Four years ago, while watching the 2012 Olympic Games, I noticed a lot of athletes wearing colored strips in various patterns on their body. I discovered that these strips were called kinesiotape, and they were used to enhance performance, reduce injury, and help muscles recover more quickly. I also discovered that these claims for kinesiotape were complete nonsense.
This year at the 2016 Rio Olympics, I (and many other people, judging by my e-mails) noticed that many athletes, especially the swimmers, had what appeared to be circular bruises on their backs, shoulders, and sometimes elsewhere on their body. I immediately recognized the telltale signs of cupping, a pseudoscientific treatment that is part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Pseudoscience in sports
What both kinesiotape and cupping have in common, other than a lack of evidence that they work, is that they are immediately visible to the casual observer (another example would be the hologram bracelets that were once common). This led me to suspect that they represent only the tip of the nonsense iceberg at the Olympics. What other worthless treatments are athletes using that don’t leave visible marks on their skin?
The Summer Olympics are coming up, which means that, in addition to world-class athletic performance, the public will be exposed to a variety of sports-related pseudoscience. This is not unique to the Olympics, of course. The world of sports competition is rife with pseudoscience, false claims, dubious products, superstitions, and magical charms. The most egregious example of this recently has been the energy bracelet scam — multiple companies have and are marketing little bits of rubber, plastic, or metal that you wear on your wrist and they claim (based on parlor tricks rather than evidence) will improve athletic performance. They give classically pseudoscientific explanations for the alleged effect, such as negative ions or energy frequencies. In fact the new icon of the entanglement of sports with pseudoscience is the Power Balance Stadium.
Occasionally the scientific community takes notice of such claims and bothers to review them. Also, in the internet age, the information is actually available to the public (rather than buried in an obscure journal). A recent joint investigation by BBC Panorama and the British Medical Journal (BMJ) recently found a shocking (to them) lack of evidence for many claims made to market performance-enhancing products. The BBC reports:
A team at Oxford University examined 431 claims in 104 sport product adverts and found a “worrying” lack of high-quality research, calling for better studies to help inform consumers.
High quality studies would be nice, but the article fails to ask the question — who is going to fund those studies? What incentive do manufacturers have in proving their products don’t work?