Middle distance runner Shelby Houlihan, the American record holder in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters, posted on Instagram she's facing a four-year ban following a positive test result for nandrolone, a banned anabolic steroid.
Houlihan will not be able to participate in the U.S. Olympic track and field trials set to take place in Eugene, Oregon, from June 18-27 -- shutting down her Tokyo Olympic dreams, and, if the ban stands, she will remain ineligible until after the 2024 Olympics as well. In 2016, Houlihan finished 11th in the Olympic 5,000-meter race.
In the post on June 15, Houlihan, 28, said she had concluded that the steroid was from a pork burrito she consumed from a Mexican food truck near her house in Beaverton, Oregon, approximately 10 hours before her drug test. She said she received an email from the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) on Jan. 14 explaining to her the banned steroid was found in her drug-testing sample.
Houlihan said on Instagram she'd "never even heard of nandrolone," adding, "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."
Some research suggests consuming the meat of certain animals could lead to the presence of nandrolone in urine samples, according to the Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology. But, authors Joachim Grobe and Peter Hemmersbach went on to explain that though the steroid has been used in breeding and is produced naturally in some animals, including boars, "the likelihood of ingesting steroid-contaminated food must be considered slim."
Unless the athlete can provide a sample of the meat for testing, the Court of Arbitration for Sport and anti-doping organizations generally do not entertain arguments when samples show the presence of nandrolone.
Several runners, including New York City Marathon champion Shalane Flanagan, who is also one of the coaches at the Bowerman Track Club where Houlihan trains, have come out in support of Houlihan. Flanagan posted on Instagram, "Shelby is a GREAT person. I'm desperately trying to understand why this has happened. How can this happen to an innocent person? How has the sport and governing bodies failed her so badly?"
So, what is nandrolone and what is its history in sport?
Nandrolone is an anabolic, synthetic steroid similar to testosterone, used to increase tissue and muscle mass in the body. It is one of the most commonly used steroids among athletes (through oral medication or injection) for more than 47 years.
The 2019 Anti Doping Testing Figures released by the World Anti-Doping Agency revealed that metabolite 19-norandrosterone, a nandrolone derivative, was one of the most common anabolic steroids found in athletes. Many sports and leagues, including the NFL, MLB, FIFA and UFC have placed sanctions on the steroid. The International Olympic Committee banned the substance in 1974.
Several athletes have been banned for nandrolone and other similar substances over the past four decades. Many athletes have used the consumption of meat argument -- particularly boar and pork organs -- but very few athletes have been able to successfully argue their case. Here are some athletes who've used the contamination defense in the past:
James Kibet, runner, Kenya
Date: February 5, 2021
Case: Kibet was handed a four-year ban by the Athletics Integrity Unit after his urine sample from a November 2019 event came back positive for nandrolone. Kibet filed additional information following the ban, stating the steroid was from pork meat he consumed from a shop called "Glorious Pork Joint."
Outcome: An arbitrator ruled against Kibet, upholding the ban, stating even though Kibet gave additional information, he failed to give them a sample of the meat from the store to be tested. The AIU argued it is the "personal duty" of the athletes to ensure "no prohibited substance" enters their body.
Dieter Baumann, runner, Germany
Date: September 18, 2020
Case: Olympic 5000-meter champion, Runner Baumann was banned for two years after a drug test came back positive for nandrolone. Baumann said his toothpaste was spiked with the steroid, arguing his case on his history of strong anti-doping remarks in the past.
Outcome: An arbitration panel of the international governing body of track and field upheld Baumann's two year ban, rejecting his toothpaste argument.
Canelo Alvarez, boxer, Mexico
Date: March 2018
Case: Alvarez tested positive for trace levels of clenbuterol, a performance-enhancing drug, after subjecting to a voluntary drug test ahead of a match against Gennady Golovkin. The boxer used "meat contamination," as the defense.
Outcome: The laboratory, which conducted the tests, supported Alvarez's claims. His promoters put out a statement that the trace levels of clenbuterol is "consistent with meat contamination that has impacted dozens of athletes in Mexico over the last years." Alvarez's fight happened as per schedule.
Tyson Fury, boxer, UK
Date: February 2015
Case: Fury, the former heavyweight champion, received a back-dated doping ban of two years by UK Anti Doping in December 2017 after nandrolone was found in his urine sample from February 2015. Fury immediately said the positive test was the result of eating "uncastrated boar meat."
Outcome: The UKAD agreed to resolve the charges with Fury since it was back-dated and the process delayed, adding, "Taking into account the delays in results management that meant charges were not brought in respect of the nandrolone findings until June 2016, and the provisional suspensions that Tyson and Hughie Fury have already effectively served, the two year period of ineligibility is backdated to 13 December 2015, and therefore expires at midnight on 12 December 2017."
Other similar cases: UFC athletes, Augusto Moreno and Brandon Moreno avoided bans after successfully arguing their positive tests from clenbuterol were the result of contaminated meat. Many other athletes were not successful in such claims. USADA rejected UFC's Francisco Rivera's similar claims and banned him for four years. The Associated Press contributed to this report.