Last week, Shelby Houlihan, the American record holder in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters, announced that she had tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone and received a four-year suspension from the sport. Houlihan says she has never doped, and her team offered an alternative explanation for the positive test: She had ingested the banned substance from a burrito she ordered from a food truck. Houlihan’s suspension knocked her out of this month’s U.S. Olympic trials and also will prevent her from competing at the 2024 Olympics in Paris if not overturned.
On this week’s episode of Hang Up and Listen, the hosts discussed Houlihan’s case with David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene and Range. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh Levin: As soon as I heard about the story, I started bothering David about it because it seems so ridiculous. Shelby Houlihan claims she ordered a carne asada burrito, which is a beef burrito, but that she ingested the nandrolone because she’d eaten pig offal. So she was alleging burrito cross-contamination. But David, you told me that you don’t think her story is so ridiculous, or actually if it is ridiculous, you don’t think it has much bearing on whether she’s innocent or guilty.
David Epstein: There are a lot of issues here. She had to try to establish the source of the nandrolone for her appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. They were appealing on a technical matter that hasn’t really been in the news, which is that if it is meat contamination, as opposed to injected nandrolone, the testing procedure is different.
So with a female athlete, first they check, are they pregnant? Because there’s some natural nandrolone if they’re pregnant. When they say they’re not, it goes to this other testing area, and then there’s another split in what happens depending on if it turns out that the nandrolone was naturally produced by some other animal or it was injectable. And so to argue the case, they were forced to try to come up with some plausible story.
Houlihan gave her hair samples, she had other tests around it that were negative, so she’s probably not injecting it, or those tests would have been positive. It’s improbable that someone would be taking nandrolone orally—it doesn’t work as well orally. The burrito story is improbable. Maybe they don’t know where it came from.
What we’re left with is: Nandrolone is a common contaminant. It makes up most of the positive tests that the Athletics Integrity Unit finds. We know it gets injected into meat illegally. Versus the chance that she was for some reason taking it orally, which would be very rare, and the stupidest thing you could possibly take.
So I’m sort of stuck between these improbable stories, but my reflex these days when someone tests positive for nandrolone is to think that it may be accidental because it’s a substance that everyone knows not to take on purpose anymore.
Joel Anderson: Is your sense then that people really don’t mean to take nandrolone anymore as a performance-enhancing drug? Because I remember even going back to the ‘90s, like Linford Christie, Merlene Ottey, great Olympic sprint champions tested positive for nandrolone and were suspended. So is your sense then that it really has fallen out of favor with elite athletes because it’s so easy to detect?
Epstein: When I reported on baseball, when someone would say they had a false positive test, I always said, “BS,” except I came around on nandrolone specifically because it’s a common contaminant and it’s the single easiest thing to test for. Even baseball’s sorry-ass testing basically kicked nandrolone out of use, because if you inject it, which is how people typically use it, it is detectable for months.
As testing has gotten somewhat better and more truly random, it quickly fell out of favor, because if you’re injecting it, which again, is the way that people take it, it gets stored in your fat deposits and the metabolites are detectable for a long time. Otherwise, you could take it orally. I haven’t really heard of people doing that before. And it also wouldn’t be as effective. But I do think it’s a drug that for professional athlete use, it kind of went bye-bye when testing became legitimately random and independent.
Stefan Fatsis: So it’s not that the burrito story is improbable. It’s that it’s irrelevant. Like you said, she had to make up something because to take your case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, you need some defense. When the real defense here is that these tests are probably too sensitive now, they’re too good, they can detect too small traces of banned substances, and they sort of defy logic because the logic of using nandrolone just doesn’t exist anymore.
Epstein: I know when the Athletics Integrity Unit started and they did a report on doping in Kenya, there were a bunch of positives, and everyone was like, there’s a huge problem. If you actually look at the breakdown, most of them were nandrolone positives. I don’t think that’s because suddenly the most popular drug is the stupidest one to dope for. I think it’s because it actually is a common contaminant.
This is not to say that Shelby Houlihan is not doping. I find the burrito story to be improbable, but I also find it improbable that an athlete in her position took the last thing she should have taken, and somehow the tests around it also were negative. And again, not only did they have to make some case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, they had to make a case specifically establishing the source to say that the wrong testing pathway was gone down. And so if the answer is, you don’t know what the source is, you still have to come up with something.
