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Olympic Mark: Why so Many Olympians Covered in Red Circles?

A number of Olympians - including the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, Michael Phelps - have been photographed with large red ci...

A number of Olympians - including the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, Michael Phelps - have been photographed with large red circles on their skin.

The mark of an Olympic athlete, at least at Rio 2016, seems to be a scattering of perfectly round bruises. 

Swimmers and gymnasts, particularly from Team USA, are among those seen sporting the mysterious dots.

No, not paintballing misadventures or love bites - they are the result of a practice known as "cupping"; an ancient therapy where heated cups are placed on the skin.

So how is 'cupping' done?
The technique, which is a form of acupuncture, is done by lighting flammable liquid in a glass cup. Once the flame goes out, the drop in temperature creates suction which sticks the cups to the body.
Olympic Mark: Cupping has Become a Popular Order in Rio 

The suction pulls the skin away from the body and promotes blood flow - and leaves those red spots, which typically last for three or four days.

Why are some Olympians using it?
Athletes say they are using it to ease aches and pains, and to help with recovery from the physical toil of constant training and competing.

There are plenty of other recovery techniques competitors use - including sports massage, sauna, ice baths and compression garments - but US gymnast Alex Naddour told USA Today that cupping was "better than any money I've spent on anything else".

"That's been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy," Naddour told the paper, adding that it had saved him from "a lot of pain".

His team captain Chris Brooks added that many on the squad had started "do-it-yourself" cupping, with cups that can be suctioned with a pump rather than with a flame.

"You're like, 'OK, I'm sore here,'" said Brooks. "Throw a cup on, and your roommate will help you or you can do it yourself."

The marks visible on Michael Phelps as he competed in the men's 4x100m freestyle relay on Sunday had people on social media speculating what they might be, with some guessing he might have been playing paintball or attacked by a giant octopus.

Practitioners claim cupping helps with a huge variety of ailments from muscle problems, pain relief, arthritis, insomnia, fertility issues, and cellulite.

Mr Long, who has practised cupping for 20 years, says the idea is to help the flow of energy - known as traditional Chinese medicine as "qi" - around the body, and rebalance its equilibrium - "ying and yang".

The darker the mark left by the cup, he says, the poorer the blood circulation is in that part of the body. While there have "certainly been satisfied customers for 3,000 years." 

Professor Edzard Ernst from the department of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter previously told the BBC it was not a proven medical treatment. He insisted it was a relatively safe practice, but added: "There is no evidence for its efficacy. It has not been submitted to clinical trials."

Pharmacologist Prof David Colquhoun, from University College London, dismissed cupping as "hocus pocus" and told the BBC: "It's just pulling up a bit of skin, it is not going to affect the muscle to any noticeable extent.

"And taken to extreme, it can cause harm, it usually doesn't, it's usually just a - what [British physician] Ben Goldacre would call - a voluntary tax on the gullible."

Who else does this?

It's not only athletes who use cupping. The practice has long proved popular among A-listers in search of the next best therapy.

In 2004, Gwyneth Paltrow appeared at a film premiere revealing the signs of cupping on her back. Justin Bieber, Victoria Beckham and Jennifer Aniston have all been photographed with what look like cupping marks.

And Nicole Richie made her dad, singer Lionel Richie try it - although pictures suggest he might not entirely have enjoyed it. 

Cupping has also become an increasingly available and popular treatment in beauty parlours and spas, as well as traditional Chinese medicine shops where it is commonly on offer. - BBC 

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