On Day 4 of the Summer Games in Rio, US swimmer Michael Phelps — also known as The Superfish — won his 20th and 21st career Olympic gold medals in the 200m men's butterfly and the 4x200m men's freestyle relay. Photos captured each tear he shed on the podium, every moment of defiance in the pool, and the kisses he shared with his new son Boomer.
Photos also captured every angle of the reddish-purple, circular patches covering the 31-year-old swimmer's shoulders and back, marks generated through a muscle-relaxing massage therapy called myofascial decompression, or cupping.
"It can be used on anyone, really, from Olympic athletes to a 59-year-old desk worker with back pain and stiffness," says Michael Mancuso, a physical therapist in New York City who specialises in the Eastern technique, thought to have originated in China to increase blood circulation.
Mancuso says a "suction cup-like tool" applies negative pressure to sore tissue. A patient then moves to stretch out the spot underneath the tool, which stays put for five to 10 minutes.
Ralph Reiff, executive director of St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, Indiana, told USA Today of the feeling of being cupped, "the very worst that this can be is a pretty good pinch or a bee-sting response. So depending on what your affinity is to bee stings, that can either be no big deal or you'll be running out the door."
Whatever pain is temporary, Mancuso tells WHO, adding, "Most patients feel immediate relief and feel looser with increase ranges of motion."
As for its use in Rio, Mancuso says, "What you've been seeing with the Olympic athletes is probably used to either warm up the muscles before an event, or to release tension afterwards."
US gymnast Alex Naddour told USA Today, "Our bodies are going to hurt after doing this for so long. It’s the best thing that I’ve ever had. It has saved me from a lot of pain."
But athletes aren't the first celebrities to espouse the practice.
In 2013, Jennifer Aniston walked the red carpet for the premiere of her Lifetime film Call Me Crazy in a black romper with cupping imprints on her upper back and in 2009, Gwyneth Paltrow extolled the virtues of the Eastern therapy on her lifestyle site Goop, harkening back to images of her at the 2004 premiere of Anchorman sporting the telltale spots on her back.
Other celebrities photographed with cupping marks include Justin Bieber, Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow, US swimmer Natalie Coughlin, and Jessica Simpson.
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