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Doping: The excuses for adverse analytical findings are getting more and more absurd

By Prof Dr Steve Cornelius, Centre for Sport and Entertainment Law, University of Pretoria, South Africa

When athletes return adverse analytical findings after anti-doping tests, their reactions follow a familiar pattern. They usually begin with an expression of utter surprise at the adverse finding. Athletes often claim that they have never even heard of the particular substance. Then come the excuses: a switched water bottle; inadvertent use of cold medication; eye drops; or skin cream.

Recently, some of the explanations have become quite bizarre.

In 2018, long jumper Jarrion Lawson returned an adverse analytical finding when he tested positive for the steroid Trenbolone. Lawson argued that he had eaten tainted beef at a Japanese restaurant in Arkansas the day before he took the anti-doping test. Lawson made a compelling case and, eventually, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) concluded that the amount of Trenbolone, found in his urine, was consistent with the consumption of contaminated beef. The fact that Trenbolone was part of a cocktail of drugs developed for Russian athletes prior to the 2014 Winter Olympics was conveniently disregarded.

In the most recent case, US record middle distance runner, Shelby Houlihan returned an adverse analytical finding for Nandrolone. Houlihan denied doping and claimed that she had never even heard of Nandrolone. For some exotic substances, this can be expected, but for a professional athlete to say that she has never heard of Nandrolone, is astounding.

Firstly, it is clearly listed in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) list of banned substances. This would suggest that Houlihan has never paid any attention to the list of banned substances. Perhaps one could excuse a high school athlete for paying no attention to the list of banned substances, but for a professional athlete, it is grossly negligent.

Secondly, Nandrolone is the anabolic steroid which has returned the most adverse analytical findings. Any professional athlete, who has never heard of Nandrolone, must live in extreme ignorance.

Houlihan then blamed the adverse analytical result on a burrito containing pig offal, which she had bought from a Mexican food truck near her house in Oregon. This sounds like another fanciful explanation which seeks to rely on the precedent set in the Lawson case. However, there have been scientific studies (see (PDF) Mass spectrometry-based analysis of IGF-1 and hGH ( and (PDF) Feeding Effect of an Anabolic Steroid, Nandrolone, on the Male Rat Testis (, which have suggested that the eating of contaminated pork can, indeed, result in an adverse analytical finding.

Nandrolone is also a substance which occurs naturally in trace amounts in the human body. As a result, there has, in the past, been some scientific controversy surrounding positive tests for Nandrolone, which, some scientists have argued, could simply have been the natural occurrence of the substance in the human body. For this reason, WADA has worked tirelessly to refine the testing procedures for Nandrolone, so that natural levels and inadvertent use could be largely eliminated. This would certainly have had some impact on the outcome of the appeal before the CAS.

The CAS rejected the explanation and Houlihan was banned from competition for four years.

In the final analysis, the WADA Code makes it clear that athletes are responsible for the substances which they ingest.

The Shelby Houlihan case, as well as the Jarrion Lawson one and other athletes, who have blamed tainted meat, should serve as a warning to athletes to ensure that they only make use of reputable dealers when purchasing food, particularly meat; and that they should only frequent restaurants and eateries that sell certified hormone-free meat.

The trend towards more healthy living means that such restaurants and eateries are no longer hard to come by!

Prof Dr Steve Cornelius may be contacted by e-mail at ‘This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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