The Unnecessary Fallout from Shelby Houlihan’s Doping Ban

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Last June, when the public was first informed that Shelby Houlihan had tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone and would serve a four-year suspension for doping violations, nobody was more vocal about the apparent injustice of the decision than Houlihan’s coach, Jerry Schumacher. (Houlihan’s team blamed her positive test on a pork burrito that she had consumed the night before her out-of-competition drug test in December 2020—an explanation that was ultimately rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).) In a public statement, the normally taciturn head coach of the Bowerman Track Club said that Houlihan’s case had “eroded all the faith” he ever had in the current anti-doping system. He proceeded to directly address the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Athletics Integrity Unit: “Shame on you! Shame on you for not caring about the truth,” Schumacher said. “You do not deserve this power.”

The grim specter of “Burritogate” reappeared earlier this week after another BTC athlete announced that she had left the team. In an Instagram post last weekend, the Canadian runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford said that she had relocated to Victoria, British Columbia, to train with Athletics Canada West Hub coaches Hilary and Trent Stellingwerff. The decision hadn’t been easy, as DeBues-Stafford had a largely positive and athletically successful experience with BTC. However, the news about Houlihan’s suspension had been “deeply upsetting” for her at the time and had “almost derailed” her Olympic campaign. Although DeBues-Stafford raced well in Tokyo—she finished fifth in the final of the 1,500 meters—she said that the “ongoing aftermath” of Houlihan’s situation was too much of a distraction for her to remain with the team.

Subsequent reporting from 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 to Houlihan, who appears to have been in Flagstaff, Arizona, at the same time as the team. DeBues-Stafford maintained that while BTC staff and Houilihan’s lawyers had been fastidious about making sure Houlihan’s training situation was in compliance with the rules for a suspended athlete, none of the other athletes had been filled in on the specifics. The vagueness didn’t sit well with DeBues-Stafford. In her opinion, it was BTC’s responsibility to put out a public statement explaining how any ongoing association between the team and Houlihan was on the level, especially considering how severely the team had castigated WADA. As she put it to LetsRun: “I do not think it is healthy for the sport to so vehemently argue that the current anti-doping system is not fit for purpose, only to retreat and not follow up and try to be a part of the change to improve it and address the concerns initially brought up.”

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

In the virtual press conference last June, the team’s leadership and Paul Greene, Houlihan’s lawyer, lambasted the current anti-doping system as irredeemably dysfunctional—a sentiment echoed in other media outlets. (A rather bizarre op-ed in the Washington Post kicks off by criticizing WADA for being overly focused on determining whether athletes were “clean” or “dirty,” as if this weren’t the organization’s principal purpose.) But the team has been largely silent since that time, even after the CAS decision was made public last September. At the risk of condensing 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 could have contained meat from an uncastrated boar with undescended testes when such animals represent only a miniscule fraction of the domestic food supply and 2) that said boar meat contained a concentration of nandrolone high enough to explain the level of the substance in Houlihan’s urine, when expert witnesses deemed this improbable.

For her part, Houlihan maintains her innocence and is still hoping to overturn the CAS ruling by appealing to the Swiss Federal Tribunal, the country’s supreme court. (CAS is located in Switzerland.) This protracted legal battle might explain why BTC has not commented publicly on the specifics of her case, although Houlihan has linked to critiques of the CAS ruling on her personal website.

But while keeping mum on an ongoing case—or at least a case that may yet be resurrected—might be justified, there is no reason why 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 concerns and struggles until finding out about all of this through her announcement,” Houlihan said in a statement issued to LetsRun. She added: “I wish I would have been given the opportunity to have those conversations with her regarding her concerns to see if I could have cleared anything up or eased the situation for her in any way.”

Houlihan seems to wish that DeBues-Stafford had reached out to her directly, but the blame for this mini fiasco clearly lies with BTC’s leadership. It’s a paradox of sorts: after they publicly stated that the current anti-doping system is broken, the onus is on them to convince everyone else—and certainly their own athletes—that they are still playing by its rules.

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