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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.

DOES IT WORK?

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.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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