Why Do Olympic Athletes Wear Tape on Their Bodies?

The colorful tape adorning various parts of athletes’ bodies has been a mainstay of the Olympics over the last few decades.

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Image via Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil/Wikimedia Commons

Have you noticed the colorful pieces of tape stuck on athlete’s bodies at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics?

These curious additions have been visible for the last few Olympics, and you can spot them on shoulders, bellies, legs, and through a range of sporting events.

So what are they? The tape is commonly known as kinesio, or “k,” tape that athletes say functions as a sort of elastic brace that relieves pain. It was developed in Japan in the late 1970s by Kenzo Kase, a chiropractor.

A 2008  New York Times report described the tape as 100% cotton and “modeled on the thickness and elasticity of real skin.” Such a tape is applied to the skin in a range of patterns depending on the injury, and does not restrict an athlete’s range of motion.

Utah-based company KT Tape is the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams’ official licensee of kinesio tape. According to their 2020 news release:

KT Tape is a lightweight, elastic sports and fitness tape designed for muscle, ligament and tendon pain relief and support for hundreds of sports-related injuries. KT Tape is designed to withstand sweat, strain and can be worn in water or under body-hugging athletic apparel, while providing long-lasting relief.

[…] KT Tape will be available to all U.S. athletes, coaches, and USOPC sports medicine staff at U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Centers. KT Tape’s commitment to the Olympics and Paralympics also includes relationships with six National Governing Bodies including USA Cycling, US Soccer, US Speedskating, USA Track & Field, USA Triathlon, and USA Wrestling.

But is this tape effective?

Reports are mixed. One 2012 report by experts from Ohio State University reviewed multiple studies that looked at the impact of the tape on musculoskeletal injury. The report concluded that they “found insufficient evidence to support the use of KT following musculoskeletal injury, although a perceived benefit cannot be discounted. There are few high-quality studies examining the use of KT following musculoskeletal injury.”

A 2013 study in the European Journal of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine said, “Although KT has been shown to be effective in aiding short-term pain, there is no firm evidence-based conclusion of the effectiveness of this application on the majority of movement disorders within a wide range of pathologic disabilities.” It concluded that more research was needed.

Another 2019 study conducted by experts from the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences, examined the impact of the tape on pain management in knee osteoarthritis. It concluded that a “specific Kinesio Taping technique is clinically more beneficial for knee-pain alleviation in comparison with nonspecific taping.”

Some argue that regardless of whether the tape works, if athletes believe it does that might be enough to consider it effective during competitive sports. The placebo effect — where someone feels better after taking a pill even though the pill is useless — can also apply to athletes using the tape.