Opinion: Allowing Shelby Houlihan to run while banned destroys American credibility

Well, this is certainly one way to get ready for the Olympics.

Not a good way, mind you.

USA Track & Field is trashing any credibility this country has when it comes to anti-doping by allowing Shelby Houlihan to run in the Olympic trials this week. Houlihan, the American record holder in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters, announced Monday that she’d been banned for four years after a drug test found trace amounts of the anabolic steroid nandrolone, and would miss the Tokyo Games.

Houlihan blamed her positive test on a burrito, and said the Athletics Integrity Unit, which handles anti-doping for World Athletics, erred by not considering she might have eaten tainted meat, which studies have shown can produce low levels of nandrolone. Seeking an expedited decision, Houlihan took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which announced Tuesday that it had upheld her ban. Now it seems as if Houlihan might be trying to get a Swiss tribunal to take up her case.

All of which is fine, and is her right.

What is not right is for USATF to thumb its nose at an anti-doping structure it long ago agreed to just because one of its athletes – a medal favorite, I might add – disagrees with a decision. Imagine the outcry if it was the Russians doing this. The howls and jeers would be so loud they’d be able to be heard from Eugene all the way to Ekaterinburg.

Shelby Houlihan will be allowed to compete at U.S. Olympic track and field trials while any appeals she files are pending. (Photo: Jasper Jacobs, Belga/AFP via Getty Images)

“Given there is an active appeal process, USATF will allow any athletes to continue competing until the process is completed,” spokeswoman Susan Hazzard said in a statement.

Added USATF CEO Max Siegel, “You can always resolve the outcome later, but you can’t re-run a race.”

The naïve mindset behind those statements is surpassed only by their American arrogance.

Robust anti-doping programs only work if everyone, you know, actually adheres to the rules. Houlihan and USATF might not like the results in her case, and might have a point, but that doesn’t matter. USATF is a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s code, and it can’t just pick up its ball and go home when a decision doesn’t go its way.

There is a significant portion of the code that outlines the process for deciding cases and hearing appeals. Unless I missed some really, really, really fine print, nowhere does it say anything about a banned athlete being able to compete after CAS has made a final decision. 

If this was the case, bans would be toothless because an athlete could simply try one legal Hail Mary after another to drag out the appeal process until his or her career is over.

“Horrible horrible precedent,” 2018 Boston Marathon winner Des Linden, who ran in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and was fourth in the Tokyo trials, said on Twitter.

“I’m disgusted.”

All American athletes should be.

If USATF and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which has the ultimate responsibility for trials, are willing to flout the rules in Houlihan’s case, what’s to say they haven’t done it before? Or would in the future? That kind of cynicism will cast doubt on the accomplishments of every American, regardless of their sport.

It’s also incredibly hypocritical.

Americans, myself included, have taken great umbrage at Russia’s state-sponsored doping system, which helped the Sochi hosts win the medal count in 2014. We have looked sideways at African runners who set world records in times that seem too good to be true.

We’ve justified our condescension and criticism by saying that while, yes, we have had our doping issues – Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong are two of the biggest cheats there’ve been – these were individual acts. We’ve touted the rigorous testing done by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and proudly proclaimed American athletes to be among the most tested in the world.

The implication being that Americans would never stoop so low as to coordinate a campaign to game the system and cheat their way to the top. It’s just not how things are done here.

But, given USATF’s decision to allow Houlihan to continue competing when she’s banned, maybe it is.  

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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