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 Dr. Kenzo Kase in the mid-1970s, it first started cropping up on a body part here or there during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But that was enough to spark an interest and, following the summer games, sales of the tape jumped a reported 300 percent. 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.


The research is slim, and some scientists are dubious. According to Reuters, a 2012 report in the journal Sports Medicine found "little quality evidence to support the use of Kinesio tape over other types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries." But Kevin Anderson, 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 told Reuters, "it certainly can't improve your performance or make you Superman," but he says it does help relieve pain and swelling for the athletes.

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German beach volleyball player Sara Goller, who wore hot pink tape throughout the 2012 London 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 told Reuters.

Lindon, Utah-based brand KT Tape is the official Kinesiology tape licensee of the U.S. Olympic team and counts Kerri Walsh Jennings, James Harden, and Kerri Strug among its fans.

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.

This post originally appeared in 2012.