Olympic Athletes Endorsing Pseudoscience; Skeptics Warn of Influence on Public

For Immediate Release: August 9, 2016
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director
press@centerforinquiry.org - (207) 358-9785


As billions of people watch in awe the astounding feats of the athletes competing in Rio, the Center for Inquiry expressed concerns that this massive audience may be unknowingly influenced by what amounts to Olympic-sized endorsements of baseless and often dangerous pseudoscientific health practices such as cupping, acupuncture, and others. The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is an organization that advocates for science, reason, and secularism.

“The promotion of unproven alternative treatments by Olympic athletes presents a genuine risk,” said Robyn Blumner, CEO of CFI. “We are inspired by the almost superhuman skill and the intense passion displayed by these athletes, and they are deservedly celebrated for their achievements. But their use of many so-called alternative treatments that are wholly unsupported by science or evidence have unwittingly lent those treatments a level of legitimacy that must be dispelled, so regular consumers don’t put their own health at risk.”

Several athletes, including U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Alexander Naddour, have boldly displayed the tell-tale signs of “cupping” on their bodies, in which heated glass cups create suction on the skin and allegedly aid with the “flow” of one’s “qi.” Apart from having no health benefits, cupping can be extremely dangerous, leading to horrible burn wounds and infections. Athletes also proudly don kinesiology tape — to the point of honoring one brand as the “official kinesiology tape of Team USA” — which purports to relieve pain and increase motion, but has no real proven effects. Olympic athletes have also publicly extolled the virtues of scientifically baseless treatments such as acupuncture and homeopathy in interviews about their pre-Olympic training and health regimens.

With an audience of millions upon millions around the world, watching with rapt attention and idolizing these heroic and accomplished athletes, the Center for Inquiry declared the need for the viewing public to understand the difference between scientifically proven treatments and those that are based solely on folklore and wishful thinking. The risks involved with pseudoscientific treatments have gone largely unmentioned by commentators, athletes, or the organizers of the games.

“People of all ages will understandably look to these athletes as paragons of health and fitness, and of course they will want to emulate them and mirror their behavior,” said Blumner. “Those athletes have every right to pursue the treatments they wish for themselves, but it’s also crucial that the media covering these games, the International Olympic Committee, and athletes themselves make clear that these pseudoscientific treatments are unproven, and that ‘alternative,’ ‘traditional,’ and ‘complementary’ treatments should never take the place of those based on hard science and real evidence.”

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at centerforinquiry.org.