Some viewers were puzzled to see circular red patches all over swimmer Michael Phelps’ body when he appeared as part of a Gold Medal-winning U.S. 4×100 relay team Sunday night at the Rio Olympics.
“They weren’t the result of a tattooing misadventure or a secret symbol known only to members of the swim team,” The Washington Post reports, adding: “The circles came from cupping, a technique used by trainers who attach suction cups to pull blood to sore and injured areas to speed healing.”
The New York Times quotes Keenan Robinson, Phelps’s personal trainer, saying: “Because this particular recovery modality shows blemishes on his skin, he walks around and looks like a Dalmatian or a really bad tattoo sleeve. It’s just another recovery modality. There’s nothing really particularly special about it.”
The Times report adds: “Practitioners of the healing technique — or sometimes the athletes themselves — place specialized cups on the skin. Then they use either heat or an air pump to create suction between the cup and the skin, pulling the skin slightly up and away from the underlying muscles.”
The Washington Post provides a quote from U.S. swimmer Cody Miller, who won a Bronze Medal in the 100-meter backstroke. Says Miller: “Keep in mind that it’s superficial bruising. So it’s not real bruising. So if you get hit really hard and you bruise, it’s not that kind of bruise. Your muscle tissue isn’t torn up in there. It’s just pulling blood into a specific area, and then it just kind of sits there as that tension builds and then you release that tension.
You can catch a glimpse of the cupping marks in the video below, after Phelps and the rest of the U.S. 4×100 team captures the gold.