The Railroading of Shelby Houlihan

[This post, with ensuing discussion, first appeared June 21, 2021 on]

There seems to be a great deal of confusion and deliberate misinformation about certain aspects of the Houlihan case, which are worth clarifying. Many commentators seem uncomfortable with the uncertainty that surrounds her case and, in their zeal to combat doping, have engaged in rumor and unfounded accusations against Houlihan and others, choosing to be certain that she and her associates are wrongdoers. This witch hunting is a moral defect and will not lead to a positive result for anyone in the sport. I have no idea whether Houlihan is a “clean” athlete or not, but what I am certain of after researching her case in depth, is that she is not receiving any kind of due process in this specific case, and if nothing changes, WADA is coming for all of you, either by way of a single questionable test, or through guilt by association. I have spread this post out in three sections to make it more digestible and easier to reply (Burritogate, The Sample, What Does It All Mean).

Part 1: Burritogate

First of all, it is entirely possible a Mexican food truck would be serving the parts of a male pig that are typically high in nandrolone, which does not in any way imply it was wild boar meat imported from Mexico or some other foolish assertion. If you’re going to assassinate someone’s character, at least spend 3 minutes on Google to determine that a “boar” is simply a male pig, which in no way implies it was wild or rare. It also seems entirely reasonable that someone would prefer to order food from a provider in an outdoor setting at the height of a pandemic rather than from inside a restaurant.

In American factory farming, boars are typically castrated unless they are chosen to be breeders. The reason this is done is because a minority of them (say 15% +/-10) will otherwise produce an unpleasant odor known as “boar taint” that is much more noticeable to some people than others, though it is perfectly safe to eat. Many farmers are turning to the drug Improvest, approved by the FDA in 2011, to immunologically castrate pigs temporarily instead of the traditional surgical method performed at a much younger age. If an immunologically castrated pig is not butchered in a prescribed time window, there is more of a chance it will contain higher levels of nandrolone. But that’s only one possible explanation for the hit of nandrolone Shelby ingested in December.

More likely is that the pork was sourced from a small local farmer who didn’t bother castrating their male pig (which makes more sense when raising pigs at a small scale), or that it was a cryptorchid pig where the testes are not always visible. For an adventurous read on cryptorchidism in pigs see:

In any case, the point is that the consumption of pig offal is quite common and, if you think about it, there will never be any shortage of such parts wherever pigs are butchered. Here’s a revealing discussion among small-time growers about whether and how to castrate their pigs, that leaves me with the impression there’s lots of uncastrated male pig meat out there.

To give an idea of the range of nandrolone in various types of pigs and their organs, there is an excellent table on Page 73 of “Analyses for Hormonal Substances in Food Producing Animals”.

It shows, for example, a range of nandrolone in the liver of 11 boars that was between 1-63 nanograms per gram, so the level will really depend on the pig that day and which part is ingested. Many people have referenced the 2000 Bizec study in which subjects ate 310 grams of pork, saying that’s a huge amount, but understand those 310 grams included regular meat as well as nandrolone-rich liver and kidney. A burrito from Chipotle can weigh more than 650 grams, so it’s not implausible Shelby could have gotten a large hit of nandrolone from a virile pig on that unlucky day and it wouldn’t necessarily take 300 grams to do it.

Many have noted she ordered a steak burrito and said she should have noticed it was pork right away and asked for a replacement on the spot. Maybe where you live is different, but in my experience, Mexican take-out places are notorious for getting orders mixed up, and it’s easy to understand how they might want to push cheaper pork burritos out the door anyway. It’s also worth asking all those athletes and foodies out there who claim to avoid pork offal if they actually make it a strict practice to refuse foods like bratwurst, liverwurst and bologna that also contain pork liver and other “trimmings” which could contain nandrolone. Here’s a great description of a local Beaverton farm that makes its own sausage and sells it at the Beaverton Farmers Market. I’m sure it’s absolutely delicious.

Part 2: The Sample

Many folks have suggested that the 5 ng/ml of nandrolone detected in the single sample was a high amount, and exaggerate by saying things like it’s ‘250% over the limit!’. In fact, 5 ng/ml is a very low amount and entirely consistent with it being from ingested pork. From 1998, the nandrolone limit for females was 5 ng/ml (2 ng/ml for males) until it was set back to 2 ng/ml by WADA in 2004. During pregnancy, the WADA limit is raised to 15 ng/ml and according to their rules, any amount less than 15 ng/ml must be tested using the most accurate and appropriate methods for a given sample. When Linford Christie tested positive for nandrolone, for example, his level was 200 ng/ml, and CJ Hunter had a level of 2000 ng/ml. One study by Christiane Ayotte found a level of 160 ng/ml after the subject had eaten pig offal:

It is remarkable that the latest WADA technical document (TD2021NA) on testing for nandrolone has a section which deals specifically with pig offal.

