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Sensemaker audio

Blame the burrito

Blame the burrito

The American track star Shelby Houlihan has lost her place at the Olympics after testing positive for a steroid. She blamed a Mexican takeaway


Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, the story of an Olympic hopeful – and a performance-enhancing burrito?


“But Houlihan has got Simpson in her sights, they’re both going past… and Houlihan storms away to gold here to win the U.S. title ahead of Jenny Simpson…”

Shelby Houlihan winning the 1500m US National Title in 2018

That’s Shelby Houlihan winning the 1500m national running title in 2018… 

She’s an American middle distance runner…. and was expected to be a medal contender at the Tokyo Olympics.  

But Shelby Houlihan’s Olympic dream just came crashing down…

“After a confusing back and forth we have it confirmed now that Shelby Houlihan will not be allowed to race at the US Olympic track and field trials.”

News clip

In January, Shelby Houlihan was told she was being suspended from competing.

A recent drug test had come back positive for a banned substance. They found five nanograms per milliliter in Shelby’s system, an extremely low level.

“Houlihan faces a four year ban from the sport after she tested positive for the steroid nandrolone.”

News clip

It’s a steroid commonly used by bodybuilders. It’s a bit like testosterone… it can help increase muscle mass. You can take it in a tablet, or inject it into muscles. But Shelby Houlihan says that before she received the email, she’d never even heard of nandrolone. 

“When I got that email, I had to read it over about 10 times and google what it was that I had just tested positive for. I’ve never even heard of nandrolone before.”

Shelby Houlihan speaking

And after some research, Shelby Houlihan learnt that eating pork can lead to a false positive for the drug.   

After putting together a food log of everything she ate around her drugs test, Shelby Houlihan claims that a burrito she bought and ate from a Mexican food truck ten hours before the test was to blame for the positive result. Soon after, she gave a hair sample which proved that she hadn’t been taking the drug regularly. 

But it didn’t matter – her suspension was upheld. 

So the question is: who do we believe?


Now Shelby Houlihan isn’t the only athlete to be caught out.

“Who is going to be in yellow in Paris? Well three-time Tour winner Alberto Contador is the favourite with the bookies… he’s far from the favourite though of many Tour watchers thanks to the ongoing doping controversy that’s dogged him since last November…”

News clip

Back in 2010, traces of a breathing drug called clenbuterol were found in a urine sample given by the triple Tour de France winner Alberto Contador. He blamed a steak he’d eaten – because the drug is sometimes given to cattle, illegally, to speed up their growth.

And like in Shelby Houlihan’s case, the amount detected was miniscule. If the substances had been taken regularly, there would be more of a build up in the athletes’ bodies. But it was still in their system.

“If you’re in that echelon of athlete where you’re contending for the Olympics you don’t want to take any risks or take any chances whatsoever. Why would you risk eating this burrito with pork in it if you knew that your levels could be mildly elevated?”

Traci Mitchell, Nutritionist & Health Coach


Each year, the World Anti-Doping Agency publishes a list of substances that athletes are banned from using. And because of advances in technology, that list could keep growing. 

New studies into paracetamol have found it has “doping potential” because it lowers body temperature, something that could help cyclists or marathon runners. Some herbal extracts are now thought to have enhancing effects too.  

And that’s why Houlihan and Contador are able to use the innocent eating of meat as their defence – doping controls are able to catch tiny amounts of a banned substance in the system.

But there’s a different kind of race on, too. New substances that give athletes a competitive advantage are constantly being developed, as testing tries to keep up. 

“In 2011, an anonymous survey asked more than 1,200 athletes whether they had used performance-enhancing drugs. The result, which was kept quiet for six years, was astonishing… 44% admitted to doping but typically only 1-2% of samples test posit”

Doping in Sport, The Economist

But with the Tokyo Olympics happening in a month’s time, sporting bodies are keen to clamp down and try to guarantee a clean race. 

Innocent or not, speedy burrito or no, it’s unlikely we’ll see Shelby Houlihan out on the track anytime soon. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.