ScienceSkepticism

The Olympics: Full of Cheesy Goodness

Over the past few hundred years or so, I’ve done something in the neighborhood of 87,000 posts about various sports-related voodoo. Last fall, we discussed the athletic merits of the Power Balance silicone wristbands. Before that, we brought you a discussion of the Phiten necklaces that so many professional baseball players wear. And of course, for the Beijing Summer Olympics in ’08, we dissected the kinesio taping method and the various types of tape used in that practice. I’m not going to go back and count all those posts, but I’m sure it’s like 87,000 — give or take a few.

Anyway, with the Winter Olympics under way in Vancouver, you would expect that more strange injury treatments/training practices/superstitions would be reported by the various media outlets. And before the games had even begun, the story broke about an obscure injury treatment being used by United States downhill skier, Lindsey Vonn.

I should mention, for the uninitiated, that Vonn is a freaking badass in the Alpine events. She is a medal favorite in several races, including the Women’s Downhill, and so it was alarming when she went down in a practice run 10 days before the opening ceremonies and sustained a severely bruised shin. By all accounts, the pain in her leg was intolerable for walking, let alone skiing, and there was a great deal of worry that the favorite would not even be able to compete.

Now, we know top athletes (or their associations) often keep sports medicine experts on the payroll. A good sports doctor or trainer can ensure the athletes are healthy and that they can return quickly from an injury, should they go down in action. The Olympic Games is no exception. You can bet there are awesome sports medicine people roaming all over in and around the village. And, as you might expect, Vonn has access to cutting-edge injury treatments.

But since there is not much you can do for a deep bruise, she was simply treated with ice and massage and tape and rubs, and all the things we know keep swelling down and promote healing.

However, in addition to all the standby treatments, Vonn and her team decided to use another, less well-known method of treatment for the bruised shin. This treatment comes in a different form than most, and when you’re done, you have a readily available snack.

You see, Vonn began wrapping her injured leg in Austrian cheese to reduce inflammation.

Of course this seems bizzare to most people, and silly to others; especially a good critical thinker. As skeptics, we want to know if there is any science behind wrapping an injured limb in cheese — a soft, white, un-aged cheese called topfen to be exact. We want to know if it works.

Well, as we have discovered over and over again in our discussions of sports voodoo, it doesn’t work . . . but it does.

Former Olympic trainer, Ralph Reiff, sums it up nicely:

It’s not bizarre at all. . . . . Regardless of whether it’s a home remedy or passed down from generations or something someone thought of, if the athlete believes in it, there is significant value in that.

And in this case, Vonn believed in the cheese treatment, she used it, and she will be ready for her events.

Did the cheese cure anything? Did it do anything at all?

Probably not.

Dr. C. David Geier Jr., director of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, says cheese is not the worst idea he’s ever heard:

I would imagine the cold nature of food does help, just like an ice pack. [But] to be fair, I can’t imagine there’s good research that the salt in cheese or any kind of food would take the fluid out any faster than any bag of ice.

Which of course, leaves the critical thinker pondering the placebo effect, while the athlete that believes the treatment works gets back in the game. Hey, Lindsey Vonn is going to race, and whether it’s due to the conventional treatments, her body’s natural healing process, or a poltice of soft cheeses, I’m glad she’ll be on my T.V.

And while she is, I’ll keep an eye out for more sports voodoo. If I find something fun, I’ll fill you guys in. And if you all come across something, shoot Skepchick an email, and we’ll talk about it.

In the meantime, here’s a pretty cool video containing some of the science of the Olympic Downhill race.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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16 Comments

  1. What a waste of perfectly good yummy cheese that could have been nommed.

    There’s a lot of the placebo effect and other ways of psyching yourself up in sports. It’s one of those things where it’s not harming her and may give her an edge in making her perceive less pain in her leg (we know that pain is one thing placebos do well improving) then it’s worthwhile for her to do.

  2. I just noticed a bumper stating that Cold Fx is the official placebo crutch of the Canadian Olympic team. Cold FX is the Canadian Airborn if I’m not mistaken (and, sadly, my wife’s comfort of choice during the winter months). It’s a herbal alternative to accepting that colds come and go despite our annoyance.

    But we just won our first gold medal on Canadian soil so I guess that proves it works.

  3. I remember my grandma putting cottage cheese on her leg for bruising. Even at the time it seemed messy and illogical; like Noadi, I lamented that such nice cheese was being wasted.

    That was an interesting video of the non-cheese factors that are contributing to her success; thanks for sharing.

  4. As a Great Catcher, known for his quick wit and unique turn of phrase once said, “90% of Baseball is half mental.” That probably applies to Downhill Skiing as well.

    Also COTW to junco at #6 for “Praise Cheeses. Cheeses is Lord.”

  5. @Rebecca:
    Spectator 1: What did he say?
    Spectator 2: I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
    Mrs. Gregory: Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
    Gregory: Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

    Jehovah, Jehovah, Jehovah!

  6. Whether the cheese helps or not, it reminds me of how some people will use a good steak to help a black eye. Their reasoning is that you can’t grill ice after you’re done with it.

    As long as the food(at least I hope it’s food) isn’t wasted afterward, I don’t see a problem with it.

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