Tagged Olympic Games (2012)

What Are the Purple Dots on Michael Phelps? Cupping Has An Olympic Moment

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Michael Phelps competed in the final of the men’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay during the 2016 Summer Olympics with some strange purple dots on his arm and back.

Michael Phelps competed in the final of the men’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay during the 2016 Summer Olympics with some strange purple dots on his arm and back.Credit Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Have you been wondering why swimmer Michael Phelps and other Olympians are sporting deep-purple circles on their limbs and midsections?

While it may look like the athletes have been in a bar fight, the telltale purple dots actually are signs of “cupping,” an ancient Chinese healing practice that is experiencing an Olympic moment.

In cupping, practitioners of the healing technique — or sometimes the athletes themselves — place specialized, round circular 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 suction typically only lasts for a few minutes, but it’s enough time to cause the capillaries just beneath the surface to rupture, creating the circular, photogenic bruises that have been so visible on Mr. Phelps as well as members of the U.S. men’s gymnastics team. If the bruising effect looks oddly familiar, it’s because it’s the same thing that happens when someone sucks on your neck and leaves a hickey.

Thanks @arschmitty for my cupping today!!! #mpswim #mp @chasekalisz

A photo posted by Michael Phelps (@m_phelps00) on Sep 10, 2015 at 12:29pm PDT

Physiologically, cupping is thought to draw blood to the affected area, reducing soreness and speeding healing of overworked muscles. Athletes who use it swear by it, saying it keeps them injury free and speeds recovery. Mr. Phelps, whose shoulders were dotted with the purple marks as he powered his 4×100 freestyle relay team to a gold medal Sunday, featured a cupping treatment in a recent Under Armour video. He also posted an Instagram photo showing himself stretched on a table as his teammate, fellow Olympian swimmer Allison Schmitt, placed several pressurized cups along the back of his thighs. “Thanks for my cupping today!” he wrote.

While there’s no question athletes and many coaches and trainers believe in the treatment, there’s not much science to determine whether cupping offers a real physiological benefit or whether the athletes simply are enjoying a placebo effect.

One 2012 study of 61 people with chronic neck pain compared cupping to a technique called progressive muscle relaxation, or P.M.R., during which a patient deliberately tenses his muscles and then focuses on relaxing them. Half the patients used cupping while the other half used P.M.R. Both patient groups reported similar reductions in pain after 12 weeks of treatment. Notably, the patients who had used cupping scored higher on measurements of well-being and felt less pain when pressure was applied to the area. Even so, the researchers noted that more study is needed to determine the potential benefits of cupping.

Another experiment involving 40 patients who suffered from knee arthritis found that people who underwent cupping reported less pain after four months compared to arthritis sufferers in a control group who were not treated. But the cupped group knew they were being treated — it’s not easy to blind people about whether a suction cup is being attached to their leg or not — and so the benefits might have been due primarily to a placebo effect.

Still, a placebo effect can be beneficial, and for athletes at the Olympic level any legal edge, however tenuous, may be worth a few eye-catching bruises.

A few years ago Denver Broncos player DeMarcus Ware posted a photo on Instagram showing his back covered with 19 clear cups as a therapist held a flame used to heat the cup before placing it on the skin. Celebrities including Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow have also been photographed with cupping marks on their skin.

Last year, Swimming World magazine noted that some college programs had begun using cupping therapy as well as former Olympian Natalie Coughlin, who has posted a number of photos of herself undergoing the treatment.

U.S. gymnast Alexander Naddour was sporting the purple dots during the men’s qualifying rounds on Saturday in Rio. He told USA Today that he bought a do-it-yourself cupping kit from Amazon. “That’s been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy,” Mr. Naddour told USA Today. “It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.”

Brooklyn Fencer Seeks Olympic Gold

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Nzingha Prescod, a United States Olympian, practicing at the Fencers Club in Manhattan last month.

