It’s a paradox that as the testing equipment gets more sophisticated, the certainty over who is doping and who isn’t gets blurrier.
Machines are now so sensitive they can detect the minutest amounts of a performance-enhancing drug, exposing as cheats people we were once certain were clean. But those same machines can’t necessarily determine the source of the PEDs, making some of those stories that sound too wild to be believed – like a tainted burrito, perhaps – actually true.
I don’t know if Shelby Houlihan is clean or not. I find it incredulous that anyone in track and field could be unfamiliar with nandrolone, as Houlihan and her coach Jerry Schumacher claimed. Houlihan might be too young to remember Linford Christie and Merlene Ottey’s doping scandals involving the same drug, but Schumacher is not.
But Houlihan’s attorney makes a compelling case that anti-doping officials didn’t follow their own rules, and there is plenty of evidence that eating certain kinds of meat can produce low-level amounts of anabolic steroids, nandrolone among them.
What I do know is that keeping sports clean can’t be done at the expense of athletes who are innocent. Whatever loopholes exist in the World Anti-Doping Association’s testing protocols, or in the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s procedures, they must be closed.
Houlihan, the American record holder in both the 1,500 and 5,000 meters, announced Monday that she will miss the Tokyo Olympics and maybe Paris after being banned for four years for a positive test for nandrolone last December. Houlihan blamed a burrito she’d gotten at a food truck the night before, saying it must have contained pork organs, or offal.
Anti-doping officials have determined that innocent sources can produce low or trace levels of eight banned substances. These include diuretics, certain types of medication and, yes, some meats. In the past five years alone, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has seen almost 30 cases of positives caused by inadvertent ingestion of these substances.
WADA has, in some cases, recognized this. In June 2019, for example, WADA said low levels of clenbuterol would no longer trigger an anti-doping violation and instead be investigated as a possible case of contaminated meat.
But it has not done the same for nandrolone – despite a study out of one of its own labs last fall that found these low-level amounts of the drug could be caused by eating pig or boar offal, and warning of the potential for false positives.
WADA did, however, include language about possible meat contamination in this year’s nandrolone technical document, which spells out procedures and protocols for testing and verifying positive samples. If an athlete claims meat contamination, additional testing should be done to rule it out.
But Houlihan’s attorney, Paul Greene, said it wasn’t in this case.
“They weren’t required to,” Greene said, when asked what explanation he was given. “According to them, (a recommendation) doesn’t make it mandatory. It doesn’t say 'shall' but strongly recommends it. But in my view, when somebody’s life is at stake, why wouldn’t you seek a second opinion if it’s strongly recommended?
“If the second opinion would have said (it indicated synthetic nandrolone) it would have strengthened their opinion. If not, they couldn’t have gone forward,” Greene added. “We’ll never know what the second opinion would have said, because they didn’t seek it.”
Greene also maintains Houlihan should never have been charged with an anti-doping violation in the first place. He said Houlihan’s urinary markers are consistent with that of meat contamination. Rather than triggering an “adverse analytical finding” – a doping violation, in plain English – it should have been classified as an “atypical finding,” which would have required further investigation of Houlihan’s claim and subjected her to additional testing.
Houlihan said in the Instagram post announcing her ban that hair sample analysis did not show a buildup of nandrolone in her system, as it would have if she was doping.
"Entire case appears to be about lab procedures. Will have to see final award to be sure, but appears arbitrator concluded lab procedures not followed," Bill Bock, the former general counsel for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said on Twitter after CAS issued a release Tuesday about the decision.
"This case could be very important!" Bock added. "It is critical athletes have confidence in what goes on in labs."
There has been little sympathy and lots of lecturing from those in the United States, myself included, when athletes from other countries are busted for doping, and no doubt there are some who see Houlihan’s ban as a case of comeuppance. But this isn’t meant to excuse her.
There can be no room for cheats, doping or otherwise, in sports. But punishing athletes because of flawed protocols and procedures, errors that can be easily identified and addressed, does little to achieve clean sport.
Performative justice might be a lot of things. Actual justice isn't one of them.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Shelby Houlihan positive test steroid raises questions about process