The non-reaction to Ross Tucker's analysis of the Shelby Houlihan decision underscores the running media's ignobility and irrelevance
Also, the key parts of the story Tucker omitted from his work for Letsrun.com
Letsrun.com recently commissioned sports scientist Ross Tucker to write a thorough analysis of the decision by the Court for Arbitration of Sport (CAS) last June to impose a four-year ban on American 1,500-meter and 5,000-meter record-holder Shelby Houlihan for a doping violation. I’m going to comment on Tucker’s contribution in a later post, but this one is a table-setter, in which I rip one of the legs off the table and start beating everyone seated there over the head with it while yelling, “This was always obvious—as—fuuuuuuck!”
As many will recall, Houlihan learned in mid-January of last year that she had been automatically, if “provisionally,” banned from the sport after a urine sample she had submitted one month earlier was shown to contain high levels of metabolites of the steroid nandrolone. Houlihan and her allies concealed this news for five months, quietly waiting to see if the defense upon which she hinged her appeal effort—a badly botched dinner order—would provoke World Athletics to overturn the ban in time for Houlihan to compete at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in late June. That badly botched gambit failed, with the CAS instead going the other way and handing down the maximum penalty under the circumstances: A four-year compulsory vacation from athletics.
Houlihan and her Bowerman Track Club coach, Jerry Schumacher, were then forced to stage a Zoom event “attended” mostly by clown-journalists in which Schumacher—already complicit in Houlihan’s fable about an injury having kept her out of racing to that point in 2021—disclosed the news of the ban. Here, Schumacher claimed while asserting Houlihan’s innocence that he had never even heard of nandrolone.
To observe that this level of ignorance on the part of a professional track coach “stretches belief,” as Tucker did, is too kind; for Schumacher to disavow any knowledge of a peripatetic banned substance means that Schumacher is either a genial liar or a jovial imbecile with a selectively porous memory. As for which is more likely, consider the success level of his athletes, then re-read the previous paragraph. (During the Zoom session, Schumacher complained, hilariously, “I’ve got a team full of athletes now who are afraid to be tested. Who wants to be tested by WADA now?” Yeah, like everyone on the squad was clamoring to be first in line before.)
In late August, the CAS released a detailed explanation of its findings, properly termed a “full reasoned decision.” This is the document Letsrun asked Tucker to systematically review. The result is here, and on the day Letsrun published the piece, it also ran a Q-&-A with Tucker in which the site honchos challenged Tucker to further explain some of the assertions in his main essay. Whether or not these challenges were rooted in genuine skepticism of Houlihan’s guilt is immaterial; they were necessary to allow Tucker to “steel-man” his conclusions, so either way the companion piece was an excellent piece of journalism by Letsrun.
I’ll take a moment to solemnly acknowledge the many differently abled pundits who have proven unable to join me in my reviewing of Tucker’s work. Perhaps being confronted with good journalism is why the same clowns who were invited to the Zoom gathering along with representatives from Letsrun, and who have been keeping their readers abreast of Houlihan’s exploits-in-exile, have thus far chosen to take a pass on Tucker’s and Letsrun’s latest: They would, as Jonathan Haidt says, rather shoot darts into their own heads than perform even token acts of full-fledged journalism. And in this case, they can always use the perpetual excuse of having declared Letsrun a terrorist organization and therefore a blacklisted resource when it comes to linking to offsite content—even when that content is generated by someone as respected as Tucker.
But a dangerous allergy to Letsrun may not fully explain why Runner’s World, Fast Women, The New York Times, Women’s Running, Citius Mag, and Outside Online—almost all of which have been interested in every fresh piece of Houlihan-related news since her banned status became public—have had nothing to say about Tucker’s piece. Instead, ponder the influence of Phil Knight’s Hayward Magic project on at least some of these media outlets, either though the Citius Mag-led “Magic Boost” extension of Hayward Magic or other means; regardless of what the old bastard says about brand neutrality, no one involved in this project will ever publish a story meaningfully critical of Nike’s athletes or business practices. (Imagine an army of “journalists” modeling themselves after Chris Chavez, who is not only unethical but whose writing peppers the eyeballs like sand grains riding a strong breeze.)
But pretending none of this is a factor: Okay, sure, Tucker’s new analysis didn’t really offer anything new to people who had already read the “full reasoned decision” by the CAS with an understanding of its clear implications. But something tells me that if Tucker had suggested even tepidly that Houlihan had been shafted, the silence we’ve* seen from these sources since Tucker’s essay was published would have been replaced by ample noise about getting Shelbo back on the track. Runner’s World even recommended in 2017 that its readers follow Tucker on Twitter, saying he had “a reputation as a rambunctious – and perceptive – challenger of any research or endeavour in the sports science world he sees as questionable, flaky or downright dangerous.”
Anyway, on April 21, the Letsrun homepage looked like this:
The New York Post-style all-caps headline, which I would bet 4 trillion francs is the work of Rojo, is slightly misleading. While it’s true that this is exactly what Tucker did for Letsrun, he had already clarified his position on the likelihood of Houlihan being innocent multiple times.
In this Twitter thread, posted last Jund in the near-immediate aftermath of the Zoom bullshit-dissemination session, Tucker, who is South African, scoffed obliquely at the hypocrisy the American sports media was showing by embracing an absurd burrito story its members surely would have rejected with resounding prejudice had the banned athlete been Russian or Kenyan. He also wrote, “late-career improvements are suspect every time”—with Houlihan’s startling improvement beginning in 2018 being a storyline in her ban the entire media has been loath to touch.
