Why home advantage gives competitors a sporting edge

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JUST about any sports fan will tell you that the home team usually wins.

Whether it’s football, rugby, cricket, swimming or athletics, players and competitors tend to perform better in their own backyards. It’s surely no coincidence that the one and only time England won the World Cup they did so on home soil, just as the All Blacks won the rugby equivalent in New Zealand last year.

But the importance of home advantage in sport is particularly striking when it comes to the Olympics. Since 1948, Spain, Mexico, Italy, Greece, Finland, the United States, China and Australia have all enjoyed their biggest medal hauls on home turf, and with just one exception (the US at Atlanta 1996) the host nation has always improved on its medal tally of four years earlier – which bodes well for us.

Despite the fact that the usual suspects – the United States, China and Russia – are likely to be at the top of the medals table, there are high hopes that Britain can maintain the fourth spot they secured at the Beijing Games four years ago, when they won 47 medals.

Home advantage can certainly help Team GB secure another bumper medal haul in London. In a paper published in the Journal of Sport Science, entitled Modelling home advantage in the Summer Olympic Games, a team of scientists from Wolverhampton University and Liverpool John Moores University, found that home nations were shown to win about three times more medals in home Olympics.

They looked at what effect hosting the Olympic Games had on countries’ standings in the competition, with factors ranging from increased investment in sport and the effect of large partisan crowds. They found that in sports with subjective decision making, where points are allocated by a referee or judge, such as boxing or gymnastics, home advantage is likely to have a greater impact with referees possibly being swayed, even if only slightly, by a noisy crowd. Whereas those competing in events like athletics and weightlifting where the outcome is simply based on who’s fastest, or who can lift the heaviest weight, it becomes less important.

But in most big international sporting occasions home nations tend to punch above their weight. “Home country advantage should on average boost medal share by around two percentage points, which might translate to around an extra 19 medals for Britain in 2012,” says John Hawksworth, chief economist at business services group PwC, which recently published a study on the issue. Dr Rick Norris, a chartered psychologist, says there are a number of factors that create this home advantage effect. First of all, those competing for the host country don’t have far to travel and are usually familiar with the venues and stadiums.

“This familiarity is important because the less you have to worry about, and the fewer distractions there are, the more you are able to concentrate and mentally prepare yourself for the task ahead,” says Dr Norris.

Then there’s the impact of the crowd. “The idea that you are representing your nation on home soil is a powerful one because there’s a strong sense of pride involved which can provide added motivation.”

Being roared on by tens of thousands of people can boost someone’s performance by even half a percent, which can make the difference between getting a medal and not.

But this heightened level of support can also raise expectations. In a recent interview for a BBC documentary, British cycling’s golden girl and Olympic gold medallist Victoria Pendleton admitted she felt the pressure, saying: “My success has got so great, it’s like I’m trapped, almost, within it.”

Dr Norris agrees that such high expectations can become a millstone for some competitors. “It can be a double-edged sword. If the crowd is rooting for you then your motivation generally increases and so does your performance. But if you feel like you have the weight of the nation on your shoulders then it can become difficult, as we’ve seen with Andy Murray,” he says.

But the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. “If you add all these factors together then the likelihood is that people perform better at games and tournaments held in their own country than if they were playing away from home.

“We have some very good athletes and with home advantage I think we will do well at the Olympics and I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up having our best ever medal tally.”