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

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.

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