Then, in an episode of the Real Science of Sport podcast two days later, Tucker reiterated these ideas, but more emphatically. He says that had an athlete from Russia or East Africa demonstrated the same late-career jump Houlihan had, no one would have even needed a positive test to effectively convict that woman of doping. [Edit: Jump to just before the 11:00 mark for this material.]
And what about that progression is so startling? Nothing, to warbling snapperheads like Erin Strout and Chavez. But virtually every detail, if you understand distance running as well as Tucker, the Letsrun crew, and (I suspect) Alison Wade and Sarah Lorge Butler. Martin Fritz Huber of Outside Online is a smart guy, but he writes dumb shit because his only role for that outlet is to create and amplify drama for his editorial shitlords, not offer sincere analyses, so it’s both unclear and moot what his sense of a “dirty progression” resembles. But when Houlihan came clean about being unclean last June, Huber was distraught about “the brutal uncertainty” of her ban.
Tucker’s essay should have helped dissolve any remaining uncertainty in this area for Huber and others, but if so, they’re evidently standing on the sidelines in silent awe.
If you care to understand why almost every top-level coach and knowledgeable observer I know took it as a given that Houlihan was doping for at least two years before she was caught—when she peed hot, that is, not when she and her motley posse of beaming bullshitters admitted that this had happened—it’s really simple: A distance runner who has been training steadily and in good health at a high level for a long enough time simply doesn’t make the kind of improvements Shelby Houlihan did at age 25, when she was already over two years into her professional career with the BTC and Schumacher.
Houlihan was a legitimate stud in high school, graduating in 2011 with a fastest mile time of 4:43.64 (equivalent to a 4:22.6 for 1,500 meters). In 2015, she graduated from Arizona State University with a raft of All-America honors and the following personal bests:
After graduating from ASU, Houlihan immediately signed with the BTC and headed for Portland.
There are a number of ways to evaluate Houlihan’s professional running career using her World Athletics profile page. I recommend clicking on “Progression” at the top of the summary table, which reveals her top performances in every calendar year at a given distance, indoors and outdoors.
Houlihan, like a lot of distance runners who are already very good by the time they finish college, made a substantial jump in her first year as a pro. In 2016, she took over six seconds off her best collegiate 1,500-meter time, but more importantly made the Olympic team in the 5,000 meters, carving her time in that event down to 15:06.
2017 probably felt like letdown for Houlihan, despite her winning three U.S. track titles. She ran 15:00.37 for 5,000 meters and a slightly superior 8:37.40 for 3,000 meters, but her fastest 1,500 meters was 4:06.22. She reached the World Championships 5,000-meter final, but placed only 13th. At the end of the year, she had been training with the Bowerman Track Club for about two and a half years, making quick progress at first before appearing to level off somewhat. Very standard stuff here.
2018, however, was a different story altogether. Though free of global championships, it was, as Houlihan’s now-deleted BTC bio proclaims, “a year of breakthroughs for Shelby.” She scared Shannon Rowbury’s American 1,500-meter record with a 3:57.34 in early July and broke Rowbury’s 5,000-meter U.S. record later that month with a 14:34.45.
The next year, re-focusing on the 1,500 meters for the World Championships in Qatar, Houlihan laid down a 3:54.99 in the final to take fourth and smash Rowbury’s AR by 1.13 seconds. She also broke 2:00 in the 800 meters for the first time, her 1:59.92 wiping a five-year-old 2:01.12 from her personal-record slate.
2020 brought the coronavirus and a host of BTC intrasquad meets in Portland, and at one of these, Houlihan ran 14:23.92 to become, briefly, the fastest American woman ever by close to 15 seconds. Then Karissa Schweizer followed her across the line in 14:26.34. Schweizer was already the owner of the American indoor 3,000-meter record, having run 8:25.70 in Boston that February to Houlihan’s 8:26.66.
So, to review:
Houlihan ran 2:01.12, 4:09.67, 9:03.71, and 15:49.92 in college.
Houlihan ran 2:01.56, 4:03.39, 8:37.40, and 15:00.37 in her first two full years as a member of the Bowerman Track Club, ending with the 2017 outdoor season.
Houlihan ran 1:59.92, 3:54.99, 8:26.66, and 14:23.92 in 2019 and 2020.
It may not be evident even to the comparatively cogent how unlikely it is for a distance runner who’s been training hard and consistently since her early teenage years to make two very distinct jumps in performance as a professional athlete. There is essentially no benign explanation for this, especially given when the first jump already takes the athlete to the national-class level or higher.
Taking 37 seconds off a 5K time when you’ve already worked for many years “just” to get to 15-flat is a certain way to attract suspicion, especially when accompanied by marked changes not only in physique but facial appearance.
As absurd as it is, I feel like it’s necessary to remind people reading this and saying, “Yeah but…” that Houlihan has been fucking suspended, with only the supremely self-deluded or stupid clinging to the notion of her innocence. The only real question is why she wasn’t protected from the consequences of this along with so many of her peers.
So, it’s no mystery what Tucker’s opinion about Houlihan has been from the start, and why at root level he held it when he sat down to compose his article for Letsrun. But his job for Letsrun was to stick to the elements in the CAS decision, not editorialize about why it wasn’t a surprise to learn that Houlihan had provided a “hot” urine sample. That’s where I will pick this up next time.