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Opinion: Allowing banned Shelby Houlihan to run would have destroyed American credibility

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The true test of principles is if you're willing to stand by them even when it's difficult or inconvenient.

USA Track & Field failed that test. Miserably.

USATF was ready to trash 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, is banned for four years after a drug test found trace amounts of the anabolic steroid nandrolone, but USATF said she could compete while she attempted the legal equivalent of a Hail Mary.

Fortunately, someone who realized the greater damage this hypocrisy would create stepped in.

"The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, together with USATF, can confirm that we will adhere to the (World Anti-Doping Agency) Code and any (Court of Arbitration for Sport) decisions that govern athlete participation in sanctioned events," USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said in a statement.

Houlihan might have a point that the Athletics Integrity Unit, which handles anti-doping for World Athletics, erred in not considering her failed drug test could have been caused by tainted meat. Houlihan thinks pork, which studies have shown can produce low levels of nandrolone, might have wound up in a burrito she'd gotten at a food truck the night before.

But that isn't the point.

As a signatory to WADA's Code, USATF agreed to the procedures for hearings and appeals, and that means abiding by and enforcing the decisions issued by CAS. When CAS said Tuesday that it had upheld Houlihan's ban, that should have been the end of it. Devastating as it was for Houlihan, rules are rules, and a robust anti-doping program only works if everyone is following them.

But USATF was ready to thumb its nose at the structure it long ago agreed to because one of its athletes – a medal favorite, I might add – disagrees with a decision. Imagine the outcry if it was the Russians doing that. 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.
Shelby Houlihan will be allowed to compete at U.S. Olympic track and field trials while any appeals she files are pending.

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

In hopes of running at the Tokyo Games this summer, Houlihan chose to take her case to CAS so she'd have an expedited hearing, and CAS said Tuesday that it had upheld her ban. Unless I missed some really, really, really fine print in the WADA code, nowhere does it say anything about a banned athlete being able to compete after CAS has issued a final decision.

"A final and binding CAS decision confirmed that Ms. Houlihan committed Anti-Doping Rule Violations and was subject to a period of ineligibility of four years beginning on 14 January 2021," AIU said in a statement on Twitter. "Ms. Houlihan's status during the period of ineligibility means that participation in any competition or activity authorized or organized by a World Athletics Member Federation, such as USATF (i.e., the Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field) is strictly prohibited."

If it wasn't, bans would be toothless. Athletes would continue the pretense of the legal process until their careers were over, traipsing around the world in search of any court that might give them a favorable ruling.

“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 was willing to flout the rules in Houlihan’s case, what’s to say they haven’t done it before? Or would in the future? And if the USOPC allowed it, that kind of cynicism would have 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 how willing USATF was to ignore the rules and let a banned athlete compete, maybe it is.

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

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Allowing Shelby Houlihan to run would have destroyed US credibility

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