David Adam

Answers about purple dots and biting gold medals

Cambodia Cupping and Coining
FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, photo "cupping" marks are seen on the shoulders of United States' Michael Phelps as he celebrates winning the gold medal in the men's 200-meter butterfly during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. U.S. olympic gold medal winner Michael Phelps made the world aware of cupping by showing his marked muscular shoulders before diving into the pool at the Rio games recently, but cupping, and a similar treatment known as coining, have been practiced in East Asia for centuries. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
David J. PhillipSTF
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Aug. 15, 2016 7:00 am Updated: Aug. 15, 2016 8:11 am

What are those purple dots on the bodies of the Olympic athletes?

They are from a therapy called cupping, and the victories in Rio de Janeiro by swimmer Michael Phelps have put it back into the spotlight.

Jon Krawczynski, a sports writer for the Associated Press, said Phelps had cupping therapy done on the morning of his first Olympic race this summer to relax his muscle and ease soreness.

"The trainer hit me pretty hard with one and left a couple of bruises," Phelps said.

The treatment involves applying glass or plastic cups to the area of discomfort and either applying heat or suction to create a vacuum. The suction pulls the skin away from the muscle and draws oxygenated blood to the area. The suction also is what causes the bruising.

Cupping therapy dates back centuries. NFL star DeMarcus Ware and actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston have touted its benefits, but it's not just for star athletes. Health spas often offer the service for a few hundred dollars, and the cups can be bought online for as little as $15 and applied at home.

Krawczynski wrote that some in the medical community believe it's nothing but hocus pocus, but others insist that it aids recovery, relaxes muscles and helps an athlete maximize performance.

Phelps certainly believes in it.

"I've done it before meets at pretty much every meet I go to," he said.

Cupping therapy has been used among players on the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs rosters this season.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that reliever Seung Hwan Oh used cupping for treatment on his hamstring, and starter Jaime Garcia has used it on his left shoulder.

The Cardinals' chiropractor, Brett Winchester, performs the treatment. Garcia told the Post-Dispatch last week that he's felt its benefits. General manager John Mozeliak said the practice is not done by every player but that it's "another tool in the tool box" if players choose to use it.

Bruce Miles of the Arlington Heights Daily Herald said reliever Clayton Richard used the therapy before he was let go by the Cubs (and subsequently signed by the San Diego Padres), and reliever Travis Wood has tried it as well.

"This was the first year that I've tried it, and I've had it done two or three times," Wood told Miles last week. "It doesn't hurt anything, and I feel it makes me feel a little bit better."

Why do Olympians bite their gold medals?

We've seen the pose hundreds of times Olympic athletes grin while pretending to take a bite from the gold medal they just received and now wear around their neck.

So why do they chomp down? Probably to satisfy the media.

David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, told CNN in 2012 that athletes can only do so many things with a medal, so the athletes typically only appease requests from the photographers.

"It's become an obsession with the photographers," said Wallechinsky, co-author of "The Complete Book of the Olympics." "They look at it as an iconic shot, as something that you can probably sell. I don't think it's something the athletes would probably do on their own."

The CNN report noted that the practice of biting into metal seems to have its roots in money counterfeiting. Gold is a relatively soft metal and shows wear when distressed. David W. Lange of Numismatic Guaranty Corporation said money handlers would bite down on coins to test their authenticity.

How much of an Olympic gold medal is actually gold? It varies by the Games.

The gold medals from the 2012 Olympics in London consisted of 1.34 percent, or about 6 grams, of gold. The remainder was 93 percent silver and 6 percent copper.

The amount of gold used to make a medal shrunk after each of the two World Wars, according to Olympic medal collector and expert Jim Greensfelder. Gold medals were made of solid gold in 1904, 1908 and 1912, but the medals themselves were smaller.

The gold medals from Rio de Janeiro are made of 494 grams of silver and 6 grams of gold. The melted gold and silver of a gold medal is worth about $587 in current market prices.

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