Pseudo-science at the Olympics

BBC has a news story up called Why are so many Olympians covered in large red circles?, about the appearance of Olympic athletes with perfect circular red marks on their bodies.

I saw the pictures, and thought “Cupping? Surely it can’t be!”

Unfortunately I was wrong, and it seems like the pseudo-science of cupping has now become a fad among Olympians

The mark of an Olympic athlete, at least at Rio 2016, seems to be a scattering of perfectly round bruises. Swimmers and gymnasts, particularly from Team USA, are among those seen sporting the mysterious dots.

No, not paintballing misadventures or love bites – they are the result of a practice known as “cupping”; an ancient therapy where heated cups are placed on the skin.

Cupping is a treatment from the medieval times (and earlier), where the causes for diseases were not understood, and it was believed to help treat a number of ailments. There is no scientific evidence for it being effective at treating anything.

The BBC writes:

The technique, which is a form of acupuncture, is done by lighting flammable liquid in a glass cup.

Once the flame goes out, the drop in temperature creates suction which sticks the cups to the body.

The suction pulls the skin away from the body and promotes blood flow – and leaves those red spots, which typically last for three or four days.

Of course, it doesn’t in any way or shape promote blood flow – that is an entirely undocumented claim. Those red spots are bruises.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Olympic athletes are willing to try anything in order to win. But cupping?? What’s next, using leeches for bloodletting??

Edit: Orac has of course written a great blog post on cupping: What’s the harm? Cupping edition


  1. says

    Beyond the placebo effect, cupping is effective in the third world and depressed second world areas for removing warbles from cattle and horses. In humans it can be used for draining boils faster/sooner. It also provides a painful spot to distract from low but constant muscle pain. But what do I know?

  2. machintelligence says

    Many things are tried by Olympic athletes. As near as I can tell, they are all perfectly legal, as long as they don’t work.

  3. Rob says

    How can a pattern of large area bruises aid blood flow. Surely the disruption to capillaries and clotting would do nothing more than impair blood flow?

  4. says

    I would describe the marks as hickeys without the fun.

    Yeah, I made the mistake of responding to a news article — from Business Insider, mind you — described cupping as a healing technique”. Crimeny, the woo-peddlers who jumped out of the woodwork to try and bite my shiny metal…. Well, let’s just say it wasn’t as much fun as I had hoped.

  5. Cuttlefish says

    Last go ’round (and this time, too), it was the kinesiology tape. And there were reps pushing “infrared laser treatments”, which didn’t seem to catch on so much. The previous olympics had the various sorts of magnetic or copper (or both) bracelets.

    The thing about Olympic athletes is, they are good. They have had a *lot* of success. As such, they have had many opportunities for cupping, or tape, or bracelets, or whatever, to have been associated with success. So simple superstitious conditioning predicts that we will see a *lot* of this sort of thing at this level.

    Of course, not all athletes fall for it. Some know their success is all due to their lord and savior Jesus Christ.

  6. StevoR says

    @ ^ machintelligence : What you mean years of practice and warm-up exercises and training sessions and dieting etc .. either doesn’t work or isn’t legal? 😉

    (Yeah, Know that’s not what you meant, sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    @1. Fred Tully : “But what do I know?”

    I don’t know, what do you know coz how are we to know what you know unless you tell us? Which you, kinda sorta did at least on that one issue. I guess those points make a certain amount of sense although how well they really work and how much they really help still seem s unclear to me. I guess the psychological effect is certainly one thing that could make some difference.


    When it comes to the Olympics I must admit I’ve become sadly cynical and jaded. With the number of drug cheats being found, you have to wonder how many are getting away and what we’re not finding out and given the doubts over who in the sporting circus is performing genuinely fairly versus not-so-much, its all , well, depressing really. I won’t say the winners aren’t all legitimate but then I also feel unsure that any of us besides just some of those directly participating I can be sure whether they are actually legitimate so, yeah.

    I also think there’s a hell of a lot of hype, corruption and dodginess behind the IOC circus masters who I neither trust nor like nor admire. There’s so much money and advertising and crap around it and one can’t help thinking a lot of the money could be better spent on things other than what amounts to recreation – as cheering and unifying and fun as the sports competition can be. Priorities? I think the Olympics really needs a massive rethink and maybe even just scrapping it altogether. Just my fifty cents worth of non-expert opinion though.