What Are Those Red Marks On Olympic Athletes' Backs?

Cupping: Stupid fad or performance enhancing?

Rio Olympic Games 2016 - Day Three
Mike Egerton/PA Wire

You may have noticed, during the Olympics, that some of the athletes appear to be sporting some nasty looking circular bruises. Fortunately, these aren’t the result of rampant, Zika-infested mosquito bites. Unfortunately, they’re the result of a nice bit of pseudoscientific woo known as cupping therapy.

The “treatment” traditionally involves having hot glass cups suctioned onto the skin (although modern versions use vacuum pumps), where it bursts the capillaries near the surface an essentially leaves you with a big old love bite and a badge to indicate that you don’t understand science. In some cases, the skin is even pierced and “bad” blood sucked out in a practice that is virtually identical to the medieval practice of bloodletting.

Palestinian therapist Rabhy Abu Jazar treats a patient suffering from backache and headaches using a form of cupping therapy which extracts blood
© Abed Rahim Khatib \ Apaimages/ZUMA Press/Corbis

The alternative practice has its roots in Chinese traditional medicine, and has seen a rise in popularity in international athletes (and Hollywood celebrities) since the Beijing Olympics. It is claimed that the practice can cure a wide variety of unrelated ailments such as eczema, acne, muscle pain, the common cold, bronchitis, and even cancer (always a red flag, FYI), but there is no real evidence to show how or why it could work. It essentially based on ancient ideas about Chi and Meridians, but is now mixed up with some scientific ideas regarding inflammatory responses and immune system stimulation.

Many scientists and skeptics have called out the practice as pointless and even dangerous (warning: graphic image).

Whilst the evidence for cupping’s effectiveness is scant, the evidence for its popularity is glaringly obvious, with the likes of Michael Phelps, Floyd Mayweather and Andy Murray all sporting the distinctive marks. It indicates that, with ever stricter controls on performance enhancements, athletes are turning to alternative medicine. At least we won’t have to worry about it actually making a difference.

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