On January 14th, 2021, Shelby Houlihan received an email from the Athletics Integrity Unity (AIU) notifying her that her drug sample given on December 15th, 2020 has returned as an Adverse Analytical Finding for an anabolic steroid called Nandrolone and she was provisionally suspended. Since that day, Shelby and her legal team have been fighting to prove that she did not take Nandrolone or any other prohibited substance in any form. Throughout the years, drug testing has evolved to become more and more sensitive. These tests can now pick up on the smallest traces of substances in the human body. What they don’t account for however, is that these trace amounts can be found in the US food supply. These can show up most commonly in meat and contamination of
vitamins and supplements. Even in these cases where it’s believed to have come from something in the food supply, it is the athlete’s responsibility to prove that they are innocent which can be an almost impossible task since in food contamination cases, you no longer have the original food source that was consumed. Shelby and her team don’t know with 100% certainty where this trace amount of Nandrolone came from. The only thing they know for certain is that she did not take it intentionally.
Here is what they do know:
-Nandrolone can be found naturally in high amounts in pig offal (pig organs).
-Shelby ordered a carne asada burrito from a Mexican food truck that also serves pig offal for dinner the night before her December 15th test.
-When consuming Nandrolone by means of pig offal, Nandrolone levels are at their highest concentration in the human body approximately 10 hours after consumption.
-Shelby ate her burrito approximately 10 hours prior to the December 15th test.
-Her burrito was also heavier and greasier than normal.
-Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US meat industry was not operating under normal circumstances or regulations.
-The meat she had possibly consumed on December 14th had been purchased in September 2020 and frozen.
-She also consumed Calcium vitamins, Multivitamins, Vitamin D, and a B-Complex vitamin.
Under the WADA technical document that governs the detection and analysis of Nandrolone, the presence of Nandrolone in a urine sample is not an anti-doping rule violation if the source is “endogenous” or naturally occurring. This includes the source being the consumption of pig (more specifically boar) offal. The technical document explains the way to determine whether the source of Nandrolone is endogenous (naturally occurring such as from the consumption of pig offal) or exogenous (synthetic such as from a steroid) is through further testing called a pharmacokinetic analysis. In order for this test to take place, the athlete’s levels need to be <10 ng/ml and their δ¹³C (carbon 13 delta value) needs to be between -15‰ and -25‰, which is in the accepted range of δ¹³C values for boars. Shelby’s levels were all well in this range. Her A and B samples were 5.2 ng/ml and 5.8 ng/ml (after being adjusted for specific gravity) and her δ¹³C value was -23‰ respectively. Shelby and her legal team contacted the AIU less than a week after being notified of her A-sample result and asked that a pharmacokinetic analysis be done as part of her B-sample confirmation test so that she could prove it was from an endogenous source. The AIU denied this request stating that it wasn’t required of them to do it.
Since the AIU refused to do the test to help establish the source, her legal team tried to prove her innocence in other ways including a hair sample, polygraph test, hiring a private investigator, and testing all possible sources. Shelby’s hair sample came back 100% clean which proved that she had no buildup of Nandrolone in her system. Also, her next several drug tests came back negative. Because of this, the AIU conceded that the Nandrolone could not have been from an injection and she was not repeatedly exposed to it. It had to be from something she ingested orally within hours of her test on the morning of December 15th. She passed the polygraph test with
99.8% accuracy. They hired a private investigator to look into the food truck, the source of their meat, and also purchased each burrito for testing (these came back negative but keep in mind this is almost two months later and not the original meat source). They tested all of her vitamins and supplements (a couple bottles had been completely consumed by the time she was notified and so they did not have the originals but bought new bottles at the same stores the originals were purchased.) They also sought out numerous experts who opined that her sample levels were consistent with the source being endogenous and from the consumption of pig offal. They immediately sent all of the information and results they had acquired over to the AIU.
After two months of waiting, they asked the AIU for any sort of update or timeline on the case. They were met with silence. Another few weeks went by with no response. With the Olympic Track and Field Trials quickly approaching, Shelby and her legal team requested to the AIU to lift her provisional suspension so that she could prepare and compete while her case was going on. Two weeks went by since that request and still, the AIU refused to respond. At this point, Shelby had been held in a provisionally suspended state for 4 months without ever actually being formally charged.
With the Olympic Trials looming overhead,
Shelby had no choice but to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). She was running out of time and the AIU was still remaining silent. CAS took over the case and the AIU was finally forced to officially charge Shelby with a Doping Violation. Shelby and her legal team agreed to an expedited single trial against the AIU in front of a 3 member CAS panel in the hopes of everything being resolved before the Olympic Trials began. The case trial was then set for June 4th with a final decision to be made by June 12th (6 days before the Olympic Trials began). Shelby found out on June 11th that she had lost this trial and was banned for 4 years. You can read the full CAS report and a detailed timeline of events in the Case Documents tab but ultimately the panel found that Shelby was a credible witness and that her defense was possible but in their findings, was not probable.
It’s worth noting that in these cases, the AIU does not have to prove the athlete intentionally doped rather it is the burden of the athlete to prove the source. Unfortuntely, Shelby was not able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the source of the Nandrolone in her system. She still doesn’t know with 100% certainty where the Nandrolone in her system came from. The one thing she does know is that she did not take it intentionally.
Shelby has continued to fight to prove her innocence. She and her legal team turned to the Swiss Federal Tribunal to appeal and hopefully overturn the CAS ruling. She was told it is extremely hard to overturn these cases and to not get her hopes up. Unfortunately, the Swiss Federal Tribunal dismissed her appeal and did not overturn the CAS ruling, exhausting the last of her legal opportunities to fight for her innocence. Shelby’s ban ends on January 14, 2025. She is still training and hoping to come back to the sport she loves once her ban has ended.
Thank you to everyone that has donated and shown their support throughout this process. Shelby’s GoFundMe is longer accepting new donations but if you would still like to help, spreading the word about the injustice of the situation is extremely helpful, as are all positive comments and energy thrown her direction.