It doesn’t take much examination of the statistics to be able to confirm what was already fairly obvious to sports fans – the home team wins more often. This is particularly true of the Olympic Games. With one exception (the USA at Atlanta 1996) the host nation has always improved on its medal tally of four years earlier. That host country’s medal tally four years later has fallen on each occasion.
Since 1948 the USSR, Spain, Mexico, Italy, Greece, Finland, the USA, China and Australia all enjoyed their biggest medal hauls on home turf. UK Sport, which distributes money to sports in the United Kingdom, has made a record British medal count its stated target and many believe it will reach that target.
There are several reasons proposed by researchers as to what exactly this ‘home advantage’ effect is. Ross Tucker of the online publication The Science of Sport analyses some data in the video presentation below and explains that essentially there are three factors: not having to travel, familiarity with sports venues and the crowd’s influence on both competitors and referees.
In the first case, the host-country competitors do not need to go too far to compete, they are already there. While some of their rivals may suffer from jet lag or travel fatigue, they do not.
Familiarity helps as if an athlete knows the track, pool, river or stadium, the climate, the crowd and feels ‘at home’ the comfort factor aids the athlete’s performance.
The crowd can influence both the athletes’ and referees’ performance. If tens of thousands of people are cheering you on, that fact might drive the body that 0.5% further. And sometimes 0.5% is the difference between winning or losing, or finishing 3rd or 4th. On the refereeing side, there is also evidence, as Ross Tucker provides in his presentation, that referees are swayed, even if only slightly, by the noise a partisan crowd makes. In sports such as gymnastics, football or boxing – where a referee’s judgement is crucial – this could be worth a few out of the hundreds medals on offer at the London Games. It was certainly the case in the boxing in Seoul in 1988.
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While home advantage helps in most competitions, it does perhaps slightly more so in the Olympics simply because it is The Olympic Games, an opportunity that countries only usually experience once in a generation if they are lucky to host them at all. When a country’s government hosts the Olympics it wants to do well, and to do well it is prepared to free up more money to sports. That is certainly the case with the UK and London 2012. Funding has been increased for boxing, canoeing, gymnastics, rowing and taekwondo – all multiple-event and medal-rich disciplines – and field hockey, in which Britain also has hopes of medals. Britain already enjoyed its most successful Games ever four years ago in Beijing, where it won 47 medals including 19 Golds and most of the statistic-based predictions point to an increase on that medal total.
There is also a positive lasting effect of playing host. The improved infrastructure continues to help sporting performance after the Games have finished and many of the medal-winning athletes return to defend their titles. Which would suggest that China, although it should win fewer medals in London, is set to do well once more.
Number of medals per country between 1948 and 2008: (hosting countries only)