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American record holder Shelby Houlihan receives 4-year ban following positive drug test

The Bowerman Track Club star tested positive for nandrolone, a substance she claims was in her system due to contaminated meat

The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) has served American Olympian Shelby Houlihan a four-year ban after she tested positive for the steroid nandrolone in December 2020. Houlihan is a member of the Bowerman Track Club and the American record holder in the 1,500m (3:54.99) and 5,000m (14:23.92). After the ban was announced, she posted a statement on Instagram in which she claimed the positive result was due to contaminated meat she ate in a burrito from a food truck on the day of the test. Houlihan’s ban is effective immediately, meaning she will miss the Tokyo Olympics. 

Over the past few years, Houlihan has become one of the top runners in the U.S., and after placing 11th in the 5,000m at the Rio Games in 2016, she ran at the 2017 and 2019 world championships. At the latter, she ran her American 1,500m record and finished just off the podium. In 2020, she ran the national 5,000m record at one of the Bowerman Track Club’s intra-squad meets in Portland, and coming into 2021, she looked like a threat to medal at the Tokyo Games

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After her positive test in December, the AIU provisionally suspended Houlihan in January (which is why she has not competed in 2021), and her shot at competing in Tokyo was in jeopardy. In her statement, Houlihan said she had never heard of nandrolone, and that when she received news of her suspension from the AIU, she had to look it up online. 

“I have since learned that it has long been understood by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) that eating pork can lead to a false positive for nandrolone,” she wrote. “Pig organ meat (offal) has the highest levels of nandrolone.” Houlihan continued, writing that she “put together a food log” of everything she ate the week of her positive test. 

“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, Ore. I notified the AIU that I believed this was the source.” 

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Houlihan wrote that her nandrolone levels “were consistent with those of subjects in studies who were tested 10 hours after eating this source,” but the lab didn’t consider the possibility that her positive test was due to something she had eaten. Houlihan said she proceeded to work to prove that she was innocent and had ingested the nandrolone unknowingly. She said she took a polygraph test, gave hair samples to a toxicologist and took the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which did not accept her explanation as valid and upheld the AIU’s charge. 

“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. Bowerman Track Club coach Jerry Schumacher also released a statement on the ban, writing that he stands with Houlihan.

“What we are witnessing here is a great tragedy in the history of American distance running,” he wrote. “[Houlihan] just might be the best 1,500m runner in the world this year, but we will never get the opportunity to find out.” Schumacher also questioned the efficacy of the AIU and WADA, writing that he has spent the past six months researching the anti-doping system. “What I’ve learned has eroded all the faith I had in their ability to fairly serve and protect clean athletes.”

The AIU and CAS have yet to publish a full report on Houlihan’s case, but it will become available soon. Houlihan’s ban retroactively starts on January 14, 2021, and it will end in 2025, meaning she will not only miss the Tokyo Olympics, but the Paris Games as well. 

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