An American Olympic runner has blamed a pork burrito for a positive doping test that led to a four-year ban from competing in international sports, including the Tokyo Games this summer.
After she learned of the ban on Friday, the athlete Shelby Houlihan said the burrito she had 10 hours before her December urine test probably caused her to test positive for nandrolone, a performance-enhancing steroid.
The four-year ban means Houlihan, a former Olympian who holds the U.S. record in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters, will be forced to sit out the Tokyo Olympics as well as the 2024 Paris Games.
In a Tuesday post on Instagram, she said she had “never even heard of nandrolone” until she was told of her test result last week.
She said that nandrolone can be found in pork, especially pig offal, and the source of the steroid in her system “mostly likely” came from burrito she bought at an “authentic Mexican food truck” near her house in Beaverton, Oregon.
The athlete claimed that her levels of nandrolone were “consistent with subjects in studies who were tested 10 hours after eating this source,” but she said her defense was unfairly dismissed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
“I did everything I could to prove my innocence. I passed a polygraph test. I had my hair sampled by one of the world’s foremost toxicologists,” she said.
Though WADA agreed with Houlihan that there was no build-up of nandrolone in her system, proven by a negative test taken five weeks later, a single positive test could still lead to a ban.
The Athletics Integrity Unit, the regulatory body that issued Houlihan’s ban, said she violated the World Anti-Doping Code, which states that it’s athletes’ “personal duty” to ensure that no prohibited substance enters their body.
Nandrolone is an anabolic steroid. When prescribed, it can be used for testosterone replacement therapy and treatment of HIV-wasting syndrome, the involuntary weight loss seen in people with HIV.
Anabolic steroids are sometimes taken to increase muscle mass and improve an athlete’s performance. Doping regulations have thus prohibited nandrolone for over 30 years.
But a study funded by the WADA, the organization that issued Houlihan’s ban, recognized that trace amounts of nandrolone can be found in pork and can be detected in human urine samples if consumed.
The positive test left Houlihan “completely devastated, lost, broken, angry, confused and betrayed by the very sport that I’ve loved and poured myself into just to see how good I was,” she said in her post.
She said she would fight to prove her innocence.
During a press conference on Monday, Houlihan’s attorney Paul Greene implored the WADA to report the positive result as an atypical finding and to test Houlihan again “to not ruin an innocent athlete based on one abnormal result.”
Greene said that he was considering appealing the result to the Swiss Federal Tribunal.
In the past, there have been similar cases of athletes being suspended for traces of banned steroids found in certain meats.
In February, Kenyan distance runner James Kibet got banned from the sport for four years after testing positive for nandrolone.
Kibet admitted to the doping violation, but he also suggested the steroid could have entered his body through pork meat, Reuters reported.
Similarly, the Athletics Integrity Unit said it was his personal duty to ensure he didn’t ingest any prohibited substance.
In October 2019, Thai badminton star Ratchanok Intanon was cleared of doping violations after testing positive for clenbuterol, a substance that was linked to meat she ate at a barbeque restaurant.