Proudly waving their flaws for all to see

I have not been watching the Olympics, so I missed the latest embarrassing spectacle. Athletes are showing up for their competition with great big circular bruises all over their bodies.

They’re cupping to, they imagine, improve their performance. Orac has the rundown on the pointless wickedness of the practice.

This kind of woo does no good and does nothing but harm. But it also hurts the sport in another way.

I am not a sports fan, but I can respect the athletes for their discipline and their commitment. When I do watch them, I admire their skill and their grace and their strength. And then I see them willingly scarred with pseudoscience and all that respect evaporates — these people are idiots.


  1. Felix says

    I guess they’re just too exhausted from sportsbodying every day, to go actually inform themselves about the quackery they’re paying for.

  2. Scientismist says

    Thanks, PZ, for commenting on this. I don’t like sports, in general, but I do watch some of the swimming, diving, and gymnastics for the celebration of the beauty of the athletic and well cared-for human body. This utterly spoils it for me. Just as bad as doping, in my opinion, and worse than the ugly tattoos. But I was wondering what PZ would think.

    It’s stupid, perhaps even physically damaging (certainly damaging mentally, to reason and understanding of physiology). But at least one commentator (I don’t recall if it was in Rio, or perhaps on the local news), when asked if she wanted to try it out, said that no, she didn’t want to look like she had just made passionate love to an octopus.

  3. says

    Here in Taiwan, there are “spas” everywhere that do that sort of stuff. It’s nothing more than an oversized hickey, surface bruising. It’s in the same league as “traditional medicine” stores (they are not “clinics”). It accomplishes nothing, but that doesn’t stop the Taiwanese or the waiguoren from wasting money on it.

  4. Scientismist says

    What Orac’s piece doesn’t address is the benefit (excuse?) given for it in this context — that is, for athletes. Supposedly (according to the stories on it broadcast as part of the Olympics coverage), it is to improve circulation in the back and shoulder muscles that are under greater stress in swimming and gymnastics. How breaking near-surface blood vessels is supposed to help circulation mystifies me.

    Orac tells of a case where the cups were repeatedly placed in exactly the same positions, which led to massive burn-like lesions. In contrast, one clip on the TV showed the practitioner sliding a cup up and down the shoulder, presumably to spread out the “benefit”.

    While I’ve done research in muscle biochemistry, this involves physiology of muscle, blood vessels, skin and probably more (I expect the main effect is to be found in the mind). It is beyond me to say if there is any possible benefit that might outweigh the very apparent damage, even when used with more care than the case Orac cites. I would expect that the scientific literature on it would be almost, if not completely, non-existent. Any sports physiologists out there?

  5. says

    Athletes want to be in tip top shape. They want to be able to perform at their peak in the Olympics. And then they divert part of their resources to healing a bunch of bruises?

  6. dick says

    Wow! Igot a circular bruise on my hand from a bike falling on it, about five days ago. Since then I’ve done four successive personal bests on my two training routes. So it must be true that this works. (I wish.)

  7. Cuttlefish says

    The realization I came to this morning was that what bothers me the most about this is not that the athletes are doing silly superstitious nonsense. Rather, it is that there are people who are not just getting a free trip to Rio, they are actually getting a *paid* trip to Rio, to administer placebos to athletes.

  8. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I imagine one of the arguments might be: cupping causes bruises, activating the flow of all the healing chemicals to repair the damage. Supercharging healthy cells in the same area.
    or so they’d say, I imagine while starmanning the advocates of the procedure. There may well be some psychological benefits of the care and attention the cupper provides to the cuppee during the cupping procedure. Why Olympic contenders need such attention is *pheww*

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    There was an interview on the CBC with the Canadian swimmer Ryan Cochrane, in which he was asked about this. He said he’d tried it once, didn’t care for it, and that studies had failed to show any benefit. He didn’t elaborate on the studies.

  10. =8)-DX says

    @Scientismist #4

    worse than the ugly tattoos

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Tattoo-shaming always makes me as queezy as body-shaming. It’s their body to decorate how they see fit.

    @Marcus Ranum #6

    If it actually worked, would it be cheating?

