On June 15, not long before the U.S. track and field Olympic trials, one of America’s best distance runners, Shelby Houlihan, held a press conference. She had just received word, she said, that international sports authorities had found her guilty of failing a drug test. Traces of the anabolic steroid Nandrolone had been found in her system after a routine urine test a few months earlier. At the time, she’d stated she was innocent and fought her conviction. But in June, the sport’s governing body rejected her appeal, and banned her from competitive running for four years.
Houlihan is 28 years old. Just last year she smashed the American women’s 5000 meters record, and she had a legitimate shot at winning an Olympic medal in Tokyo. She ran for Nike’s Bowerman Track Club, one of the elite running groups in the country. I will confess that I loved watching Houlihan run: she had an electrifying finishing kick. But a four-year ban means that by the time she is eligible to compete again, her best years will be behind her. Her career is effectively over. And last week, when the anti-doping authorities released their full report on the Houlihan case, all doubts about her guilt appeared to be erased.
At the heart of the case was the reason Houlihan gave for the presence of a banned substance in her body. She said that the night before her urine test, she had eaten a burrito from a food truck in her hometown near Portland, Oregon. She ordered a steak burrito. But, according to Houlihan, she was mistakenly given a pork burrito. The meat was heavy and tasted strange and she put it aside, without finishing. (And believe me, if you run as much as elite athletes run, you finish your burritos.) Why does this matter? Because pork offal that comes from an uncastrated male pig is a known source of exogenous Nandrolone. It was all the burrito’s fault, Houlihan said.
In its report on her case, released last week, the international governing body for track and field eviscerated Houlihan’s burrito defense: The likelihood that she ate contaminated pig meat that night was close to zero. First, aside from handing her the wrong burrito, the food vendors would’ve had to have made a major mistake — buying and serving uncastrated boar meat in place of their usual standard pork stomach. Second, the investigators said, the meat processing plant where the pork in Houlihan’s burrito came from doesn’t handle boars at all. The industry is highly regulated, with USDA inspectors at every plant. How would a boar have gotten in there?
When people in the running community read through the report, many of those who were at first in Houlihan’s corner changed their minds.
This is how Alan Abrahamson, one of the track world’s most respected journalists, put it in a piece on his website, 3 Wire Sports:
So an athlete you probably haven’t heard of gets busted for cheating, she offers a lame defense, and now her career is over. Why am I bringing this up? Because it touches on something that I’ve been fascinated with ever since I read a brilliant book many years ago by the sociologist Charles Tilly.
Tilly taught at Columbia University. He was one of the great minds of his generation. He wrote about things like war and democracy and labor movements over centuries. You can do a whole lot worse than to devote a few weeks to reading some Tilly. (Although, I’ll warn you, his books are not exactly beach reading.) At the end of his life, however, he wrote one final book, a short and elegant essay simply called “Why?”
“Why?” — as the title suggests — investigates how people explain their behavior to others: the reasons we give for what goes on, day to day. Tilly proposes there are four categories of reasons. (Tilly loved dividing things into categories. It's one of the things that makes his work so engaging.)
The first are what Tilly calls conventions — conventionally accepted explanations. What’s the reason you give for taking away your buddy’s keys? “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” Next are what Tilly calls codes: high-level conventions, such as rules and regulations. Telling your friend that he can’t drive because he’s over the legal limit is using a code. Technical accounts, the third category, are reasons that reference specialized knowledge: “Don’t drive because heavy alcohol use shuts down your frontal lobe and impairs your decision-making.”
Finally, there are stories — reasons that make a specific accounting of cause and effect: “I’m sorry about what happened today at work. I realize you’re upset. But I love you and there’s no reason for you to risk everything on the ride home.” That’s a story. It explains your reasons for not wanting your friend to drive home, and acknowledges the cause of his distress.
One of Tilly’s main points is that this list of reasons isn’t a hierarchy. One is not better than the other. But they serve different purposes: generally, if we’re thoughtful in our communication, we give reasons in a way that’s appropriate to the moment. The best friend of the would-be drunk driver should use a story. The bartender might be better off with a convention (“You’ve had three whiskies, Bubby”), while the police officer needs to use a code: “Your blood alcohol is 2.0.”
