By Brian Metzler
The U.S. Olympic Trials get started today in Eugene, Ore., with a lot of the usual anticipation and excitement that goes along with the track meet that selects the U.S. Olympic track team. The meet runs through July 27 and will be broadcast live on NBC and NBC Sports Network, as well as through NBC’s Peacock livestream service.
But it also opens with a dark cloud hanging over the newly reconstructed Hayward Field track stadium because of Shelby Houlihan’s doping conviction and the peculiar ways Nike and USA Track & Field have handled it.
To quickly review, Houlihan, a Nike-sponsored athlete who holds the American record in the 1,500m (3:54.99) and 5,000m (14:23.92), provided an out-of-competition urine sample in December that was positive for nandrolone — specifically 19-norandrosterone, aka nandrolone — an anabolic androgenic steroid prohibited at all times according to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list.
Houlihan claimed it entered her system by eating a burrito with contaminated pig offal meat from “an authentic Mexican food truck” in Beaverton, Ore., but the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) panel unanimously determined that Houlihan had failed, on the balance of probability, to establish the source of the prohibited substance in her system. On June 4, Houlihan received a four-year ban retroactive to Jan. 14 that will eliminate any chance of her competing in not only the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, but also the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials and 2024 Olympics in Paris.
In most cases, track athletes who test positive for performance-enhancing drugs first have a hearing before a disciplinary panel of the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of World Athletics, the international governing body of the sport. But with the U.S. Olympic Trials and Tokyo Olympics quickly approaching, Houlihan last week took her appeal directly to the CAS in Switzerland, which ruled against her and upheld her four-year ban.
Even though the CAS decision was deemed final and binding, it didn’t stop Nike, the Bowerman Track Club (BTC) and USATF from saying and doing a lot this week that seemed contrary to the authority of CAS and WADA and threatened to undermine the entire system of anti-doping control in the sport.
On Monday, in an orchestrated online press conference Houlihan, her attorney Paul Greene, and BTC coaches Jerry Schumacher and Shalane Flanagan pleaded their case with some rather inconsistent semantics. Also Schumacher claimed to have never heard of nandrolone, even though it has a long dirty history in track and field because it is known for enhancing athletic performance, aiding endurance by carrying more oxygen to the muscles via red blood cells, building muscle mass, and optimizing recovery. Schumacher and Flanagan also each insisted several times that Houlihan had only trace amounts of the banned substance in her urine sample, while in fact Houlihan had 5 ng/mL in her system, which is more than double the legal limit of 2 ng/mL.
In a stunning move late Wednesday night, USATF re-inserted Houlihan into the 1500m and the 5000m fields and then on Thursday morning distributed what it said were the final heat sheets for Friday’s preliminary races in those events, which included Houlihan. The USATF Managing Director of Communications Susan Hazzard then made a statement backing up those decisions, saying, “Given there is an active appeal process, USATF will allow any athletes to continue competing until the process is completed.” There was a rumor on Thursday that Houlihan had obtained a legal injunction from a U.S. court, but details of that never surfaced. Houlihan's only remaining option would be to appeal the CAS decision with a Swiss tribunal, which is essentially a legal Hail Mary.
With enormous national and international outcry from the competitive running community, it seemed possible that Houlihan was going to be allowed to compete. But if that had happened, World Athletics might have been able to suspend any other athlete in those races.
The AIU released a statement Thursday saying that it had contacted USATF about the situation to remind USATF that it must respect and implement the decision of the CAS. Finally, on Thursday evening, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee stepped in to clarify the matter. USOPC chief executive officer Sarah Hirshland said the USOPC, "together with USATF," would adhere to the World Anti-Doping Agency Code and any rulings from the Court of Arbitration for Sport "that govern athlete participation in sanctioned events."
Early on Friday morning, USATF updated the status of entries showing Houlihan to be “not qualified” and “not accepted” for both the 1500m and 5,000m.
But there remains a wide range of questions and skepticism stemming from this week’s events, including:
1) Are Schumacher and Flanagan running a clean program at the BTC? Or have Nike’s arrogance and hyper-competitive vibe in track and field shrouded its integrity the same way it appeared to with its old Athletics West track club and the more recent Nike Oregon Project training group run by now-suspended coach Alberto Salazar?
2) What’s going on with the BTC? Several key athletes were dropped by the team or dispersed on their own at the start of 2021, including Kate Grace, Colleen Quigley and Ryan Hill, while others, including Lopez Lomong and Evan Jager, haven’t really raced much this year. Jager released a melodramatic video on Monday (coincidentally just after the Houlihan-Schumacher-Flanagan press conference on Zoom) in which he said he wouldn’t compete in the Trials because of a calf injury.
3) Were Houlihan’s American records, which she set after dramatic time drops between 2017-2019, tainted by drug use? Will Houlihan retire or try to come back in four years at the age of 32?
4) How will all of this week’s news impact other BTC athletes who are legitimate contenders to make the Olympic team, including Matt Centrowitz (Houlihan’s boyfriend), Elise Cranny, Karissa Schweizer, Vanessa Fraser, Grant Fisher, Woody Kincaid and Sean McGorty?