The document states: “The origin of the urinary 19-NA may not be established by GC/C/IRMS analysis… Therefore, if the consumption of edible parts of intact pigs is invoked by an Athlete as the unlikely origin of a 19-NA finding, this may be established based on the pharmacokinetics of 19-NA excretion.” In other words, if the chemical signature of the 19-NA is inconclusive even after using the most sophisticated test available, they may look at how quickly the nandrolone was excreted by the athlete over time (using multiple tests) to help determine its origin. WADA did not do this and Houlihan’s lawyer, Paul Greene, shows how the chemical signature of nandrolone in the sample was not consistent with it being from a synthetic source (either oral or injected) in this key slide shown during his press conference (queued at the 3:52 mark):

The study shown in the slide above was (again) by Christian Ayotte, the very same person who tested Houlihan’s urine, and it concludes that with respect to the ingestion of pig offal: “… the urine sample collected in the few following hours can contain principally 19-NA glucuronide in an amount that could be in vast excess of the threshold for positivity.” An easier-to-read explanation of the chemical signature of nandrolone can be found in Richard Lovett’s excellent article in Women’s Running:

Part 3: So what does all this mean?

There is no doubt Houlihan purchased food from a Mexican food truck 10 hours before she was randomly tested because there are records which prove it. For it NOT to be the source of the nandrolone would be an extraordinary coincidence, and could only be explained by hypothesizing she visited the truck deliberately in order to consume nandrolone orally and have a ready-made excuse in case she was tested. The problem with this theory is that a single dose of nandrolone taken orally would offer no benefit, since it gets metabolized within hours, and she could just as well delay the test or take a whereabouts violation. If she had injected nandrolone, that would have been detectable in her urine for many weeks or months, and all other tests (16 performed in 2020) and the one taken 5 weeks later, were negative. If she instead regularly took oral doses of nandrolone (eg. multiple times per week), with presumably many visits to the Mexican food truck to hide it, there might be some performance benefit (though it would damage her already-damaged liver). However — and this is a crucial point — such a dosing regimen would have left telltale traces of nandrolone in her hair. When her hair was tested (which WADA could also test), it was negative. Therefore, the only possible doping explanation is that she somehow got hold of nandrolone that had a similar chemical signature as endogenous pork nandrolone, and the ONE TIME she ingested it happened to be in the hours before she got randomly tested. I find this extremely hard to believe, and even if it were true, the punishment would not be justified since it would have offered no benefit, just as eating tainted pork once would offer no benefit.

Why would WADA do this?

WADA is not in the business of figuring out the truth; their goal is to reduce the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports across the world in a uniform way, and using Shelby’s positive test and subsequent punishment as a warning to other athletes achieves that objective. WADA needed a “win” before the Olympics, and from their perspective, it doesn’t matter whether Shelby was actually clean or not.

As I have researched this story, one name stands out above all others: Christiane Ayotte. She is the author of numerous studies on nandrolone and is probably the world’s foremost expert on how to detect it. Thus, many have unknowingly quoted her studies to defend the testing which she herself performed, which can lead to a kind of circular reasoning. She was President of the World Association of Anti-Doping Scientists, and runs the WADA-accredited doping control laboratory in Montreal that performed the test on Houlihan’s sample. WADA, an international organization, is headquartered in Montreal. More than anyone, it was Ayotte who decided that Houlihan’s sample was positive and exogenous. It was also Ayotte whose false testimony against long-jumper Jarrion Lawson was what helped him overturn the four-year ban he had received as a result of the test which she oversaw, as explained by a poster on Slowtwitch:

And in a Let’s Run feature article (behind a paywall):

To be fair, Ayotte has been fighting a legitimate war against PEDs for decades, and in her mind, it may have reached a point where the end justifies the means, even if that means someone loses their career in a way that is not justified by the circumstances. In 2005, she even posted about nandrolone on this very message board:

It is worth noting that the 2019 Technical Document which precedes the current one (TD2021NA) does not seem to materially differ in the way Houlihan’s samples should have been handled, however, the language and guidance with respect to pig offal was added only to the more recent version that became effective on April 1, 2021, which may have given them a little more wiggle room in January to misinterpret Houlihan’s sample as exogenous. In any case, because WADA was dragging its feet in a way that would’ve prevented Houlihan from participating in the Olympics, her lawyer had no choice but to force WADA to hold the hearing with CAS at a date earlier than they had wished, which I speculate may have caused some resentment and lack of due process on their part.

Many have suggested the entire philosophy behind the current testing paradigm that WADA employs for track & field athletes needs to be replaced. I agree and believe athletes do not enjoy sticking themselves with needles and ingesting dangerous substances, and that if they felt others weren’t competing against them using those means, they too, would not feel the need to resort to such measures. In my opinion, the key to fixing this problem is for world-class athletes to gain a set of common benefits by virtue of being accepted and belonging to that group, and for the athletes themselves to ultimately govern their own behavior, similar to the way professional leagues like the NBA do through unions. Although I cannot imagine an international T&F union, I can see country-based organizations that could provide, for example, comprehensive and long-lasting health care once athletes have reached a world-class level, along with incentives to discourage and treat the abuse of drugs in a discreet way that is not meant primarily to enforce fairness, but is done instead for the health and safety of those who participate in the sport.

As for me, I have no affiliations and am simply a hobbyjogger that buys all those fancy shoes you all are wearing and cares about the sport. if you tend to distrust those who post anonymously (and you should), you may find me on Twitter at the handle used here.

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