If you have followed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics this year, you have probably noticed some athletes wrapped in tape and others with cupping bruises.
The Olympics is a significant marketing opportunity and an event that exposes viewers to a variety of sports-related pseudoscience and dubious products. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, alternative therapies and pseudoscientific marketing are rife among Olympic athletes.
The cupping trend is common among athletes, mainly among swimmers such as Michael Phelps who was spotted with circular marks in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Many athletes have followed suit such as the Australian swimmer Kyle Chalmers and Akira Namba of Team Japan in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as well as celebrities such as The Rock, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Haily Baldwin among others.
Cupping is an ancient technique that has crossed numerous cultures. Like other alternative therapies, cupping is not an evidence-based practice. A 2020 meta-analysis review shows that the clinical studies on cupping are highly biased, the specific physiological mechanisms that underpin the cupping therapy are unclear, and the quality of evidence is low. Most cupping proponents are drawn to the appeal to antiquity or appeal to ancient wisdom, the logical fallacy that a certain practice or product is good simply because it is traditional.
Other athletes are using the KT tape, also known as the kinesiology tape. According to the company’s website, the KT tape is designed to provide drug-free pain relief and support to muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Taped on shoulders, knees, thighs, ankles, or stomach, the current evidence does not support this product for short-term pain relief, according to a 2021 study. Despite the absurdity of the practice that a drug-free tape on the surface of the skin would help resolve pain in a muscle or tendon, it has been used in the 2020 Olympics by several athletes like Katrin Holtwick, Yuan Cao, and Anne Tuxen. The KT Tape company is the official sponsor of the USA diving team and 13 athletes from various sports. Partnering with athletes has leveraged the product and increased its sales. The visibility created by athletes led to a significant increase in consumer usage. When people see an athlete using a specific product or therapy, they assume it is based on good science because athletics and health intersect, thus supporting the market of pseudoscience in sports.
When athletes post a photo of themselves on their verified social media accounts during the cupping therapy or exercising with KT tape, it increases the visibility of the product which in turn surges its popularity. This is referred to as the exposure effect. Consumers prefer products or practices that they are regularly exposed to and thus become familiar with. However, the familiarity principle is not correlated with a product’s efficacy. Due to the vast number of online followers and the physical fitness of athletes, even a casual reference to alternative therapies or pseudoscientific products could encourage viewers to use the product.
This is not unique to the Olympics. Pseudoscience is pervasive in sports, specifically with pain management products and recovery strategies which are highly subjective: Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training, cryotherapy, acupuncture, nasal strips, hydration treatments, to list a few.
There are many research studies on cryotherapy, cupping, nutritional supplements, energy bracelets, hydrotherapy, or kinesiology tape but quantity does not mean quality. Despite the vast number of studies, compelling evidence is lacking.
Science does not prove a negative. Researchers will not invest time or money in finding evidence that an alternative therapy does not work. These treatments do not fulfill the tenets of scientific research but are still promoted as scientific, thus referred to as pseudoscience. Alternative treatments are a major drawback to evidence-based medicine and, by definition, are not accepted by conventional medicine.
As consumers, we are overloaded with media content and unchecked information. Be skeptical of unfalsifiable claims, vague language, over-reliance on anecdotes, lack of peer review, conflict of interest, and in-house research funded and conducted by the same company promoting the product.
Manufacturers are aware of the scientific process and look for another incentive to market their products and ‘prove’ that it works. One common strategy is for a high-profile athlete or celebrity to endorse the product. The company implicitly affiliates its product with the success and fame of the athlete or celebrity. Again, an athlete or celebrity wearing or endorsing a product has no bearing on its efficacy. It is unfortunate that athletes are walking advertisements of medical pseudoscience.
Elissar Gerges has more than 10 years of experience as an AP and IBDP Biology teacher and Biology head of the department. She holds a Master of Science in Education from Walden University, a Master of Education in Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development from the University of Toronto, and a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Educational Leadership from Western University, Canada. Elissar’s research focus is on learning communities, team leadership, instructional leadership, and integrating citizenship in science education. She is a strong advocate of science media literacy to enable all students, as active citizens, to critically evaluate science in the media to make informed decisions.