When news broke yesterday announcing the Shelby Houlihan drug suspension, the first thing that came to mind was, “no way Coaches Schumacher and Flanagan are involved.”
Remember how Shalane aggressively front ran at the 2014 Boston Marathon the year that Rita Jeptoo ran 2:18 and blitzed the 25th mile faster than the men? Shalane and Coach Jerry Schumacher studied Boston’s history beforehand and concluded 2:21 would be a winner. And that’s what she ran. But instead of winning, Shalane ended up just being a rabbit who got beat by a serial doper who got popped later after a test in Chicago.
That history, and Shalane’s entire record, which was excellent but not red-flagging in any way, doesn’t lead one to believe she decided to make a deal with the devil with someone else’s career as a coach.
And neither does Coach Schumacher’s history leading his alma mater the University of Wisconsin or the Bowerman Track Club. There was a clear division in Beaverton separating the two Nike-sponsored clubs, BTC and Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project where Alberto was willing to go to the nth degree and Jerry wasn’t.
That history doesn’t lead you to suppose Schumacher changed his stripes for Shelby Houlihan either, though claiming he hadn’t heard of nandrolone beggars belief as it ranks third among anabolic steroids behind stanozolol and drostanolone.
But if it wasn’t the coaches, we are only left with the rogue athlete theory as a possible conclusion if Houlihan’s positive finding from December 2020 wasn’t caused by the food contamination (a tainted pork burrito) claimed by the athlete.
Rogue athlete is a well-known species in East Africa. Look at all the high-profile Rosa & Associates athletes who have been popped for drugs over the last decade. Yet even after Federico Rosa was taken to court in Kenya in 2016 to try to pin the tail on his donkey, he was exonerated and came away a free man whose current athletes are still readily welcomed at major events around the world.
I remember speaking to Jeptoo’s coach Claudio Berardelli in New York City after Rita Jeptoo’s ban was announced the morning of the NYC Marathon press conference. With exasperation, he said, “I’m with them 6 days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. But I can’t be with them 24 hours a day!”
And as we’ve witnessed from undercover journalists, there any number of pharmacists and doctors in Kenya who are more than willing to dispense drugs to athletes free of charge until the wins and rewards have come in. Then they’ll take their percentage.
Years ago Swedish marathoner Kjell Eric Stahl and I were discussing the drug issue, and he said, “you know, there are people in sport who come from parts of the world where they will do anything to get out of the poverty they live in.”
Think Bulgarian weightlifters or Eastern Bloc athletes.
The very notion of Fair Play can be seen by some as a luxury for the Haves that does not so easily apply to the Have Nots. It is not too hard to imagine an athlete from meager means convincing themselves that what they’re doing is for the greater good for their family. Level playing fields don’t exist off the fields of play.
That’s why when a corn-fed Iowa girl pops for drugs and is subsequently suspended after appeal, the first reaction is to say, “well, that can’t possibly be. Nothing in her past suggests she’s a doper. In fact, just the opposite.” Yet it’s just as easy to assume that an East African or Russian is guilty as charged. That’s simply a parochial bias.
Other big-name American athletes have failed drug tests and subsequently been exonerated upon an appeal having claimed food contamination. Ajee Wilson, Will Claye, and Brenda Martinez fall into that category. But their cases were handled and adjudicated by USADA, while Houlihan’s case was handled by the Athletics Integrity Unit and appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.
Triple jump star Jarrion Lawson was able to redeem two years off a four-year drug ban after his appeal to the CAS, also claiming tainted meat, found a Montreal lab director had given false testimony. Evidently, the CAS was less convinced by Ms. Houlihan’s appeal, though the same lab director handled her case as Lawson’s. On page 2 of their media release dated 15 June 2021, the CAS wrote, “Finally, the CAS Panel unanimously determined that Shelby Houlihan had failed, on the balance of probability, to establish the source of the prohibited substance.”
Knowing food contamination cases exist and your dreams are hanging in the balance, why would you ever get within a javelin throw of a Mexican roach coach in an Olympic year!? The great Japanese marathoner Toshihiko Seko used to bring his own food and cookware to Boston and Chicago in the 1980s to make sure he got the right nutrition and didn’t eat something locally that might upset his stomach on race day.
However you come down on the Houlihan case, though, it is worth remembering Sir William Blackstone’s 1783 admonition from his commentaries on the Laws of England: “For the law holds, that it is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”
Maybe too many guilty parties have gone free in the past as the record books are still littered with questionable marks. And we have been taught to be cynical, to question the myriad of excuses, from tampered toothpaste, to turtle soup, and now tainted food trucks. But it’s just as easy to be skeptical of the testers, too, as Mr. Lawson discovered during his appeal. In any case, until the CAS releases the full Houlihan caseload, the possibility remains that we’ve turned Sir Blackstone’s adage upside down.
It used to be so easy, so simple. Now it’s all askew, nobody knows what to believe, and it’s not likely to turn back around any time soon, if ever. So now it’s on to Eugene. Who knows what news and savagery will crop up there?