Posted by The Conversation

Olympic athletes excel at their sports but are susceptible to unproven alternative therapies.

We present a timely article on alternative medicine and high profile sports athletes.


Australian Olympic swimmer Kyle Chalmers (right) earned a silver medal and his personal-best time in the 100-meter freestyle event at the 2021 Tokyo Games. While most of the world focused on his thrilling performance, others were equally interested in the conspicuous, circular bruises on his back and shoulders. Similar marks were seen on Michael Phelps in 2016 when he added six medals to his tally to cement his title as history’s most successful Olympian.

Those blemishes were the work of cupping, an alternative therapy in which small glass cups are placed on the skin at sites of injury or soreness, and used to create suction that stimulates “energy flow.” One form of cupping – wet cupping – involves piercing the skin to bleed the area and remove stagnant blood and toxins.

You may wonder how an athlete’s unwitting endorsement of alternative therapy might influence the progression of a sport. This is because cupping is fairly characteristic of alternative therapy that, by definition, hasn’t been accepted by conventional science and medicine. When tested in controlled studies, cupping doesn’t work.


In fact, all alternative therapies exist on a spectrum, from treatments with some merit to scientifically disproven nonsense. And interventions like cupping, that masquerade as science without fulfilling its robust methodology, are known as pseudoscience.

When it comes to unproven alternative therapies, cupping is just the tip of the iceberg. Other such practices in sport include chiropractic spinal manipulation, nasal strips, hologram bracelets, oxygen drinks, reiki (healing hands), cryotherapy and kinesiology tape or K-tape.

Might alternative treatments complement those endorsed by science?  Perhaps.

But safe practice requires drawing a clear line in the sand to restrict alternative therapies to minor ailments and sports performance, not replace modern medicine.

Pseudoscience is a major barrier to both evidence-based practice and science education and literacy. That’s why it’s a potential burden in sport, and why education programs are needed to help people distinguish science from pseudoscience. Not just in sport, but in all facets of society.

And despite what you may hear in Olympics coverage, lactic acid does not cause fatigue.

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