    Since it isn’t introducing prohibited substances I guess it should be fine. Massaging the muscles isn’t considered cheating, nor are other warmup exercises, and if chakras were real, activating them correctly would surely be an important part of both training and prep.

  11. Rich Woods says

    @Grumpy Santa #3:

    They should at least have the bruises in the shape of the Olympic Rings.

    Or currency symbols, or hypodermic needles.

  12. says

    The first time I heard of cupping, or firecupping, was in a kink context. Since then, I’ve just watched people use it as holistic health and gone “Do… Do they know?”

    Then again, these are the same people who use regular enemas as a health service, instead of just a kink thing.

    people are weird.

  13. starfleetdude says

    There’s more woo too, sadly:

    Olympians among the latest to hawk unproven — and potentially unsafe — dietary supplements – Susan Perry (Minnpost)

    As reported last week by the Boston Globe’s Stat News, 14 Olympic sports federations — including USA Gymnastics and USA Track & Field — have signed sponsorship deals with dietary supplement manufacturers.

    In addition, hundreds of individual athletes have personally endorsed various vitamin and other supplements, including protein shakes and energy drinks.

    Yet, as Stat News reporter Rebecca Robbins notes, there is “little scientific backing” that these products “provide a nutritional or energy boost [or] ward off common problems like muscle cramps.”

    The supplements’ ineffectiveness is, however, only part of the problem. Supplements can also be dangerous. Indeed, many brands of dietary supplements have been found in the past to contain potentially harmful ingredients, such as amphetamine or methylsynephrine (ingredients that have also been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency).

    “Sports executives involved in these endorsement deals said they partnered only with supplement makers that they or another sports federations have rigorously vetted and that they trust to produce safe and effective products,” writes Robbins.

    Yet, as Dr. Pieter Cohen, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor who has studied supplements extensively, told Robbins, even supplements that are unlikely to contain banned or dangerous ingredients are part of “a massive market of products that simply don’t work, but can be dressed up and advertised to pretend that they do, so that consumers will buy them.”

    “I suspect that this type of Olympiad sponsorship of supplements will lead many young people to try new sports supplements,” he added. “If they don’t want to buy these expensive ones that are being advertised by the athletes, they might end up purchasing one sitting next to it in the store that’s spiked with drugs.”

  14. stumble says


    Do you have any idea how little support American athletes get to participate? Most of them are forced to self fund their campaigns all the way up to the point of Olympic qualifying (about three months ago in many sports). Which leaves them massively underfunded. Speaking just of the sport I know well (sailing) competitors can expect to spend between $50 and $60,000 a year over the four year cycle and can expect less than $10,000 in support from the state.

    This combined with the inability to hold a job while training 40 hrs/week forces many of the competitors to do pretty much whatever they can to find the cash.

    It is routine in sailing circles for yacht clubs to provide free housing for athletes during trials. What this really means is they sleep on people’s couches, basements, aboard boats, even in one case a YC set up a bunk room in a supply closet for some Olympic sailors during an event. These guys are basically homeless for four years unless they are independently wealthy or are lucky enough to get a sponsorship deal.

    So asking the athletes to turn down any financial support is just rediculious. These guys are scraping buy to find just enough money to keep going and you want to take them to task for hocking supplements?

  15. stumble says

    As for the general article. While I agree that at best cupping in psychosomatic, in an event where winners and losers are measured in the thousands of a second even a small mental benefit can make a winner. Does cupping work? Almost certainly not, but if the athlete thinks it works, then even that small gain likely shows an actual benefit on the course.

    In the men’s 100m freestyle heat 2 the difference between 1 and 2nd was .22 seconds. The second place swimmer swam at .99567% the speed of the first place swimmer. Any gain, even psychosomatic, is worth exploring. Because the difference in winning and loosing is so small.

  16. Scientismist says

    =8)-DX #16:

    I agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As a beholder, while many tattoos strike me as ugly, I do see some as beautiful; and almost all are chosen and executed with some aesthetic care, and so have artistic merit as well as personal meaning. I certainly meant no shaming. It’s their body and their choice.

