Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Do Olympics host countries have a home ground advantage?

Olympics host countries not only enjoy an influx of tourists and global attention, but their athletes benefit from, as the Metro puts it, "stadiums full of supportive fans cheering them on... There is no question that the home advantage will have an influence on performance".

Besides supportive fans, host athletes also compete in familiar environments. For instance, conditions in Weymouth Bay, the London Olympics sailing venue, are unique and hence challenging. British sailors will no doubt have an edge navigating local waters. Lastly, home teams don't have to battle jet lag and referee bias.

Do these really matter that much? At the end of the day, we want to find out if host countries haul in more medals.

The ideal experiment
Suppose we can conduct the ideal experiment to find out. We can travel back in time, change the Olympics venue, re-run the Games and see if the medal tally changes. This is not possible, so we need a proxy for this "alternate universe".

My alternate universe is not dimension X, but the medal tally in the Games immediately before and after the year of hosting. For example, the Sydney games were held in 2000, so I compared Australia's medal tally in 2000 against that in 1996 and 2004. 

This approach not without problems though. Firstly, the medal tally might increase for other reasons. For example, the US boycotted the 1980 Games, held in the former Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union (and its allies) returned in kind in 1984. With these two heavyweights out of the picture, medal tallies would have risen for everyone. As a result, I had to leave out the 1980 and 1984 Games.

Secondly, new sports might be introduced, and the number of medals increased - between 1968 and 2008 the total number of medals rose by 430, or 80%. Because of this, I expressed the medal tally not in absolute numbers, but as a proportion of the total number of medals given out.

Now for the results
The chart below shows how our host countries performed during the hosting year (red bars), and the Games immediately before (blue bars) and after (green bars). If the red bars were much higher than the blue and green bars, the host country probably had a home ground advantage.

Let's illustrate more clearly with an example. In 2004, Greece hosted the Games and won 1.7% of all medals available. This was higher than its 1.4% performance in 2000, as well as its 0.4% result in 2008. This means Greece's home ground advantage gave it a larger share of medals, to the tone of 0.3 - 1.3%.

Returning to the broad results, we can see that medal gains for the host country are actually quite modest. Hosting the Games increases the host's share of medals by only 0 - 1.5%. This amounts to about 0 to 10-ish medals, which might not be a big deal for Olympics heavyweights like US and China, but more substantial for not-so-heavyweights like Greece.

This home advantage is nonetheless not guaranteed. During the Atlanta Games in 1996, US' performance actually deteriorated as compared to 1992. Conversely, China seems to have made full use of its home advantage, increasing its medal share by far more than other host countries.

So it does seem that there is some home ground advantage, but the rewards look small given the millions, even billions forked out to host athletes from all over the world. There is of course lots to be gleamed from branding, but does London, an established financial and cultural capital, really need it?

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