Beyond the Scoreboard: Are There Drugs in Your Burrito?


Houlihan will have to face her punishment, missing the opportunity to compete in the 2024 Olympics. (Courtesy of Twitter)

The Olympics is a dream for any athlete. Some would say that COVID-19 was a blessing because they took advantage of the extra year to train. With this extra year came extra practice, extra hard work and extra discipline. Not many people get a second chance to earn a spot on the international stage, and those who did made sure to make the most of it. 

When we begin to talk about training hard and being a dedicated athlete, every trainer, coach and athlete knows that it takes more than just workouts, weight training and endurance to be strong. Being conscious of what you put in your body is a big part of discipline and training, there is no question about that.

For professional mid-distance runner Shelby Houlihan, being on the professional stage was nothing new to her. She attended East High School located in Sioux City, Arizona when she ran the mile, 800m and 1500m. She was named Gatorade Player of the Year in 2011, and was the first female athlete from high school to win three events in one year at the Drake Relays. 

Houlihan committed to and ran at Arizona State University where she won the 1500m at the NCAA Championship Meet in 2014. She currently holds school records in the 800m, 1500m, one mile and 3000m. 

Houlihan began her professional career in 2015 when she started training with Nike and the Bowerman Track Club in Eugene, Oregon, otherwise known as Tracktown, USA. She qualified for the 2016 Olympics in the 5000m, and she placed 11th in the final. 

At a 2018 Belgium meet , Houlihan broke the American record for the 5000m, running 14:34.45. Then again in 2020, Houlihan bested herself, running 14:23.92 in a team time trial. 

Houlihan also still holds accolades in the 1500m. She set a new American record of 3:54.99 at the 2019 World Outdoor Championships. 

Then, in 2021, Houlihan was banned from the sport.

In December of the previous year, Houlihan tested positive for an anabolic steroid, more specifically nandrolone. It was not until June of 2021 that the Bowerman Track Club announced the news. With the Olympic trials coming up, Houlihan had appealed the ban, claiming that she had eaten a burrito with small amounts of the drug in it. She alleges that she ordered a carne asada burrito from a small food truck right by the track where the team normally practices. Houlihan claims that the food truck servers actually gave her pork instead of the carne asada meat she ordered. Since the test was the morning after she ate the burrito, Houlihan alleges this could be the reason why she tested positive for the drug. 

There was a lot of controversy surrounding this ban on Houlihan, and the track world was split on the issue. While contesting the ban, she was still entered to run in the 2021 Olympic trials of 1500m and the 5000m, the two events where she holds the current American records. It was not until the day of the event that Houlihan was ruled ineligible to compete in her races. 

USA Track & Field (USATF), the national governing body for track & field, had originally made a statement about athletes who were under the appeal process, hinting at Houlihan’s situation. They said, “Given there is an active appeal process, USATF will allow any athletes to continue competing until the process is completed.”

After this statement, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s USA CEO made a statement claiming that because she was “under sanctions,” Houlihan was not allowed to compete. He continued, “It would be illegal for her to do so, unless a court orders differently.”

The USATF was going to allow Houlihan to race in the 2021 trials until other athletes started to weigh in and talk publicly about the situation. In writing an open letter to the USATF, many athletes had this to say:

“Dear @usatf we are calling attention to #cleansport with an open letter signed by the running community. Any additional signatures, we ask for you to retweet with #cleanUSATF”

With over 400 retweets and 1000 likes, the support for having a “clean sport” was clear. At this point, the USATF had overturned their decision and removed Houlihan from the heat sheet.

With representation from organizations such as the Athletics Integrity Unit, this case has emphasized the importance of having fair competition for everyone. Houlihan is not the only athlete accused of taking steroids, but even so, she needs to go through the appeal process  just like everyone else. 

Houlihan claims ignorance and that she would never take any performance enhancing drugs, but for the drug to show up on a drug test, she would have had to eat a lot of pork burritos. 

Bowerman Track Club, coached by Jerry Schumacher, had many athletes step up and compete in Houlihan’s absence. Her teammates voiced their support for her as many of them captured the audience’s attention, earning spots to Tokyo in almost every distance event. 

This is not the first time that Schumacher has seen nandrolone.

Houlihan will have to miss the 2024 Olympics after being handed a four year ban from the Court for Arbitration of Sports. However she chooses to confront that battle will ultimately reflect how she prepares for the reaction from the track world.