Here’s why Olympic athletes are wearing strange tape that looks like a tattoo — and what we know about how it works

Can tape provide a performance boost? Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
  • Athletes like Mirai Nagasu and Ted Ligety have been spotted at the Winter Olympics wearing streaks of tape.
  • Nagasu had it on her leg, which confused viewers who thought it might be some kind of tattoo.
  • But these athletes are actually wearing kinesio tape provided to Team USA by KT Tape.
  • It’s not clear based on scientific research whether the tape actually helps. But there might be good reasons for athletes to wear it anyway.

US figure skater Mirai Nagasu stunned Winter Olympics figure skating watchers over the weekend with her impressive performance – she was the first American woman to ever land a triple axel at the Olympics.

But the other part of her performance that stuck with viewers was the dark streak on her thigh with the letters “USA” on it. There was at first some speculation that it might be a tattoo of some kind, but it was soon revealed that it was actually Team USA-branded athletic kinesiology tape made by KT Tape.

In this year’s Winter Games, some alpine skiers have also been wearing the tape on their faces to protect themselves from the freezing air. KT Tape is capitalising on the moment by offering discounts on the “mystery tattoo” tape.

The KT Tape company web site says the tape is “designed to relieve pain while supporting muscles, tendons, and ligaments.”

But the science on whether Kinesio tape actually works isn’t clear. Wearing it may be beneficial for Olympic athletes – but not necessarily for the reason the competitors choose to put it on.

Ted Ligety face tape alpine skiing
Hopefully Ted Ligety doesn’t have too hard a time removing tape from his face. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Taping together an Olympic performance

Kinesiology tape, which is often brightly coloured, has made a splash at the Olympics and in other sporting events before. It started to draw viewers’ attention at the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games, where it was often quite visible on the exposed skin of beach volleyball players.

Recently, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady showed up for the AFC Championship Game wearing KT Tape. He was using it protect stitches he’d received to treat a gash in his right hand.

The KT Tape website claims the product “helps reduce pressure to the tissue and may reduce discomfort or pain. Correct taping also provides support to muscles by improving the muscle’s ability to contract, even when it is weak, and helps the muscle to not over-extend or over-contract.”

Kinesio Tex Tape, which is what athletes were first spotted wearing in 2008, was designed by a Japanese chiropractor in 1979.Kinesio’s website says their tape “alleviates discomfort and facilitates lymphatic drainage by microscopically lifting the skin.” They say that it can be “applied over muscles to reduce pain and inflammation, relax overused or tired muscles, and support muscles in movement on a 24-hour-a-day basis.”

Whether or not the tape actually does these things is less clear. And athletes seem to be wearing it for a variety of reasons that go beyond the marketing – face-warming certainly isn’t one of the recommended uses.

To tape or not to tape

Several reviews of studies have analysed the clinical use of kinesio taping for people with musculoskeletal conditions, and found no evidence it helped patients. So people with chronic conditions that need treatment (not usually Olympic athletes) probably won’t see any benefit from using the tape.

Some researchers have found that taping can have potential benefits for people with lower back pain, but reviews haven’t found any strong significant overall benefit.

At least one review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that “Kinesio taping is superior to minimal intervention for pain relief.” Other studies have found that the taping may potentially increase range of motion slightly, but there’s not necessarily evidence that one type of tape is better than another. Researchers who have looked to see if tape improves blood flow have said that they found no evidence of that effect.

Overall, it seems that if there’s any benefit, it’s not large or easy to measure.

Yet there are many athletes who have have turned to tape. In addition to Olympians and NFL players, Lance Armstrong and David Beckham used the adhesive during their careers.

Even if the tape doesn’t do much from a physical perspective, there may be a good reason for the athletes who use it to keep doing so.

Competitions are won or lost by fractions of a second, so even some very slight pain relief or increase in range of motion matters to an Olympic athlete. A .05% performance gain could be the difference between standing on the podium or sitting off to the side.

If there’s no performance boost whatsoever from the tape, it could still be worth wearing if an athlete thinks it helps them. Study after study has documented the benefits of the placebo effect. People who think they have been given caffeine or morphine feel less fatigue or pain, even if all they have ingested is a sugar pill.

As physiology professor Steve Harridge told Reuters in 2012, “the fact that athletes think it’s going to do them some good can help in a psychological way.”

Athletes tend to cling to anything that might give them a performance boost. If tape makes someone feel there’s less reason to worry about a tight hamstring or sore back, the relaxation that comes with that state of mind may make the difference between a winning performance and one that falls short.

That alone could be good enough reason to do it.