There has always been a disturbing dark heart to the anti-doping movement, with its overconcentration on purity and talk of people as either “clean” or “dirty.” It mixes shabby, trailing science with over-righteousness and public denunciations. The anti-doping laboratory is a world in which there is either orthodoxy or heresy, and that never means any good for innocent people. Anti-doping is not a public policy. It’s a crude theology, and as Shelby Houlihan’s case shows, it has truly life-wrecking power.

Houlihan’s ban from the Olympics is just another landmark in the lousy moral migration of the anti-doping system. What began as a frightened and misguided attempt to control human chemistry with the founding of the World Anti-Doping Agency now has become a tribunal run by a few bishops with a philosophy of “When in doubt, punish.” That’s not justice. It’s dogmatism.

American distance runner Houlihan almost certainly ate something that triggered a positive test for a minimal amount of the steroid nandrolone. WADA itself warned its labs in 2020 to beware that trace amounts of nandrolone could be found in pork and result in false positive results. So what happened when Houlihan appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport with a food log that showed she ate a pork burrito from a food truck the day before her drug test? And offered hair samples that showed no nandrolone had accrued in her, which it would have if she used it regularly? She got a four-year penalty and banishment from not one but two Olympics.

The grounds on which the CAS denied her appeal? Under the WADA code, its labs always are “presumed” to be right.

The thing to understand about CAS is that it’s more royally inbred with WADA than Queen Victoria’s grandchildren with the czars. Ulrich Haas, a lead panel judge in Houlihan’s case, helped draft the WADA code.

There is a growing mountain of evidence that WADA is quite often, if not constantly, wrong, to the point that even some of its most longtime absolutists are beginning to wince. U.S. Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart has acknowledged a string of “injustices.” Since 2016, about 30 cases of positive tests have been caused by athletes innocently ingesting something, a half-dozen in 2020 alone. In the case of rhythmic gymnast Kristen Shaldybin, it was municipal drinking water tainted by the local dumping of old prescription meds into the water supply.

In an especially notorious case, Jarrion Lawson, the 2017 world silver medalist in the long jump, served 19 months of a four-year ban for trace amounts of the steroid trenbolone picked up in a Japanese steakhouse beef bowl. He finally won on appeal when it became apparent that the WADA lab finding that had been “presumed” accurate was in fact misleading. Tygart, who has never been especially lenient, has begun to protest vehemently against WADA’s public scourging of athletes as drug cheats over a single low-level test. These are “no fault” cases, as he calls them. And yet they are forejudged as guilty by WADA standards.

Athletes are ephemeral creatures, their performative peaks shorter than the life of hummingbirds. Houlihan is 28, and in distance running that is just when you hit your stride. She’s the American record holder in the 1,500 and the 5,000 meters and had a distinct chance to medal in Tokyo. She is banned not just from those Olympics but also from the Paris Games in 2024.

This doubt-riddled verdict has stripped her of her best years — all because WADA insists on a zero-tolerance system. It prefers to victimize the innocent rather than let a single “guilty” party get away. It does not acknowledge the possibility of an innocent mistake by athletes and therefore cannot afford to admit its own mistakes.

If you’re going to have such a penal zero-tolerance system, you better be right, and you better be right all the time. In a cry of rage from the heart against WADA and the CAS, Houlihan’s coach Jerry Schumacher said, “What I’ve learned has eroded all the faith I had in their ability to fairly serve and protect clean athletes.”

“Shame on you!” he added in a statement posted on his club’s website. “Shame on you for not caring about the truth. Shame on you for using athletes in a political chess match. You got it very wrong this time and that is not okay. It’s not okay to be right nine out of ten times when deciding to execute someone’s athletic life and dreams. You do not deserve this power.”

No, they don’t. They never did. WADA is the ultimate expression of the International Olympic Committee’s old-world arrogance. It was founded in 1999 on the anxieties of European elites who feared that gold medalists were beginning to not look much like them, and might outstrip their amateur sailor-and-fencer illusions that they too were great athletes.

So they formulated their coarse absolutist theology of “purity,” not exactly a science-based system or a justice-based one — those have some tolerance for dissent and challenge. This is just a choleric and vengeful inquisition, a heresy hunt that refuses to admit any errors or doubts.