    Cup marks are another matter. What bothers me the most is the possibility that habitual use might cause some permanent damage, which is really the same issue as in doping (and should be, too, for vitamin supplements). It’s not just a question of taking a forbidden substance to gain an unfair advantage, since allowing the open use of steroids would be encouraging young kids to use drugs that can damage their long-term health. So its not just their body, and not their choice.

    As it is being used, cupping is hard to hide, while being questionable with regard to either benefit or long-term harm. If it is harmful, and can be shown to be so, then it should definitely be banned. If beneficial or even neutral, it should probably be allowed. But even then, I would still say it is ugly. Maybe if they paid some attention to the aesthetics of the placement and the marks it leaves? Maybe they could even use different shapes for the openings in the cups to lose the giant octopus effect.

    I also agree with you that it would not be cheating if it worked and provided some short-term benefit (even psychological), as long as its not something that indisputably causes long-term damage, and anyone can choose to either use it or avoid it. Some also probably pray before an event — I would certainly not expect that to be considered cheating, whether it works or not!

    .. Though if, like cupping, it was something that left a visible public mark, I’d be very interested in the results. Does praying to Thor disproportionately help in the hammer throw?

  17. wzrd1 says

    Well, I’ll conditionally agree, these assholes are idiots.
    That said, cupping is so totally cool for tea or coffee.*
    Indeed, cupping my hands is totally cool if I’m drinking water from a body of water. Even if I get the heebie jeebies from protozoa in the water…
    Cupping is also pretty cool, if you’re a long married couple, albeit, not for any reason listed in “ancient Chinese medicine”.
    I’ll add, I read Orac’s blog last night and conditionally agree as above. The folks around Orac’s place are more used to me than you all are.
    And yes, my wife and I did enjoy some cupping, during “play time”.
    Medically, they’re as useless a treatment as prayer. No, wait, slightly less useful than prayer. Prayer, for one so heavily inclined, may very well lower stress levels and hence, enhance healing and immune response. That said, the effect is highly variable and utterly unreliable.
    That’s *why* we stick with allopathic medicine, you know, the evidence based stuff.
    Now, to figure out with our doctors, how to repair her entire cervical spine *and* L5-S1 discs, while she has osteoporosis sufficiently sever to have caused several compression fractures and two that are very, very recent, along with a hip fracture that’s very recent. At age 55. :/
    Currently, the only cupping we’ll engage in involves coffee or tea.

    *Yeah, I actually do know what cupping is, work with me here for humor’s sake.

  18. rrhain says

    Well, this is what we get for not actually watching the Olympics, because they actually explained what it was that was trying to be done with cupping.

    It has nothing to do with qi or “energy” or anything of the sort. At least, that’s not what the practitioners claimed on TV (who knows what they do when they are dealing with the individual athlete in the locker room.) And while “blood flow” is mentioned, that is mostly a stripped-down version of what’s going on.

    In a nutshell: It’s a reverse massage. Massage does have some physical effects. But the way you give a massage is to push down on the muscle. Cupping, in contrast, pulls up. There are two basic techniques being used: One is where you just attach the cup, employ suction (they use a vacuum pump to pull vacuum rather than heating the cup), and let it sit. This is where the big bruises come from.

    The other method is to move the cup around after the suction is applied. You lubricate the skin so that the cup can slide on it, put the cup on, engage the vacuum, and then slide the cup along the area you want to engage in pulling.

    The practitioner pointed out that there isn’t much evidence for the effect. And while I can understand that pushing and pulling are different things, there are layers of tissue and the effect you get from pulling the upper layers away from the lower ones is conceivably different from pushing them together, I’m having a hard time coming up with a justification for something that leaves visible signs of physical damage to the body that can’t be accomplished through other means. But, I’m not an anatomist, so what do I know?

    My gut reaction? It’s still woo, but not for the typical woo reasons. They really are working at it from a physical point of view rather than the invocation of magic. It’s just that I don’t think it does anything that isn’t already done from the physical manipulation of the tissue.

  19. Lofty says


    But the way you give a massage is to push down on the muscle.

    Sort of true. Sports massage, as I was taught it many aeons ago, involves pressure and movement in the general direction of venous flow. Both pressure and a slight vacuum are induced but nothing as brutal as in cupping.