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CAS report on Shelby Houlihan explains reasons for four-year ban

The Athletics Integrity Unit has released a 44-page detailed decision into the Bowerman Track athlete's case

In June, American 1,500m record-holder Shelby Houlihan was given a four-year ban by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) after testing positive for the steroid nandrolone in December 2020. The Bowerman Track Club athlete appealed the ban and attempted to prove her innocence, since the athlete was hoping to race at the U.S. Olympic trials, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld her suspension. The AIU has now released the 44-page decision into her case, upholding the ban. Houlihan will not be able to compete until January, 2025.

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To recap, the substance found in Houlihan’s sample was nandrolone, specifically 19-norandrosterone (19-NA), a steroid sometimes found in pork offal (pig organ meat). She claimed the positive result was due to having ingested pork offal in burrito from a food truck the night before she was tested, but the CAS did not accept her explanation and upheld the AIU’s charge. Houlihan also submitted a hair test and a lie detector test, both supporting her innocence, but these were found to be inadequate.

The decision included the following statement regarding the evidence against Houlihan:

“The Athlete’s explanation that the 19-NA in her sample resulted from her consumption of the meat of an uncastrated boar simply cannot be accepted. The explanation presupposes a cascade of factual and scientific improbabilities, which means that its composite probability is (very) close to zero.”

Specifically, the CAS panel found that though it was possible that Houlihan unwittingly ingested the meat of an uncastrated boar, for various reasons it was highly unlikely, and moreover, that even if she had, it would not account for the relatively high levels of nandrolone found in her samples. It found that the nandrolone found in her samples was consistent with that found in products commonly sold on the Internet for the purpose of enhancing athletic performance.

Several of Houlihan’s teammates defended her as a clean athlete, including Courtney Frerichs, who was with her when she ate the burrito (and who ate from the same food truck). Frerich’s sister, Lindsey Frerichs, who also ate with them that night, provided a witness statement, as did Bowerman coach Shalane Flanagan and athletes Matt Centrowitz (whom Houlihan was dating at the time) and Karissa Schweizer.

Despite their testimonies, the court found Houlihan to be guilty, saying she failed to provide a plausible explanation for the presence of nandrolone in her urine sample, and concluded that the anti-doping rule violation she was charged with must have been intentional.

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The ban forced Houlihan to miss the U.S. Olympic trials and the Tokyo Olympics, where she was assumed to be a medal favourite, and it will prevent her from competing at the upcoming World Championships and the Paris 2024 Summer Games.

Editor’s update Sept. 3, 2021: According to a story on LetsRun.com, Houlihan plans to appeal her case to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.