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Why the Olympics Are an ‘International Festival of Sports Pseudoscience’

Cupping is just one science-free ‘therapy’ on display in Rio.

Kate Lunau

Kate Lunau

Photo: AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Keen watchers of the Rio Olympics might have noticed some weird purple blobs adorning American swimmer Michael Phelps's body—large circular bruises, like perfectly rounded hickies. It almost looks like he got pelted with tennis balls, or attacked by a lamprey eel.

Those marks show that Phelps has been "cupping," an ancient Chinese practice in which circular cups are applied to the body, where they produce a gentle suction that lasts for minutes. (Sometimes actual fire is used to produce suction; other times it's a mechanical device, like an air pump.) It's meant to draw blood to a certain area to encourage healing.

The practice is seeing a surge of popularity among Rio athletes: Several have shown up for competition speckled with bruises. "Cupping is experiencing an Olympic moment," as the New York Times put it on Monday. Although some, like US gymnast Alex Naddour, swear by its power to heal, there's no good scientific evidence to back up the benefits of cupping.

From GPS-equipped rowing sculls to new kinds of clothing designed to shave mere seconds off an athlete's best time, the Olympics are an incredibly high-tech, scientifically advanced affair. But athletes there are also relying on science-free techniques and therapies to get ahead. These days, when winners can be defined by the most minuscule of margins, maybe it's no surprise that they're seizing on any advantage—perceived or real—to supercharge their performance.

Still, viewers shouldn't be confused about any of this. The Olympics are "an international festival of sports pseudoscience," as Tim Caulfield, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, recently put it in Policy Options.

Acupuncture has also been embraced by some competitors

When I phoned Caulfield on Monday, he had spent the morning sifting through the scientific literature on cupping after all the hoopla around its use right now in Rio. "This seems like the cupping Olympics," he told me, but he's seen this trend pop up in athletic competition before, and among celebrities too. (Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston, among others, have been seen with telltale marks on their bodies.)

"There aren't very many good studies [on cupping]," continued Caulfield, who's written a book on the rise of celebrity pseudoscience. "To date, there really isn't very strong data [to support it] at all." Several studies have noted that more research is needed.

In Policy Options, Caulfield gives another example: kinesiology tape, that brightly-coloured tape that athletes apply to their bodies to shore themselves up against musculoskeletal injuries. Well, there isn't much proof it makes a difference, either. In a 2013 study in the Journal of Physiotherapy, cited in Caulfield's report, authors found there was no strong evidence to support the use of Kinesio Taping, as it's called.

Icing is a controversial one, too. We've all heard that ice should be applied to a sports injury, but in recent years experts have questioned that bit of dogma. Turns out that ice might even make some injuries worse, as Caulfield explains in his paper.

Then there's "IV hydration." As reported in the Denver Post, endurance athletes have been turning to medically unnecessary IVs to get hydrated and give themselves a boost. Companies and mobile clinics are even springing up to provide this service. But there's no good basis for this sort of treatment, according to Caulfield, who notes that drinking through your mouth is still the best way to get hydrated. (In the context of the Olympics, at least, athletes are banned from IV infusions unless they're doctor-prescribed.)

Acupuncture has also been embraced by some competitors, like Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris, who described it as part of his regime when he won a bronze in Sochi. So far the evidence for acupuncture is spotty. "We have no evidence that [acupuncture] is anything more than a theatrical placebo," retired family physician and alternative medicine researcher Harriet Hall told Scientific American.

Even if these practices are more or less bunk, doesn't mean athletes aren't seeing any benefit whatsoever from them. Just like when they don a pair of lucky socks, or stick to some elaborate pre- or post-game routine, they could be experiencing a placebo effect, Caulfield noted. (An Ontario man who helped install the Olympic swimming pools in Rio reportedly left a toonie in the lining to help Canadian swimmers.)

"The placebo effect in sport is not to be dismissed," he said. When you're competing at the thin edge of the knife, as these elite athletes do, any little difference can matter.

If cupping is a sort of lucky charm for Phelps and others, fine. But the rest of us shouldn't get confused about what it's really for, emphasized Caulfield. "People should take it with a grain of salt."

And anyway, if cupping actually provided some kind of crazy performance boost, it probably wouldn't be allowed in the Olympics to begin with—Russian doping scandal aside.

At top: United States' Michael Phelps competes in a heat of the men's 200-meter butterfly during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Monday, August 8, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: AP Photo/Matt Slocum