Olympic Silliness: Cupping Harms, Not Enhances, Performance

I live in Stratford in east London a ten minute walk from what used to be the Olympic village of the London 2012 games. As someone with almost zero interest in sport the games meant little to me other than a miserable commute that August, but there were some interesting points to note.

One such was the brightly coloured tape that many athletes had stuck to their bodies. It was called kinesio tape and was clearly the fad du jour in sports circles. The idea behind it was that it reduces pain and swelling and increases lymphatic drainage by lifting the skin. This, supposedly, forms little convolutions in the structure of the skin that allow lymph and god knows what else to drain through us.

It should go without question to regular readers that there is no basis in reality for any of these claims and that kinesio tape is pseudoscientific nonsense and, at $5.99 for a single little strip of the stuff, potentially expensive nonsense at that.

Four years later and now it is the commuters of Rio that are having to grit their teeth. This time around, however, it is cupping that is disfiguring the bodies of the world’s finest athletes. And disfiguring really is the right word in this case. Whilst kinesio tape was nonsense at least it couldn’t do you any harm; if you want to stick a bit of gaffer tape to yourself when you exercise then: whatever. Cupping is another kettle of fish, though.

The practice originates from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is used in combination with acupuncture points. There are a few different types of cupping and the practice has been publicly endorsed by über idiot Gwyneth Paltrow, her of vaginal steaming fame. Basically it involves placing a cup onto the skin and creating a vacuum which pulls the skin up with a force great enough to break blood vessels. Yes, cupping is just a way of covering yourself in hickeys.

The cups; made from glass, bamboo, metal or whatever else is at hand; can have a valve in the top that allows a vacuum to be formed when connected to an air pump. Alternatively, they can be heated first and as the air inside cools it will contract and form negative pressure inside the cup. I could tell you how it is the cups are supposed to benefit the cuppee, as I like to imagine they’re called, but it’s just a load of made up bullshit, so what would be the point?

An even more ridiculous method involves making an incision in the skin before applying the cup. This, in combination with the vacuum destroying blood vessels, results in significant bleeding. Our Olympians, then, are essentially engaging in blood letting. Far from improving sporting performance it would seem very likely that cupping just does harm to the cuppee.

We are left with no choice but to consign cupping and kinesio tape to the same pseudoscientific dustbin as those little strips that go across your nose to improve breathing (they don’t), and whole body cryotherapy which, if anything, does more harm than good as in the case of our current object of scrutiny.

For me, the far more interesting topic is why the athletes use these products at all, particularly the ones that are hurting them? Are they being paid to use them? Are the coaches forcing them to use them? Are they just desperate for any advantage, no matter how slight or unlikely, when competing in a sport where thousandths of a second can mean the difference between immortal glory and being nothing more than a footnote of history? And why does the world’s media uncritically report on it as if it is legitimate?

As I said, I don’t actually care about the sport so what this or any other intervention does to performance is of no consequence to me. Personally, I think there should be two Olympics: one clean one where people compete on a level playing field and another where you can do whatever the hell you like until your body explodes in a cloud of performance enhancing drugs. One thing I’m sure of is if cupping or any other part of this nonsense actually worked it would have already been banned by the International Olympic Committee. And then perfected by the Russians.

Michael Phelps, one of the greatest Olympians of all time and believer in pseudoscientific nonsense

2 thoughts on “Olympic Silliness: Cupping Harms, Not Enhances, Performance

  1. Interesting article Jason. However, on two points 1. I disagree about the effectiveness of Nasal strips they definately widen airways for easier breathing. And 2. There is the matter of The Placebo effect and this could well prove to be valid in the matter of performance as well as medicinal benefits. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Sav.
    I know it seems like those strips should help but there’s no evidence to back it up. Studies show that they do not show improvement in the amount of oxygen you receive, your endurance, recovery or overall performance. There is some evidence that they work in racehorses but that isn’t clear cut. They were originally designed to help people breath who have a deviated septum up in their nose, they seem to work for those people but if you’re anatomically normal they don’t seem to do anything.
    As for the placebo effect, by definition it is the same thing as doing nothing, it is indistinguishable from background. There could be a difference in how people think they feel but that won’t translate into an actual improvement in performance. I’ve written about the placebo effect previously: https://skeptilogicon.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/the-placebo-effect-the-myth-and-the-reality/
    I guess I could have mentioned psychological effects, sportspeople do all kinds of weird things to get themselves ‘in the zone’. If these are harmless rituals then fine, whatever works. But cupping is actually damaging their body, especially the kind that involves incisions. Could the psychological benefit of using the latest fad treament overcome the clear physiological disadvantage of its use? I don’t know. Seems like a risky strategy to me.
    Anyway, cheers Sav. Thanks for reading.


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