Thought on Shelby Houlihan

Quick summary of the facts to start:

  1. On December 15, 2020 Shelby had an out-of-competition drug test.
  2. On January 14, 2021, she was notified that she tested positive for nandrolone and was provisionally suspended.
  3. Shelby appealed the suspension, and the basis of her appeal was that she consumed a pork burrito from an authentic Mexican food truck, and the burrito could have contained pork offal which set off the test for nandrolone.
  4. On June 11, 2021, she lost her appeal and is banned from competing for four years (starting January 14, 2021).  

My gut reaction to the news was shock and then outrage at the alleged injustice against Shelby. The quick summary above is very concise, and if you follow the full explanation from the Bowerman Track Club’s press conference, they present a compelling case for how a judgement call from the lab to mark the test as positive instead of an atypical finding was the first domino (see also this tweet flowchart from Steve Magness).

But as more details emerged, it’s been easier for me to see why she lost her appeal. Shelby didn’t even order a pork burrito from the food truck; she ordered carne asada (beef). So now we also have to believe that she got an incorrect order and that her burrito contained tainted meat? That story has a hard time against Occam’s razor which simply says she took nandrolone and got caught.

I still lean toward Shelby being an intentionally clean athlete. I’m kind of a chump in that way. I was one of the kids in high school saying people were just jealous of Lance Armstrong for being so good at cycling because “hE nEvEr TeStEd PoSiTiVe.”

But it’s just a little crazy to me that the best unintentional consumption case is a wrong order burrito!

My lack of understanding of how USADA and WADA rules on these cases are at play, but here some other scenarios to consider:

  1. Contaminated supplements or medication. Does Shelby take any supplements or medication? Did she have these tested for nandrolone?
  2. Chemical pregnancy. In the press conference, Shelby’s lawyer said they had her take a pregnancy test after they were notified of the positive nandrolone test, but since that was a full month after the test, if she had a chemical pregnancy, she could have already miscarried a month later (and likely never would have known she was pregnant). The flowchart from Steven Magness disproves this, since it shows the lab immediately tests the sample for pregnancy, but the press conference didn’t mention anything about the lab testing for pregnancy, so it was a question for me. This would be a very difficult defense to prove as well.
  3. Tin foil hat conspiracy. This was a targeted attack on Shelby. The judgement call on positive vs. atypical was purposeful because of the name of the athlete. (Surely the tests are blind? The person in the lab isn’t picking up a sample cup of urine with the name SHELBY HOULIHAN on it, right?)

But I doubt they can waiver from the burrito story, so I suppose that will be the basis for the next appeal to the Swiss courts. How do you go about proving your innocence, though? Do you just keep buying and testing burritos to see if you can detect nandrolone?

Overall I hope Shelby is clean, and I hope she is able to prove it before the 2024 Paris Olympics, so she can go after her goal of winning a gold medal. If not, she’ll be 35 before the 2028 Olympics come around, and while you can run well in your mid-30s, it’s not ideal. Plus not racing for 4 years (and probably losing your sponsorship?) won’t help.

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