VERIFY Weekly: Athlete bans heading into the Olympics

The suspensions of Sha’Carri Richardson and other athletes have led to many claims. Here’s what’s true and what’s false about the high-profile bans.

Many headlines leading up to this year’s Olympics have been about the athletes who won’t be able to compete in Tokyo. That includes American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who will miss out on the Olympics after testing positive for marijuana, and long-distance runner Shelby Houlihan, who was suspended four years after testing positive for a steroid called nandrolone, which she attributed to a pork burrito she ate before her drug test.

As part of this week’s “VERIFY Weekly” feature, the VERIFY team investigated claims on the high-profile athlete bans. You can watch the full video on our YouTube page here.

THE QUESTION

Was Sha’Carri Richardson suspended by USA Track & Field?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, Sha’Carri Richardson was not suspended by USA Track & Field. She was suspended by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

WHAT WE FOUND

The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee says the USADA suspended Richardson under international rules set by the larger World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The USADA also tossed Richardson’s victory in the 100-meter race at the U.S. Olympic Trials because of the positive test.

In a statement, USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart confirmed the organization suspended Richardson and referenced two other Olympic hopefuls who were suspended for similar violations.

 "Per the rules, she received the absolute minimum period of ineligibility, with the minimum being one month. We’ve had two other recent cases, Tate Jackson (swimming) and Kahmari Montgomery (track and field), involving THC positives that were resolved the exact same way – with a minimum one-month sanction and disqualification."

Despite the suspension, Richardson was still eligible to participate in the 4x-100-meter relay race in Tokyo because the event takes place after her suspension is over. But USA Track & Field did not select Richardson to be part of the team.

THE QUESTION

Did Michael Phelps compete in the Olympics after testing positive for marijuana?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, Michael Phelps never tested positive for marijuana, although Phelps was suspended after a photo showed him holding a marijuana pipe to his mouth. However, the timing of Phelps’ suspension did not overlap with the Olympics.

WHAT WE FOUND

After news broke of Richardson’s suspension, some people compared her situation to Michael Phelps.

There are a couple of factors that make Richardson’s and Phelps’ situations different. One is that Phelps never tested positive for marijuana.

In 2009, a British newspaper published a photo that showed Phelps with his mouth on what appeared to be a marijuana pipe. In a Feb. 1, 2009, Facebook post, Phelps released a statement saying he “engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment.”

USA Swimming responded by suspending Phelps for three months.

But the biggest difference between Phelps and Richardson is the timing of their suspensions. Phelps’ suspension came less than a year after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where he won a record eight gold medals. So, while he was suspended for three months, the suspension had no impact on his participation in the Olympics because the next summer games were not until 2012.

Meanwhile, the USADA says Richardson tested positive for marijuana from a sample taken on June 19, 2021 – the day she won the 100-meter race and qualified for the Olympics. Her suspension began on June 28.

According to the 2021 WADA code, suspensions for a positive THC test can be reduced to three months if the athlete can prove the use of the “substance of abuse” was out of competition and unrelated to sport performance. That suspension can be further reduced to one month if the athlete completes a treatment program, which the USADA says Richardson did.

THE QUESTION

Has consuming pork been linked to elevated levels of nandrolone?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, research has shown a connection between the consumption of pork, particularly non-castrated pork, and elevated levels of nandrolone. However, experts say the consumption of the castrated pork that’s commonly found in the United States would not likely result in a positive test.

WHAT WE FOUND

Shelby Houlihan, who holds the women's American record in the 1,500-meter and 5,000-meter races, won’t be competing in Tokyo after she tested positive for an anabolic steroid called nandrolone. In an Instagram post, Houlihan blamed the positive test on a pork burrito she ate “approximately 10 hours before that drug test.”

There are studies that have examined a potential link between pork and elevated levels of nandrolone. In a study published in 2000, three male volunteers each ate 310 grams, nearly 11 ounces, of non-castrated boar tissue and had their urine sampled before, during and 24 hours after consumption. Urine samples taken 10 hours after boar tissue consumption showed levels of nandrolone above the Olympic doping standard.

Dr. Shalender Bhasin, a professor of medicine with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said while the participants in the study consumed non-castrated boar meat, almost all of the pork people eat in the U.S. is from castrated pigs, which he says have exceedingly small amounts of nandrolone. 

“People have studied this, that eating the meat of wild boars can result in a positive test within a few hours after eating that meat and it can stay positive for a few hours,” Bhasin said. “But that's not the case in real life because nearly all of the meat that's commercially available, that you might find in a restaurant or in a grocery store, comes from castrated pigs.”

Bhasin said eating meat from a grocery store would not lead to a positive nandrolone test.

“I think that is the question that these types of stories raise amongst athletes: whether they should be fearful of eating meat that might make them disqualified,” Bhasin said. “And the short answer is that it's not possible to fail a doping test by eating meat from a grocery store or eating a regular vegetarian or non-vegetarian diet.”

THE QUESTION

Can female runners be disqualified because their natural testosterone levels are too high?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, female runners who compete in international races between 400 meters and one mile can be disqualified because of naturally high testosterone levels.

WHAT WE FOUND

The Namibia Olympic Committee said two of its top female runners won’t be allowed to compete in the 400-meter race. One of those runners, Christine Mboma, has the fastest 400-meter time in the world so far this year.

But Mboma and her teammate, Beatrice Masilingi, have been ruled ineligible because their natural testosterone levels were too high.

The rule was put into place by World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field competitions. In 2018, World Athletics lowered the threshold for an acceptable level of natural testosterone for women. The rule only applies to women competing in races between 400 meters and one mile.

The rule has sidelined some of the best female middle-distance runners in the world. In fact, the three women who medaled in the 800-meter race at the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics can no longer compete in the event because of their high natural testosterone levels.

World Athletics says the rule is not about cheating, because women with naturally high testosterone levels are not cheating. But the organization says the rule is about “leveling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition.”

Although Mboma and Masilingi can’t compete in the 400-meter race, their Olympics dreams were not dashed. They also qualified for the 200-meter sprint. And because the testosterone rule does not apply to shorter races, they can compete.

More from VERIFY: No, Japan isn’t banning Black Lives Matter apparel during anthems at the Olympics. That's an IOC decision

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