If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you’ve surely noticed all the strips of colored tape plastered to athletes’ bodies. The media sure has: In the past two weeks, Reuters, the Atlantic, ABC News, and Fox (among others) have all reported on the colored tape, which is sold by a company called Kinesio. According to the product's website, the tape is designed to “facilitate the body’s natural healing process while allowing support and stability to muscles and joints without restricting the body’s range of motion.”
The press has questioned this claim, and rightly so. Studies of the tape’s efficacy suggest that there’s no proof that this particular tape is any better than any other kind of tape. But this doesn’t mean athletes shouldn’t use it, especially if they believe that it works—and many, judging by the number wearing it at the Olympics, do. The placebo effect—the idea that medically inert substances that people believe to have a beneficial effect can, in fact, have a beneficial effect—is a well-documented phenomenon. And in sports, studies suggest that placebo effects improve performance.
In one 2006 study, for instance, experienced cyclists were told that they would either receive a placebo or caffeine before a 10-kilometer time trial. In reality, all the athletes got a placebo, but when they thought they’d been given caffeine they pedaled harder—and the more caffeine they were told they were administered the harder they pedaled. “When I thought I was on the 9 mg of caffeine I went faster,” reported Subject 2 at the end of the study. “I felt more on top of it whereas all the other times I felt like I was having to dig in just to keep the pedals turning over.”
Pain relief might be the biggest benefit of placebos. In a 2007 study, competitors in a test of pain endurance were given morphine on training days and a placebo they were told was morphine on the day of the competition. Compared to a control group that never got morphine, the placebo group showed an increased ability to endure pain during the competition.
As the authors of the 2007 study point out, the fact that a placebo can emulate the effects of morphine raises ethical questions about their use in athletic competitions. So if Kinesio tape does cause a placebo-like increase in performance, should the adhesive bandage be banned?
According to the World Anti-Doping Agency, a substance must satisfy two of the following three conditions to be considered for its prohibited list: 1) it represents a potential or actual health risk; 2) it has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance; 3) it is contrary to the spirit of sport. Here, the last two could apply. As a placebo, Kinesio tape has the potential to enhance performance. And if athletes believe that applying the tape gives them an advantage it could be argued that this is contrary to the spirit of sport. But this argument, I think, is weak. Athletes believe in the benefit of lots of odd things—having a pre-game bowel movement, getting slapped in the face, sleeping in your opponents’ shorts. It would be ridiculous to ban any of these things, much less all of them. So let’s put Kinesio tape in the same category as a playoff beard: a potential performance enhancer that adds some color to our favorite sports.