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Why Do Olympians Wear That Colorful Tape?

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You may have first noticed the markings on the synchronized swimmers’ backs. Or cascading down a beach volleyball player’s chiseled abs. Birthmarks? Accessories? A bizarre form of intimidation? No, no, and no. The answer is Kinesio tape. And, yes, it’s all the rage in the sports world.

So, what is this tricked-out injury treatment?

It’s a heavily adhesive, hypoallergenic, stretchy tape that comes, as we have seen, in an array of colors and patterns. It is designed to approximate the weight and thickness of skin and can be stretched over any part of the body. Made of cotton fiber, the tape has an acrylic heat-activated backing and can stay attached for up to five days. When adhered, the tape lifts the upper layers of the skin away from the muscle, relieving pressure and pain in the affected area.

While the tape was developed by Japanese Dr. Kenzo Kase more than 30 years ago, it first started cropping up on a body part here or there during the Beijing Olympics. But that was enough to spark an interest and, after 2008, sales of the tape jumped a reported 300 percent. David Beckham, Tiger Woods, and Lance Armstrong have all reportedly used it. Now, clearly, it has taken the athletic world by storm.

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But if you, lay-athletic person, were hoping to jump on the Kinesio bandwagon, you may have to sit tight, because not just anyone can slap on the tape. To do it properly, you need to use a particular technique that requires training. While many of the athletes’ trainers at this year’s Games already have a jump on the technique, Dr. Kase has also traveled to London with a team who has access to the training centers to help athletes in need.

Does It Work?

The research is slim, and scientists are dubious. According to Reuters, a recent report in the journal Sports Medicine found “little quality evidence to support the use of Kinesio tape over types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries.” But Kevin Anderson, managing director of Kinesio UK, says the research just needs time to catch up to the sports phenomenon.

“There’s nothing magical in the tape,” Anderson tells Reuters, “it certainly can’t improve your performance or make you Superman,” but it does help relieve pain and swelling for the athletes.

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German beach volleyball player Sara Goller, who has been sporting hot pink tape throughout the Games, says the color is nice, but its purpose is what matters. “It can release or put tension on a muscle, it depends on what you want,” she tells Reuters.

Even if the tape doesn’t actually do anything beneficial, physically, it can give athletes a boost of confidence simply because they think it is working wonders on their battered bodies. And in such high stakes, high pressure situations like the Olympic Games, the slightest form of encouragement is sometimes all you need.

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