The Unnecessary Fallout from Shelby Houlihan’s Doping Ban

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Last June when the public was informed first that Shelby Houlihan had tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone and would be serving a four-year suspension for doping violations, no one was more vocal about the apparent unfairness of the decision than Houlihan’s coach, Jerry Schumacher. (Houlihan’s team blamed her positive test on a pork burrito she consumed the night before her out-of-competition drug test in December 2020 — a statement ultimately dismissed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).) In a public Explanation, the normally taciturn head coach of the Bowerman Track Club, said Houlihan’s case “undermined every confidence” he ever had in the current anti-doping system. He went directly to the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Athletics Integrity Unit: “Shame on you! Shame on you that you don’t care about the truth,” said Schumacher. “You don’t deserve this power.”

The murky specter of “Burritogate” resurfaced earlier this week after another BTC athlete announced she had left the team. in a (n Instagram post Last weekend, Canadian runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford said she moved to Victoria, British Columbia, to train with Athletics Canada West Hub coaches Hilary and Trent Stellingwerff. The decision was not easy for him, as DeBues-Stafford had mostly positive and sportingly successful experiences with BTC. At the time, however, the news of Houlihan’s suspension “deeply shaken” her and “almost wrecked” her Olympic campaign. Although DeBues-Stafford ran well in Tokyo – she finished fifth in the 1500m final – she said the “ongoing fallout” from Houlihan’s situation was too much of a distraction for her to stay with the team.

Post-reporting off Canadian running and LetsRun has made it clear that DeBues-Stafford was referring to a lack of transparency from BTC regarding the team’s current relationship with Houlihan, who appears to have been in Flagstaff, Arizona at the same time as the team. DeBues-Stafford claimed that while BTC employees and Houilihan’s attorneys were meticulous about ensuring that Houlihan’s training situation complied with the rules for a suspended athlete, none of the other athletes were informed of the details. The vagueness didn’t sit well with DeBues-Stafford. According to them, it was BTC’s responsibility to issue a public statement explaining what the existing connection was between the team and Houlihan at the level, especially given how severely the team had lashed out at WADA. As she put it to LetsRun: “I don’t think it’s healthy for the sport to argue so vehemently that the current anti-doping regime is not fit for purpose, just to withdraw and not pursue and try to be a part change to improve it and address the concerns initially raised.”

She is not wrong. Nine months after being at the center of the biggest US track and field doping scandal in recent memory, this latest episode makes it seem like BTC is only interested in maximum transparency on its own terms.

In last June’s virtual press conference, the team’s leadership and Paul Greene, Houlihan’s attorney, berated the current anti-doping regime as irretrievably dysfunctional – a sentiment echoed in other media outlets. (A quite bizarrely op-ed in which Washington Post begins by criticizing WADA for focusing too much on determining whether athletes are “clean” or “dirty,” as if that weren’t the organization’s primary purpose.) But the team has since that time, too afterwards, largely silent CAS decision was released last September. At the risk of compressing a 44-page document into a few sentences, the court’s main argument was that Houlihan’s burrito defense required a confluence of two extremely unlikely scenarios: 1) that her burrito was meat from an uncastrated boar with testicles without testicles, as such animals represent only a tiny fraction of the domestic food supply, and 2) that said boar meat contained a concentration of nandrolone high enough to account for the presence of the substance in Houlihan’s urine, although experts believe that thought unlikely.

For her part, Houlihan maintains her innocence and still hopes to overturn the CAS ruling through an appeal to the Swiss Federal Court, the country’s highest court. (CAS is based in Switzerland.) This lengthy legal battle may explain why BTC hasn’t publicly commented on the details of their case, despite references by Houlihan Criticism of the CAS judgment on her personal website.

But while it might be justified to remain silent on an ongoing case — or at least one that may yet be resurrected — there’s no reason BTC can’t be open about its current arrangement with Houlihan, or lack thereof. Interestingly, on Tuesday it was Houlihan herself who responded to DeBues-Stafford’s criticism of her former club. “I never knew of her worries and struggles until I found out about all of this through her announcement,” Houlihan said issued a statement to LetsRun. She added, “I wish I had had the opportunity to have these conversations with her about her concerns to see if I could have clarified anything or made things easier for her in any way.”

Houlihan seems to wish DeBues-Stafford had reached out to her directly, but the blame for this mini-fiasco clearly rests with BTC’s leadership. It’s kind of a paradox: after publicly declaring that the current anti-doping system is broken, it’s up to them to convince everyone else – and certainly their own athletes – that they’re still abiding by its rules .

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