Fatsis: Are we potentially being stuck with the notion that people that are getting caught are in fact not doping? A couple of these stories that have gotten attention in the wake of the Houlihan case are astounding. Jarrion Lawson, the American long jumper, ate a beef teriyaki bowl at a Japanese restaurant in 2018 and tested positive for a metabolite of trenbolone. Then his agent had to go track down the beef supplier for the restaurant. And Lawson was exonerated because of text messages, in which he said what he was going to go have for lunch. His agent said, “Had he ordered the chicken bowl instead of the beef bowl, he would have saved himself $2 million and his reputation.” This seems just absurd.
Epstein: And it’s incredibly improbable, but that turned out to be true, right? Luckily, they were able to establish a source. People inject steroids—whether legally or illegally—into animals for the same reasons they inject them into humans: more meat. Those things happen. You just have to hope that you get lucky to establish the source. That’s where I’m concerned about the Athletics Integrity Unit—I think the savvy dopers are still largely going to get through. Just doing the threshold lowering in the absence of anything else, I don’t think you’re going to get a lot more real dopers, but you’re going to get a lot more accidental cases. Fortunately, for a lot of athletes in the U.S., they get legal representation and appeal. In a lot of other places, they don’t really have that. So athletes from poor places just fade away and don’t end up fighting those fights.
Levin: Maybe we can end with a conversation about branding. The ways in which athletes—and I think distance runners in particular—make it part of their image that they’re clean and that they want to get dopers out of the sport. And the Nike-sponsored Bowerman Track Club that Shelby Houlihan is on is reputed to be a clean team, right? They talk about being clean athletes. My sense was that led to a lot of people being disappointed or disillusioned when they heard about Shelby Houlihan. And so I’d like to get your thoughts on both athletes who represent themselves as being clean and make that a big part of their self-identity and whether that should kind of carry any weight with us, but also about the continued capacity for people who follow the sport to be surprised and disappointed when anyone tests positive for anything.
Epstein: Unfortunately, I think self-identification as being clean should not carry a lot of weight. I think we’ve learned that lesson from Lance Armstrong, if no one else. I do think there are things you can do, though. I think the biological passport has made a little improvement, which is where instead of looking for a drug or its metabolites, you test people repeatedly over time and you look for signatures, like fluctuations in their blood levels. I think things like the biological passport put athletes today at a doping disadvantage compared to athletes of many years past. One of the places you see that is a lot of the women’s records are still stuck in like the ’80s and early ’90s when you could really dope with very little chance of getting caught. I think it would be interesting if Shelby Houlihan decided to release her biological passport data. She hasn’t been sanctioned because of that, but when you look at someone’s biological passport data, you can say short of someone being sanctioned like, “That doesn’t look so good.” So I think there’s steps that athletes could take. Then again, Lance did that at one point and put it on the internet briefly before taking it down with a clear doping signature.
But I think people in the running community, there are teams you hear lots of rumors about, and a lot of times those rumors end up bearing out in some way or another. And I would say in the running community, this was not a team that you heard a lot of those rumors about. That doesn’t mean someone’s not doping—individuals on an otherwise clean team can be doping on their own, but I think that’s part of the disappointment is that you hear chatter about teams where things are going on a lot and this wasn’t one of those teams.
Fatsis: But we also need to factor in that these organizations shouldn’t be considered above reproach either. There’s all sorts of conflicts of interest. You’ve got like the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart, talking openly about how we’re sacrificing innocent athletes. So there’s a lack of trust in this system overall. It feels like we’ve gone a little bit from not trusting athletes at all and assuming everyone was doping—because that was not an unreasonable assumption—to being skeptical of the process by which we attempt to catch athletes.
Epstein: Before the Rio Olympics, when I was at ProPublica, I did an interview with a guy who had just left as WADA’s first and only investigator. He had been a former DEA agent. And he just sort of came out openly and said that his boss was slow-walking the Russia investigations because the head of WADA was an IOC member. These are political bodies. In many cases, I think international sports governance bodies have all the conflicts of interests of international politics, but with even less of the accountability. You have a lot of political conflicts and motivations that have nothing to do with clean sport.