The Olympic Games are a well-established international tradition, and every four years I, like many others, enjoy watching many of the competitions. What is also becoming a (much less well-known) tradition is that every four years we give an update on pseudoscience at the Olympics.
In London in 2012 I noticed the almost ubiquitous multi-colored tape snaking in unusual patterns along the bodies of athletes. This was a product called “kinesiotape” which was alleged to provide support, stability, and strength to the athletes. According to one manufacturer it works by:
…lifting the skin, which optimizes the flow of lymphatic fluids to transport white blood cells and helps remove waste products, cellular debris and bacteria. The tape also helps with overall body awareness to heal and eventually prevent injury.
Others claim it allows for better proprioception so athletes have better body awareness. All of this is unproven and implausible. The evidence for kinesiotaping depends on the specific indication, and is highly variable in quality. A systematic review for the treatment or prevention of ankle sprains, for example, found no evidence of efficacy. Generally studies that are well-controlled find no advantage over regular taping. But because taping itself can be useful, for example to support a joint, studies that are not well-controlled can find some benefit from the basic taping itself, and then used to support the unnecessary and implausible pseudoscientific layer.
This is a general theme as medical pseudoscience has become more savvy at self-marketing – sell a non-specific effect as if it were a specific special effect.
The appearance of kinesiotape decreased significantly at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and even further for the Tokyo Olympics this year, although you still might get a glimpse of it here and there.
Speaking of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the big pseudoscience there, especially visible among swimmers, was cupping. Cupping uses glass cups and burning herbs to create a partial vacuum over the skin, leaving behind characteristic round bruises – basically hickeys. Cupping is claimed to draw out toxins and improve blood flow, because those are the common fake claims often invoked for any dubious treatment.
However, this is just a retconning of what cupping really is, which is a form of bloodletting. This may be called “wet cupping” or simply “bloodletting cupping”. Once the cupping itself draws blood to the skin, the skin is then incised to let the blood out. The “spa” cupping used by athletes and others just skips the part with the incision.
This year, so far, I have seen the telltale cupping marks on Australian swimmer Kyle Chalmers, and a couple of other swimmers. There is probably more (not all athletes have bare skin to show the marks) but there is certainly a dramatic decrease from 2016.
Is there any new Olympic pseudoscience this year? So far, I have been unable to find it. This could be for several reasons. It’s possible that no new fad has taken sufficient hold to be apparent. It’s also possible that whatever it is, it is not externally visible (like tape or hickey marks). Or, it may also be a function of the fact that COVID is hogging all the health news at the Olympics. Any search I do to find evidence of Olympic pseudoscience is filled with COVID results.
Why is pseudoscience so common at the Olympics? When you are competing at that level, even the slightest advantage can make the difference between standing on the medal podium or not, so it’s unsurprising that athletes and their coaches would reach for any possible edge. This can result in a placebo effect, which itself may plausibly produce a slight psychological advantage. Perhaps coaches don’t even care if the intervention actually works. If their athlete believes it does, then they may feel it will give them a psychological edge. We have seen at these Olympics, dramatically at times, the effect that psychology and mental health can have on athletes.
But I do think the meta-observation at the last few Summer Olympics is worth pointing out. This is a sort-of reverse anecdotal evidence. Because competition is fierce, and athletic competition represents, in its own way, a large database of trial and error in the real world, if any intervention did provide a tangible benefit it is reasonable to argue that it would become popular and persistent.
The flip-side to this is that if something does not provide a real benefit, then it will tend to come and go with the winds of faddish nonsense. I think that is what we are seeing. Every Olympics some new fad pseudoscience makes an appearance, but then fades away over time, because they don’t actually work. We see this more generally with pseudoscience – while they usually don’t disappear completely, they come and go over time. They may flash for a while, but then fade away to the fringe, only to come back with a new generation.
The overall pattern of pseudoscience is circular, and I think the analogy of a dog chasing its tail is apt. There is no real progress, only the ebb and flow of fashion, culture, and marketing. Real science, on the other hand, is more linear. It does not follow a straight line, but there is tangible and enduring progress. Pseudoscience is not real, so it makes no real progress. There is nothing to anchor a success or to build on. It is all sand.