healthHealth and Medicine

What's With All The Red Spots On The Olympic Athletes?


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

A spotted and pumped-up Phelps cheers on the US on August 7, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty Images

The 2016 Rio Olympic games kicked off last week and there’s one question that is already burning at sports fans: What the hell are those red dots all over some of the athletes?

Torpedo man Michael Phelps, winner of 19 Olympic gold swimming medals, appeared on Sunday night covered in these strange love bites. Since then, keen-eyed viewers also pointed out a number of other swimmers and gymnasts from the US with these bizarre circles.


Despite one tweet suggesting that Phelps had just fallen asleep on his medals, they’re the result of an ancient practice called “cupping”, which seems to be the latest fad among the US Olympic team.

It works by placing heated glass cups over the skin. This creates suction that increases blood flow to the skin. In theory, this relieves aches and pain after strenuous exercise. The red-purple marks are essentially bruising caused by the suction breaking small superficial blood vessels under the skin.


Many of the US team swear by this to ease their muscles’ woes after practice. Speaking to USA Today, gymnast Alex Naddour said: “That’s been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy. It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.”


In the past, it’s also gained popularity among the Hollywood elite, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham, and Jennifer Aniston. As for the scientific evidence behind this faddish exploit, the jury's out.

There are very few peer-reviewed scientific reviews on cupping. Nevertheless, medical professionals have called it everything from “pseudo-scientific” to “laughable… utterly implausible and just another ingenious way of relieving the rich and gullible of their money.”

David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, recently told the Independent: “There’s no science behind it whatsoever. There’s some vague conceptual connection with acupuncture, and is often sold by the same people. But how could it possibly do anything? It’s nonsense.”

They went on to ask him if he thought it could give US athletes the edge in winning some medals at Rio 2016, to which he responded: “Not at all. If anything they’ll have a slight disadvantage because they’re wasting time getting cupped.”


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