U.S. long jumper and sprinter Jarrion Lawson, a member of Team USA in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, is no doubt familiar with the expression, “We are what we eat.” For the 26-year-old from Texas, those words have proven infuriatingly true.
In 2016, Asics signed Lawson to its largest deal ever for a male track athlete. The former Arkansas Razorbacks star had passed every drug test and consistently dominated the competition.
But on Friday, June 1, 2018, Lawson’s life would change—all because of a Teriyaki beef bowl.
While having lunch with a friend at a Japanese restaurant in Fayetteville, Ark., Lawson ingested a small amount of epitrenbolone, a metabolite of the anabolic steroid trenbolone. The amount, estimated at .65 nanograms per millimeter, was consistent with contaminated beef. It would be undetectable to an eater.
Trenbolone, which can be used to build muscle and improve stamina, is strictly banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at any level—no matter how low the value may be. But trenbolone is also used, legally, by the U.S. cattle industry to promote beef production.
The next day Lawson underwent an out-of-competition test and provided two urine samples. Although the laboratory retained by WADA uncovered the presence of trenbolone in Lawson’s samples two weeks later, it wasn’t until August when the Athletics Integrity Unit notified Lawson that he had violated an anti-doping rule—and that he would face a four-year suspension.
“He had never heard of this substance,” Lawson’s agent, Paul Doyle, tells Sportico.
But there wasn’t much Lawson could do at that point. “Under WADA’s system,” Doyle stresses, “for Jarrion to fully clear he had to get a sample of the beef 62 days later, which is impossible.”
Instead, Lawson and his attorney, Paul Greene, tried to recreate the scene.
Lawson found the credit card charge to the restaurant, which established that he ate there 19 hours before his test. He then visited the restaurant and, luckily for him, it still had a copy of the receipt, which confirmed that he and his friend ordered (among other things) a Teriyaki beef bowl. Lawson also preserved text messages with his friend that had communicated in advance about what they intended to order. His friend even provided an affidavit—a sworn statement made under penalty of perjury—confirming that it was Lawson who ordered the beef bowl. Meanwhile, the restaurant owner signed a written statement verifying that the beef was purchased from a particular vendor and was non-organic.
“If Jarrion had paid with cash that day,” Doyle stresses, “we lose the case. If he and the young woman he had lunch with didn’t text about what they wanted to eat, we lose the case. And if the restaurant didn’t keep the receipt more than two and half months after the meal, we lose the case.”
But it wasn’t until March of this year when Lawson was finally cleared. During the preceding 19 months, the three-time NCAA Champion remained suspended.
If that seems like an excessive timeline to be exonerated, it reflects the multistep WADA appeals process, which involved a hearing before the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS), an international arbitration body that reviews legal challenges related to Olympic sports and athletes. In May, CAS ruled that Lawson “bears no fault or negligence” for the positive result, and the suspension was lifted.
A suspension being over, however, doesn’t “remedy” the time lost. Athletes who prove their innocence aren’t awarded monetary damages for what they could have earned in competitions or for their lost endorsement opportunities. Their reputations might be vindicated but what was forfeited is gone.
“Jarrion,” Doyle asserts, “probably lost about 20% of his career and millions of dollars.” This estimation reflects the fact that track athletes have a very limited window of opportunity—often around five years—to excel in international competitions.
Doyle says that Lawson is contemplating a lawsuit against WADA “for putting an irresponsible burden on athletes” to become cleared. He adds that a lawsuit could include the Athletics Integrity Unit for allegedly breaching WADA code by not notifying Lawson promptly of the test result (as explained in a detailed story by Jonathan Gault of Lets Run, the Athletics Integrity Unit contends the delay reflected time needed to resolve jurisdictional uncertainties).
The Lawson saga is hardly unique. Other athletes have tested positive for prohibited substances after eating contaminated foods, and, like Lawson, were suspended.
Contaminated beef is a function of policy choices regarding how farmers maximize production and how governments safeguard their citizens. In the United States, one important decision occurred in 2009, when the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services—the federal agency charged with monitoring levels of residues in U.S. meat—stopped testing for trenbolone. The decision stemmed from a conclusion that levels of trenbolone found in beef were not dangerous.
“Keep in mind,” Doyle notes, “that five years later Russia would reject beef from Australia because of trenbolone.” Doyle also refers to a 2015 study published in Nature Communications, in which the authors found that exposure to trenbolone changed the sex of fish.
“But the U.S. stopped inspecting it,” Doyle says, incredulously.
Another uncertainty with beef reflects labeling laws. Beef lawfully labeled a “Product of the U.S.A.” can sometimes have surprising ties to other countries. “A carcass,” Doyle emphasizes, “can be shipped from Australia to the U.S. and be marketed as a U.S. product.” He also describes how “a cow can be brought from Mexico into Texas, then slaughtered and labeled U.S. beef.”
The absence of minimum thresholds in WADA rules for certain PEDs adds to the risks athletes face regarding food—a point emphasized by Greene, the founder of Global Sports Advocates. Based in Portland, Maine, Greene has represented athletes from more than 20 countries and more than 30 sports.
Greene contends that it is imperative that WADA add minimum thresholds for trenbolone and other substances that are sometimes found in extremely low levels in food products. “The way it is set up,” Greene reasons, “is all wrong.” Greene turns William Blackstone’s famous maxim on its head in telling Sportico, “As the rules are currently set up, it is better five innocent Jarrion Lawsons are wrongfully punished than for one guilty athlete to escape.”
How can athletes plan for eating a contaminated food product when they’ll have no warning about the contamination before, during or after eating?
Doyle says he strongly encourages his clients to only pay for food by credit card, to keep a food log and to stick with organic beef.
Attorney James Bunting, a founding partner of Tyr LLP in Toronto who has represented multiple athletes in complex sports arbitration cases (including South African runner Caster Semenya and boxer Tyson Fury), has his own ideas. A number of the athletes Bunting has acted for tested positive for a prohibited substance after eating contaminated meat.
The only way, Bunting reasons, for an athlete to meet the exacting standards of some of the doping authorities would be for the athlete to take on unrealistic, if not absurd measures, such as “wearing a body camera” and “preserving a sample of everything that [an athlete] eats.”
For his part, Lawson has opted to take a less drastic tack, albeit one that many would not find appetizing: He no longer eats beef.