Tilly also argues that one of the major sources of social conflict is when two parties in a disagreement use different kinds of reasons to defend their side. In other words, the reasoning categories don’t match.
So: what does this have to do with the Houlihan case? When I watched Houlihan’s press conference in June, it sounded like a perfect example of the kind of “reason conflict” that Tilly was talking about.
The anti-doping authorities gave a code as their reason for sanctioning here.
Houlihan responded with a story.
In response, the track-and-field authorities systematically analyzed each of her claims. They brought in scientists as expert witnesses. They used a technical account: They argued, for example, that less than 0.5% of boars are cryptorchid — the condition that prevents a male boar’s testicles from descending and would account for its entering the pork supply chain. But what if that 1-in-200 boar got into the pork-processing plant, and ended up in Houlihan’s burrito? The authorities addressed that possibility, too: Scientists have done rigorous studies on the link between boar meat consumption and androgen levels in people. Houlihan’s androgen levels were 2-3 times higher than the highest levels found in those experiments — even for study participants who’d consumed much more than what Houlihan described eating that night. John McGlone, a professor of animal science at Texas Tech University, estimated that “the probability of a cryptorchid actually entering the pork supply chain is far less than 1 in 10,000.”
So the case went from code versus story, to technical account versus story. And everyone agreed — case closed.
But hold on, we still have a reason mismatch! And when I look at the Houlihan case, I continue to believe that the case against her requires not a code or a technical account, but a story.
The case cries out for that kind of detailed, personal explanation. Think about it this way. All competitive athletes are subject to regular, random drug tests. For some athletes, that can happen every few weeks. For others, it’s maybe once or twice a year. But if you are a world class runner you know, with 100 percent certainty, that you will be tested at some unknown future point. Now, what was the drug Houhlihan tested positive for? Nandrolone. Nandrolone is a powerful steroid that helps build muscle mass. If you take it, it will definitely help you run faster. (Particularly if you are a woman: for a number of reasons, women appear to get more of a “bounce” from performance-enhancing drugs). But Nandrolone is also a decidedly old-fashioned steroid. It’s been around since the 1950s, which in the high-tech, fast-moving world of PED use makes it a dinosaur. It has one critical characteristic: depending on how much of it you use, it can be detected in your urine for up to six months. In other words, if you are an athlete who deliberately uses Nandrolone, you have to be either very stupid or very desperate. Why? Because in a world of regular, random drug testing, you will get caught.
In order to accept the fact that Shelby Houlihan used Nandrolone, then, we need some kind of better explanation for her decision. Is she in fact really stupid—like, really stupid? Or, alternatively, was there some deeper reason why she would have behaved with such reckless desperation?
We need a story. And right now we don’t have a story. The closest we have to a story is the testimony from Houlihan and her running companions that they find the allegations against her totally unbelievable. And with good reason: they are unbelievable. Can you really be a world-class athlete, capable of astonishing acts of self-discipline and effort, and be that much of an idiot? Would a young woman with her career on the line and the Olympics only months away, really engage in a deliberate act of astonishing self sabotage? I don't think so.
So what's the real story? Clearly it isn't that she ate a tainted burrito. The report on her case laid that particular story to rest. But I can easily think of other, more plausible stories. The nutrition supplement industry in the United States is largely unregulated. Under the specific directions of Congress, the manufacturing processes of a company that makes a prescription drug is heavily scrutinized by regulators. But if you make a nutritional supplement, you get a free pass from government scrutiny. (Which, by the way, is a state of affairs so outrageous that it requires its own separate newsletter one day.) When you take a supplement from a health food store, then, you literally have no idea what you are actually ingesting. Most people, though, don’t realize this. Was Houlihan one of those unwitting supplement users? Is it possible that Houhlihan took an ostensibly legal supplement that had been inadvertently contaminated with Nandrolone? Sure. Cross contamination happens all the time in sloppily run drug manufacturing plants.
I’ve never met Houlihan. I can’t testify to her character. I don’t know for sure whether she is guilty or innocent. All I can say, with certainty, is that the process that found her guilty was completely inadequate to the task. You can’t rely on conventions and codes in a case that requires a story.