TO prepare for the Olympics, ancient Greek athletes apparently dined on delicacies such as deer livers, lion hearts and raw lambs’ testicles.

We might laugh, but actually there was possibly a better rationale for some of those practices than for the superstitious rituals athletes engage in these days.

The consumption of testicles was, after all, based on the observation that animals were less powerful after they were castrated. So perhaps, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to think ingesting male gonads would bring athletic victory.

In fact, you could argue lambs’ testicles were precursors of the more recent (banned) use of anabolic steroids and other male hormones to enhance performance.

Today’s athletes engage in all manner of bizarre superstitions and rituals, from wearing their lucky underpants to, at this year’s Rio Olympics, cupping.

If you’ve been watching the games in recent weeks, you will have noticed the polka dot markings disfiguring various athletes’ bodies, most prominently the back and shoulders of swimming megastar Michael Phelps.

They look rather like hickies, but are in fact bruises resulting from the ancient Chinese medical technique of cupping, which involves placing a heated glass cup over the skin to create a partial vacuum.

The rush of blood to the area is supposed to help relieve pain and assist muscle recovery, though there’s little evidence for that or the broader claims made for this alternative therapy.

One Australian clinic, for example, says that the technique helps remove “toxins and blockages” from the body, reduces inflammation, and eases obstruction and pain.

Cupping can treat a lengthy list of conditions, this provider says, including: colds and flu; allergies; asthma and respiratory conditions; muscular and sporting injuries; arthritis and joint problems; skin problems, such as acne and eczema; blood disorders, such as anaemia and haemophilia; fertility and gynaecological problems; hypertension; anxiety and depression; migraine … and the list goes on.

Sadly, the website doesn’t explain how cupping can get you pregnant. That would be worth reading.

Superstitious rituals seem to go with being an elite athlete as this list of some particularly bizarre ones shows.

There’s the soccer goalie who has to pee before facing every penalty kick (yes, right there on the field), the baseballer who doesn’t wash his hat all season, and the basketballer who sleeps in the shorts of the opposing team the night before a game.

Irrational? Obviously.

Except that these little rituals might actually work.

“Superstitions are typically seen as inconsequential creations of irrational minds,” a group of German psychologists wrote in a 2010 paper, before going on to describe the performance benefits they could bring.

Among other tasks, participants in this study were asked to make ten attempts at putting a golf ball.

Some were told: “Here is your ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball”. Controls were just told they had the same ball used by everybody else.

Those told they had a lucky ball scored an average of 6.42 out of ten, while controls scored an average 4.75.

“Activating a good-luck superstition leads to improved performance by boosting people’s belief in their ability to master a task,” the researchers concluded.

It sounds rather like the placebo effect, in other words. And, as I’ve written before, we know that can have a powerful impact too.

Given the demonstrated capacity of belief to affect wellbeing and performance, it seems unlikely that elite athletes will be abandoning their lucky rituals any time soon.

The cupping craze of 2016 is really just one more entry in a catalogue that goes all the way back to the offal-induced victories of the ancient Greeks.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.


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