On Sunday night, I plopped myself down in front of the television and joined millions of people worldwide to watch some Olympic swimming events. After watching Katie Ledecky obliterate her own world record, all eyes were on Micheal Phelps and the US men’s 4X100 medley relay. Would they win, thus giving Phelps his 18th gold medal and 22nd overall?
Phelps filed into the swimming arena with his teammates and began prepping for the race. When he took off his warm-up jacket, I immediately spotted the round welts all over his back and shoulders.
Laughing out loud, I grabbed my phone and sent a text message to Amy, my former teammate in China who I knew would be watching (she’s a Phelps fan).
“MICHAEL PHELPS DOES BA GUANR!”
She replied immediately that she had seen it as well.
Although Amy and I immediately knew what they were, most of the non-Chinese world was left scratching their heads. The Internet erupted. Were they mosquito bites? Did Michael have Zika?
News outlets scrambled to answer the all-important question: What are the purple dots on Michael Phelps?
While it may look like Phelps and several other Olympians with those skin marks have been in a bar fight, the telltale dots actually are signs of “cupping,” an ancient Chinese healing practice that is experiencing an Olympic moment.
“Because this particular recovery modality shows blemishes on his skin, he walks around and looks like a Dalmatian or a really bad tattoo sleeve,” said Keenan Robinson, Phelps’s personal trainer. “It’s just another recovery modality. There’s nothing really particularly special about it.”
The real name is ba guan (拔罐) — pronounced ba guanr in Beijing dialect.
It involves lighting an alcohol-soaked ball of cotton, inserting it into a spherical cup, then quickly placing the cup on the skin. Because the fire has created a vacuum, the skin is literally sucked up into the cup. Like so:
Some of my teammates in China swore by it (I’m looking at you, Amy), and I occasionally had visitors who were brave enough to try it.
Me? I tried it once on my knee, but lasted only about 10 seconds before I demanded that it be removed. The guy with the flame in his hand was not amused; he scolded me for being a wimp. I’m not convinced that it is anything more than simply a bruise, which could be had by being punched, but of course then it wouldn’t be nice and round.
Another former teammate used it to treat a sudden paralysis of her face (Bell’s Palsy). Her American doctor said there was no treatment and that it would (hopefully) go away in a few months. Two weeks of ba guanr, however, and it was gone, never to return!
So what do you think dear readers? Does it really work or is it pseudoscience?