Shelby Houlihan, 28, is one of the most dominant middle-distance talents in the U.S. She is a 2016 Olympian and American record holder in the 1500 meters (3:54.99) and 5,000 meters (14:23.92). And she announced on Monday during a Zoom press conference, with her Bowerman Track Club coaches Jerry Schumacher and Shalane Flanagan, that she will not compete for a spot on the 2021 U.S. Olympic team, notified in January that she had tested positive for a banned substance nandrolone, she said she consumed by eating pork at a Mexican food truck in December.
She has received a four-year ban from competition from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and lost her appeal in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), she learned on Friday. Houlihan plans to appeal to a higher Swiss court, though the process could be lengthy.
“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. “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 Athletics Integrity Unit announced the decision on Tuesday, posting on Twitter that the full CAS decision will be published “in due time.” On Tuesday evening, CAS issued a media release with more details on Houlihan’s hearing, which took place on June 4. The release says that Houlihan failed to establish the origin of the nandrolone in her system and therefore committed an intentional doping violation, which resulted in a four-year suspension. According to the release, Houlihan says she had told the lab that she had ingested pig offal (the organs of the pig) and the lab should have done additional testing, therefore there was no basis for the charge against her.
The majority of the CAS panel disagreed with Houlihan and determined that she “had failed, on the balance of probability, to establish the source of the prohibited substance.”
Houlihan said she ate a burrito from a Beaverton, Oregon, food truck the night before she was drug tested by WADA on December 15. On January 14 she received notification that she tested positive for nandrolone, which is a steroid commonly found in pork. She said she disputed the suspension, handed over a food log, passed a polygraph test, and had her hair tested by a toxicologist to prove she did not have banned substances in her system, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport was unconvinced. She has not had a positive test before December 15 or after.
“I’m not interested in cheating,” Houlihan said. “I don’t do this for the accolades, money, or for people to know my name. I do this because I love it. I have so much fun doing it and it’s always the best part of my day….I believe doping and cheating is weak. It shows a disbelief in yourself and not only shames you, but also shows a complete disregard for people who support you.”
Other U.S. athletes have been in similar circumstances. Ajee’ Wilson, 800-meter American record holder, tripped a positive test from eating tainted beef in 2017 and was later found at “no fault.” More recently Brenda Martinez, a world championships bronze medalist in the 800 meters, also tested positive for a trace amount of banned substance later determined to have entered her system from anti-depressant medications. Martinez was later found at no fault. Both those cases were handled by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, as opposed to the World Anti-Doping Agency in Houlihan’s case.
The Bowerman Track Club, including Schumacher and Flanagan, are standing behind Houlihan and her appeal, they said.
“Throughout this process we were confident that the truth would lead to justice. What I’ve come to learn instead is that anti-doping authorities are OK with convicting innocent athletes so long as nine out of 10 convictions are legitimate,” Schumacher said. “That is wrong. It is my understanding that our drug-testing technology is now becoming so sensitive that anti-doping labs are catching increasing numbers of clean athletes.”
Schumacher’s full statement was posted on the Bowerman Track Club website.
Flanagan, who received her upgraded 2008 Olympic silver medal in 2017 after the second-place finisher tested positive for the steroid stanozolol, also said she’s supporting Houlihan.
“I am devastated. I am gutted. I am broken. I am overwhelmed. I am sad. I am angry. And I am so, so mad,” Flanagan said, adding that she considers Houlihan like a little sister, later saying, “I’ve experienced plenty of heartache in my own career, losing out on medals and dreams to those who cheat. But I would rather lose all my medals and wins to dopers than to witness one innocent athlete be robbed of a life they’ve earned.”
Paul Greene, a sports attorney and founder of Global Sports Advocates, has been representing Houlihan in the legal process. He said that it was determined that the burrito Houlihan ate about 10 hours before her drug test contained pig organ meat, which is a source of nandrolone. The substance showed up in a urine analysis, which can happen if somebody is pregnant (Houlihan showed a negative pregnancy test, he said), through pork consumption, or taking the substance orally or through injection. Houlihan’s level was 5 nanogram/ml, which is low, according to the research.
Because of the time crunch before the Olympic Trials and Houlihan’s status as “provisionally suspended,” Greene and Houlihan requested a single hearing before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which leaves any appeal going to the Swiss Federal Tribunal in Lausanne.
“If we’re in a system that’s supposed to protect clean athletes and instead these are the events that are happening…it’s broken. It doesn’t work,” Schumacher said. “I’ve got a team full of athletes now who are afraid to be tested. Who wants to be tested by WADA now? Am I going to scream from the top of my lungs? Yeah, absolutely. I hope all the other athletes and coaches do, too.”
After placing fourth in the 2019 world championships in the 1500 meters, the fastest time ever by a U.S. woman, Houlihan’s sights were set on gold in Tokyo—and she may well have been the greatest American hope for one, too. In her absence, Elle Purrier becomes the top seed (3:58.36) and Jenny Simpson, who came home in 2016 with bronze in the 1500 meters, is right there, too (3:58.42). The third spot seems up for grabs with Shannon Osika (4:00.73), Nikki Hiltz (4:01.52), and Elise Cranny (4:02.62) not far behind.
On Monday, Houlihan was the third top female contender to announce a withdraw from the Olympic Trials, which being on Friday in Eugene, Oregon. Molly Huddle, the defending champion and American record holder in the 10,000 meters, also scratched her entry on Monday with an injury. Shannon Rowbury, three-time Olympian who was likely to contend in the 5,000 meters posted a video on Instagram on Monday explaining she has withdrawn from the Trials because of a stress fracture.
Houlihan told Women’s Running in May that she had been getting treatment for plantar fasciitis, but that it hadn’t kept her from training. She had decided not to race prior to the Trials as a precaution, she said.
Her absence from the Trials leaves the door open for other up-and-coming pros. She had expressed her desire to focus on the 1500 meters at the Trials after the schedule was redesigned and left it nearly impossible to double in the 5,000 meters, but she was still the top contender in the 5,000, too, ahead of her BTC teammates Karissa Schweizer (14:26.34) and Cranny (14:48.02).
In 2016, just a rookie member of the Bowerman Track Club, Houlihan wrote on her mirror: “I will be an Olympian.” She didn’t really believe it was possible until she placed second at the Trials and went on to become the only U.S. woman to make the final in Rio (she placed 11th).
Houlihan has always set her intentions as her career has grown, placing mantras where she can see them every day. On Monday she said she still dreams of standing at the top of the Olympic podium with a gold medal around her neck.
“Now I’m not sure that I’ll ever get the opportunity to truly pursue that dream,” she said. “I’m going to continue to fight to prove my innocence. I will not sit down an accept a four-year ban for something I did not and would never do.”
Houlihan said she she wants to continue training and be able to come back to competition, but isn’t sure that she will.
“I feel extremely betrayed by the sport and this whole process—I don’t trust it anymore,” she said. “As much as I want to come back, I also don’t know if I could. I don’t know where I go from here. I might drive home to Iowa and be with family.”