U.S. Olympic hopeful Shelby Houlihan has been banned from long-distance competition for four years following a positive test for steroids, which she blames on a pork burrito that she bought from a food truck.
The middle-distance runner tested positive for nandrolone, a banned steroid, after submitting a sample to a lab on Dec. 15. The independent Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) initially suspended her from competition in January, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld the AIU’s charges and banned her for four years this week.
Houlihan competed at the Summer Games in 2016 and recently set American records for the 5,000-metre and 1,500-metre races. She qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials and the Tokyo Olympics in late 2020, but has not raced since December.
The ban will effectively bar her from participating in the so-called 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, and in the 2024 Games in Paris.
The 28-year-old railed against her ban in an Instagram post on Monday, in which she claimed she has never taken steroids and that her defence was “dismissed without proper due process.”
“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,” she wrote.
Houlihan claimed that the steroid likely entered her system through a burrito that she bought from a Mexican food truck near her home in Beaverton, Ore. She said the food truck uses pig organ meat, or offal, in its burritos, and that offal is known to have high levels of nandrolone.
“I had never even heard of nandrolone,” she said, adding that she had to Google it to learn about it.
“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, since certain types of pigs produce it naturally in high amounts. Pig organ meat (offal) has the highest levels of nandrolone.”
She also claimed that she passed a polygraph test and had some hair samples examined by toxicologists.
“WADA agreed that test proved that there was no build-up of this substance in my body, which there would have been if I were taking it regularly,” she wrote. “Nothing moved the lab from their initial snap decision.”
Her coach, Jerry Schumacher, blasted the ban in a separate statement.
“Shelby was treated unfairly at every step of this process,” he wrote. “The AIU refused to charge her for months, despite no additional evidence being presented, opting to leave her in a provisionally suspended state until they were forced by Shelby’s legal team to charge her and agree to a hearing before the CAS so that Shelby could compete at the Olympic Trials.”
He also accused WADA and the AIU of using Houlihan in a “political chess match.”
“Shame on you!” he wrote.
Brett Clothier, the head of the AIU, defended the decision in a statement to The Guardian.
“After being charged by the AIU, Ms. Houlihan’s case was heard by a three-member panel at CAS, which made its decision after hearing evidence and arguments from the athlete’s lawyers and the AIU,” he said.
Houlihan is not the first athlete to claim pork as a defence against a nandrolone accusation. Kenyan distance runner James Kibet argued earlier this year that he had unknowingly ingested the steroid from tainted pig meat. The AIU ultimately gave him a four-year ban for the offence, arguing that it’s an athlete’s “personal duty to ensure that no prohibited substance” enters his or her body.
The CAS is expected to release its full reasoning in Houlihan’s case in the near future.
The U.S. Olympic Trials begin Friday.
— With files from The Associated Press
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