in her urine.
“The panel concludes that the athlete has not satisfied her burden of proof on the balance of probabilities that the [anti-doping rule violation] was unintentional, and the [rule violation] must be deemed to be intentional,” according to the decision.
Nandrolone is an anabolic steroid, a compound somewhat like testosterone, that can boost muscle strength. At low levels, it’s natural in the male body and to a lesser degree in the female body. The substance is detected by measuring 19-norandsterone in urine, normally present at up to .5 parts per billion (ppb) in women and men. A positive test is considered 2 ppb or above. Higher levels of 19-norandsterone can also be present in urine samples of pregnant women, so according to the recommendations of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), doping control urine samples from pregnant women containing more than 5 ppb have to be reported negative. (Houlihan was not pregnant at the time of the test, she said when she announced the ban during a press conference in June.)
Nandrolone is sometimes used in the treatment of anemia, osteoporosis, chronic kidney disease, and breast cancer. But its ability to mimic testosterone and increase strength and ease of recovery after a workout are what make it a performance-enhancing drug, or PED. The night before her out-of-competition drug test, Houlihan had consumed a burrito from a local food truck in Beaverton, Oregon, and believes she ingested the banned substance through tainted pork meat. She did not order a pork burrito but says she was given an unlabeled burrito wrapped in foil with faster-than-normal service. She ate about three quarters of it because it was greasier than her typical carne asada order.
Houlihan said in her defense that the burrito contained pig offal, or stomach of an uncastrated boar. Nandrolone can occur naturally in meat, especially in male animals, but boar meat comprises about 2 percent of the overall pork supply. CAS said that the kind of meat that could potentially trip a positive test would be small minority in the U.S. food chain, given that it’s abnormal in six-month-old pigs, the average age of slaughter in the U.S. The full decision also concluded that the levels were inconsistent with the corn-based diet of commercial pigs in the U.S.
“The concentration of 19-NA in the athlete’s urine was 2-3 times higher than the highest values reported in the scientific literature after the ingestion of much more significant quantities of meat of mature uncastrated boar,” according to the court document.
The decision also details the witness statements by Bowerman Track Club teammates Courtney Frerichs and Karissa Schweizer, as well as Frerichs’s sister, Lindsey Frerichs, who were together the night before Houlihan’s drug test to eat dinner and watch the reality television show the Bachelorette. The Frerichs sisters had also ordered burritos from the food truck and testified that they didn’t finish them because they seemed too heavy and agreed that they could have received the wrong orders. Matthew Centrowitz, who is also a member of the BTC and was dating Houlihan at the time, provided testimony as well, stating that he would have known if she was doing anything suspect. “He for sure would know, even before her family. He has never seen her do anything shady, nor has he ever even thought she would,” according to the CAS document.
However, following the testimony of experts, the panel was unconvinced that nandrolone entered Houlihan’s system by way of a pork burrito.
“The explanation pre-supposes a cascade of factual and scientific improbabilities, which means that its composite probability is (very) close to zero,” according to the decision.
Houlihan, 28, is a 2016 Olympian and the American record holder in the 1500 meters and 5,000 meters. The ban kept her out of the Tokyo Games and ends on January 14, 2025, which also keeps her out of the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“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 said, during a press conference in June. “I want to be very clear: I’ve never taken any performance-enhancing substances and that includes that of which I’m being accused.”
The failed appeal of the ban in CAS means that Houlihan’s next step is a long-shot appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.
“I am told that appeals of this kind are difficult to win, but I continue to believe that the truth will prevail.,” Houlihan wrote on Instagram.
The three-member CAS panel included Jens Evald, a law professor at Aarhus University in Denmark; Ulrich Haas, a law professor at the University of Zurich; and Janie Soubliere, an attorney in Montreal, Canada.