Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Pseudoscience in Sport: If It’s Legal It Probably Doesn’t Work

By Marko Petrovic

Elite athletes are prime targets for emerging sham products that promise make-believe effects.

The realm of the professional sportsperson is awash with diverse ways to get ahead, legal or not. The immense pressure these people feel can make them take a wrong turn down the road to victory.

In March, two Collingwood players tested positive to clenbuterol, a drug on WADA and ASADA’s prohibited list. Clenbuterol promotes muscle growth and reduces body fat, which is clearly a prime example breaking the rules to get ahead.

But why are some products banned and others aren’t? Prohibited products are distinguished from the legal ones simply because they actually work. The legal products tend to be bogus.

The visibility of elite sports people makes many everyday people assume that the bogus products they use are legitimate. Charlatans rely on this effect to encourage and consolidate their grip on the uninformed consumer.

When you want to get the edge it seems that illegal, dangerous or plainly false products are abundantly available for use. Here are some common sham products widely used and promoted in Australian sport.

Balance Bands
Balance bands wormed their way into Australian sport near the end of the last decade. If you believe the hype, they’re basically magic. The bands contain holograms that are supposedly embedded with frequencies that react positively with your body’s natural energy fields to improve balance, strength and flexibility. Well-known AFL players such as former Brisbane Lion Brendan Fevola and St Kilda forward Nick Riewoldt wore the bands. Benji Marshall of the NRL also wore them.

After an undertaking by the ACCC, an Australian balance band manufacturer was forced to admit there was actually no credible scientific evidence to support any of their claims. The manufacturer was then forced to offer refunds to anyone who felt misled into purchasing a band, and to publish corrective advertising to prevent future consumers from being duped.

Compression Garments
Compression clothing is worn by athletes from almost all major Australian sports. The manufacturer of “Skins” boasts a number of Australian clubs that it has partnered, such as GWS Giants, Brisbane Lions, the Brumbies, Richmond and the Wallabies.

Those who sell the apparel advertise effects such as increased strength and power, improved stamina and better recovery. This is all somehow accomplished (they claim) by enhancing blood flow.

The problem is that most research demonstrates no change in an athlete’s performance while using the garments. Other research that compared the apparel with recovery therapies such as ice, heat packs and massage found no differences.

Some research demonstrates a weak placebo effect on true believers, but a lack of concrete persuasive data means it’s just that – a placebo.

Kinesio Tape
This bright and shonky tape was originally developed by a Japanese chiropractor almost 30 years ago. The good “doctor” claims that the tape somehow lifts the top two layers of skin apart and thus relieves pain, a feat quite impressive considering this usually requires a surgeon’s scalpel.

Kinesio Tape claims to decrease pain, reduce swelling, improve joint function and replicate and enhance the function of muscle fibres and tendons. While the tape may look cool on the professional sportsperson it performs no better than sham treatments in clinical trials.

Many Australian sports teams have embraced Kinesio Tape since the 2008 Olympic Games. It can be seen on athletes in Australian football, rugby, tennis and marathon running. Even Australian racing driver Mark Webber promotes the product.

The only thing this tape can’t stick to is the facts.

Marko Petrovic is an exercise physiologist who is currently studying Mechanical Engineering at Curtin University.