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The Plus Side of Hosting the Olympics: Tripling Your Medal Count

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Figure skating fans cried foul when South Korean star Yuna Kim was passed over for gold in favor of 17-year-old Russian skater Adelina Sotnikova. “If Adelina was not from Russia, she would never get those marks,” figure skating expert told The Wire. He might be right—but it shouldn’t come as such a surprise: Home advantage is well-documented at all level of sports, from the high school to the Olympic, and it’s strongest for subjectively judged sports like figure skating.

Whether it’s because of a greater investment in the games, more enthusiastic crowds or a bias in judging, the country hosting the Olympics can expect to win about three times as many medals as usual, according to a model devised by University College London statistician Nigel Balmer and published in 2003 in the Journal of Sports Science. Balmer and his colleagues at Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Wolverhampton based their analysis on medal counts of five events—track and field, weightlifting, boxing, gymnastics and team games— over a century of Summer Olympics, from 1896 to 1996.

Balmer et al 2001

It’s influenced by the size and behavior of the crowd

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The psychological boost of a friendly crowd is the most intuitive explanation for home advantage, and it turns out it’s also one of the most significant. In a 1977 paper in the journal Social Forces, the University of Chicago’s Barry Schwartz and Temple University’s Stephen Barsky looked at nearly 1,880 major league baseball games played in 1971—and found that the home advantage varied significantly in relation to fans’ attendance: The percentage of games won by the home team increased from 48 percent when turnout was low to 57 percent when crowd density was high.

For a 1983 paper in Social Psychology Quarterly, Donald Greer, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, showed that athletes' performance is affected not only by the size of a crowd but by its behavior: When spectators at a home game booed, players from the away team floundered while athletes from the home team played slightly better than usual. Greer had researchers attend college basketball games and monitored teams' performances in the minutes following the crowd's booing:

Episodes of spectator protest were related to an increase in the performance advantages enjoyed by home teams. Subsequent to crowd protest, there were slight improvements in the performance indicators of home teams, paralleled by more significant declines for visiting teams.

It’s stronger for subjectively judged sports

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We can lay the blame for this one on patriotic bias. When Nigel Balmer and his team analyzed home advantage in the Olympics from 1908 to 1998, they found: “When events were grouped according to whether they were subjectively assessed by judges, significantly greater home advantage was observed in the subjectively assessed events.” Writes Balmer:

Ansorge and Scheer (1988)… found not only that judges at the 1984 Olympics scored their own gymnasts higher, but also that they scored immediate competitors lower.... Judges scored their own gymnasts higher than the mean of the other judges 282 times and lower 29 times. More telling was the underscoring of gymnasts in close competition to their own, who were given lower scores than the mean of the other judges on 399 occasions and higher scores on only 190 occasions. This finding certainly suggests a scoring strategy which increases national advantage.

Balmer et al 2001

It has to do with home athletes’ familiarity with their location

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What about the effect of the athletes simply knowing their home court better? "There are many reasons why familiarity with a local playing facility might contribute to home advantage," wrote Richard Pollard, a statistician at California Polytechnic State University, in a 2002 paper in the Journal of Sports Sciences. "These can be classified as physical, sensory and psychological. For example, in baseball the playing surface is not of fixed dimensions or orientation with respect to climatic conditions, such as the sun and prevailing wind. Furthermore, each stadium has its own physical characteristics and this should provide recognizable visual cues to home competitors. Lighting, for both day and night games, varies from stadium to stadium, as do sounds and other sensory inputs."

Pollard isolated the effect of familiarity on home advantage by looking at whether home advantage dissipated when a team moved to a new stadium in the same town.

Home advantage is well documented for professional baseball, basketball and ice hockey in North America. One of the possible causes of this advantage is familiarity with the local playing facility. This was investigated and quantified in an analysis of 37 teams moving to new stadiums, but in the same city, from 1987 to 2001. Home advantage during the first season in a new stadium after the move was significantly less than home advantage in the final season in the old stadium (P = 0.011). The reduction was evident in all three sports…. It is estimated that about 24% of the advantage of playing at home may be lost when a team relocates to a new facility.

And according to Balmer’s analysis, “Familiarity with local conditions was shown to have some effect, particularly in alpine skiing, although the bobsled and luge showed little or no advantage over other events…. If familiarity is significant in the Winter Olympics, it should be most evident in alpine skiing, where the potential for variation is at its greatest. This was confirmed by Bray and Carron (1993), who acknowledged that the ‘beneficial effects of familiarity with the venue could contribute generally and specifically to the home advantage in world cup alpine skiing.’”

It’s stronger for team sports than individual events

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The home advantage is significant for team sports like basketball and baseball. What about individual sports like golf, tennis and cross-country?

According to Penn State sports psychologist Marshall Jones:

Nevill, Holder, Bardsley, Calvert, and Jones (1997) studied the four tennis Grand Slams using current world rankings as a control on player quality. Success in the Grand Slams was evaluated by how far a player progressed in the tournament… Home advantage was indicated if the curve for the home players lay numerically below that for the away players, that is, more toward the more advanced rounds of the competition… they concluded, home advantage does not appear to be a “major factor” in Grand-Slam tennis.

And when, in 1984, L.E. McCutcheon analyzed scores from 100 high school cross-country meets in Fairfax County, Virginia, he found that the home teams won about 53 percent of the time—not exactly a significant result.