Nzingha Prescod, a United States Olympian, practicing at the Fencers Club in Manhattan last month.Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

Last month, practice was winding down at the Fencers Club in Manhattan when a group of young students paused to watch a Brooklyn-born Olympian relentlessly attack a padded wall. The athlete, Nzingha Prescod, carried on unfazed, her feet shuffling like a tap dancer’s, her eyes darting behind the mesh of her mask. Ms. Prescod is getting used to the increased scrutiny. This summer, she hopes to become the first African-American fencer to win Olympic gold.

“Obviously I want to medal,” Ms. Prescod said, “but what gets me really excited is the idea of little black girls turning on the TV to see someone like them fencing.”

When Ms. Prescod, 23, first began fencing, historically the province of the white and the aristocratic, she had few models in the sport from similar backgrounds. She and her older sister were raised by a single mother in the upstairs apartment of a two-family home in the Flatlands neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her mother, Marva Prescod, tried to keep the girls out of trouble by packing their schedules from a young age: piano, ballet, gymnastics, karate, swimming.

Her mother dismissed fencing as prohibitively expensive before reading about the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a nonprofit that brings fencing and tutoring to young people from underserved communities. The foundation was established in 1991 byPeter Westbrook, who made history himself in 1984 as the first black fencer to win an Olympic medal.

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Nzingha Prescod, a member of the US Olympic fencing team practices at the Fencers Club on West 28th Street.

Nzingha Prescod, a member of the US Olympic fencing team practices at the Fencers Club on West 28th Street.Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

When Ms. Prescod was 9, she began taking free lessons through the foundation. A year later, she won a national championship for her age group. “Nzingha is exactly the same today as she was at age 9,” her coach, Buckie Leach, said. “Just a fantastic athlete with a lot of smarts and a high fencing I.Q.”

To watch Ms. Prescod compete is to witness a world-class tactician in full force. On the fencing strip, she is like Bobby Fischer behind a chess set, considering each movement two, three, four steps ahead of the next. Though Ms. Prescod is notorious for straying from fencing orthodoxy, she is reliably at her strongest, Mr. Leach said, when attacking from a defensive position, often baiting her opponents into a strike that she deflects and counters.

Her prowess recalls that of the woman who inspired her name, the 17th-century Angolan warrior Queen Nzinga. When the Portuguese tried to expand the slave trade into Central Africa, Queen Nzinga is said to have led the front lines of the resistance.

“I love that history,” said Ms. Prescod, grinning after a recent training session. “It says I’m black and I’m powerful and I’m fighting for my people.”

Indeed, Ms. Prescod will be fighting for her country when she heads to Rio de Janeiro next month. Her ascension in the ranks of the sport has already proven groundbreaking. She made history in 2013 as the first American woman to earn a gold medal for foil at the 2013 Grand Prix, and again in 2015 as the first African-American woman to win an individual medal at the Senior World Championships.

Ms. Prescod finished in 22nd place at her first Olympic Games in 2012 after falling to the five-time World Championship medalist Aida Mohamed. But she was still green then — a recent Stuyvesant High School graduate who had just had her braces removed. Now she has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University and has been training with unyielding tenacity. Indeed, her greatest problem is overworking, said Mr. Leach, who worries about injuries. “I always tell her to cool it, but later I’ll find out she’s been practicing behind my back.”

Mr. Prescod laughed off the barb, but all that lunging has caused a cartilage defect in her right hip that will require a procedure after Rio. Given the physical demands of the sport, she knows that her days competing may not last long past this summer. But regardless of her career’s longevity, Ms. Prescod has extracted some lessons that inform her life outside of fencing.

“Fencing has given me access to this whole other world,” she said. “It’s sad, but if you’re going into a job interview, they don’t want you talking like a girl from Brooklyn — they want you talking like a girl from a fencing club.”

Having conquered the fencing club, Ms. Prescod is eager to share something else with her eponymous warrior-queen: a regal piece of jewelry — something bronze, silver or maybe even gold.