Some athletes go to great lengths to compete at the top of their game even if it means using substances that aren’t legal in their sport. That’s why, in most sports, athletes are routinely tested for performance-enhancing drugs. The governing bodies want to ensure there isn’t cheating.
Sometimes athletes accept a positive test and its associated penalties; other times they fight it and claim the positive test wasn’t their fault. Recently, track and field champion Shelby Houlihan did the latter after producing a positive steroid test. You won’t believe her excuse.
Shelby Houlihan’s track and field career
Houlihan has had a noteworthy track and field career, according to her accomplishments on her USA Track & Field biography. The Iowa native was a 12-time All-American during her collegiate career at Arizona State University. Houlihan won gold in the 1,500-meter race at the 2014 NCAA Division I Outdoor Championships. She took second place in the 5,000-meter at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2016, earning her a spot on Team USA at the Rio Olympics, where she finished 11th in the event.
Houlihan won the silver medal in the 1,500-meter at the 2018 IAAF Continental Cup. She also holds two American records in distance running. She set a new American mark of 3 minutes, 54.99 seconds in the 1,500-meter at the world championships in Qatar in 2019. The following year, she beat the American record in the 5,000-meter by running a time of 14 minutes, 23.92 seconds In Portland, Oregon.
Houlihan tests positive for steroids
Just days before the start of the U.S. Olympic Trials for track, ESPN reports Houlihan announced on Instagram in January that she was informed that her drug test came back positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone. The 28-year-old subsequently learned pigs naturally produce the substance in high amounts, so eating pork can lead to a false positive. Houlihan reflected on what she ate leading up to the test. She realized she ate a pork burrito from a Mexican food truck near her Oregon home about 10 hours before her drug test.
She appealed the test result with the World Anti-Doping Agency, noting the pork that she ate, which WADA acknowledges can create a false positive. Houlihan even passed a polygraph test and had a hair sample analyzed by toxicologists, which proved she didn’t take the substance regularly.
Despite that, the court hearing her appeal upheld the test and the resulting four-year ban. Houlihan will not only miss the Tokyo Olympics this year, but also the Paris Olympics in 2024 and next year’s track worlds — the first held on American soil. Houlihan says she felt “completely devastated, lost, broken, angry, confused and betrayed by the very sport that [she’s] loved.”
Other athletes’ explanations for positive tests
Houlihan isn’t the first athlete with a strange excuse for a positive steroid test, Salon reports. In 2012, former MLB player Melky Cabrera had someone create a fake website selling fake products. He claimed he accidentally ingested performance-enhancing drugs using a phony product from the site. That didn’t work, as the league and the FBI traced the site back to him.
When U.S. cyclist Tyler Hamilton was caught blood doping in 2004, he blamed the foreign blood on a “vanishing twin” he claimed he absorbed into his body prior to birth. He eventually came clean and admitted to blood doping after testing positive on numerous occasions.
In 2011, five members of the North Korea Women’s Soccer Team tested positive for steroids at the World Cup. Their explanation: Lightning struck them and they used a traditional Chinese remedy, which involved deer musk glands, to recover.