Olympic Games: The conundrum of playing the host
London: At first glance, this might seem like a stupid question with a pretty obvious answer: Does it really help, from a sporting perspective, to host Olympics? A mere glance at historical medals tallies would suggest that the answer is a resounding yes. Host nations rarely do better at the Olympics than when they host the sporting jamboree.
South Korea placed 4th at the Seoul Olympics (1988), having never done better than tenth before. Spain came an outstanding 6th in Barcelona (1992), its previous best being 14th in the 1900 Paris Olympics. Greece was placed 15th at the Olympics in Athens in 2004, a position it last managed at Stockholm Olympics in 1912.
Even the US, a nation that has never finished outside the top 3 in any Olympics it has participated in, appears to have enjoyed performance boosts in home editions.
While Atlanta (1996) saw the US come first, after finishing second in Barcelona, the improvement enjoyed by the Americans at home in Los Angeles in 1984 is perhaps unsurpassed. After never winning more than 45 gold medals in any Olympics the preceding half-century, the US reaped an astonishing 83 golds in Los Angeles for a grand total of 174 medals. Even the Russians only managed 80 gold medals when they hosted the widely boycotted the Moscow Olympics (1980). (Do keep in mind though that these table standings are based on International Olympic Committee’s ranking system.)
So, there appears to be clear home advantage in hosting the Olympics. Why could this be? “Home advantage” is something that is taken for granted in most sports. But what is the mechanism involved in a host country enjoying such boosts in a multi-discipline event such as the Olympics?
In 2012, shortly before the London Olympics, three British researchers published a study titled Modelling home advantage in the Summer Olympic Games, in which they suggested a few factors. One was the increased investment in sport that always took place in host cities in the years leading up to the event. This often enabled home athletes to train better and enjoy greater familiarity with the venues. Then there was the fact that hosting the Games allows you to enter more athletes into more disciplines than you would normally. But the boffins also found another fascinating factor: home crowd pressure.
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You would expect this pressure to spur on the home athletes to try harder, right? In fact, they found something very different: “Highly significant home advantage was found in event groups that were either subjectively judged or rely on subjective decisions... Officiating system was vital to both the existence and extent of home advantage. Our findings suggest that crowd noise has a greater influence upon officials’ decisions than players’ performances, as events with greater officiating input enjoyed significantly greater home advantage.”
Or, to put it in plain English, the substantial noise raised by the home crowd seems to influence judges to give higher scores to home athletes in events where this was applicable. So, screaming for a tennis player probably doesn’t help a lot, but could drastically improve a gymnast or diver’s scores.
Other researchers have suggested other factors. For instance, home athletes do not have to travel anywhere far away or acclimatise to a new place. So far so good. It all makes sense.
And then earlier this year Stephen Pettigrew and Danyel Reiche published a paper unambiguously titled Hosting the Olympic Games: an Overstated Advantage in Sports History . The paper is, essentially, a brutal put-down of the research I mentioned before. Pettigrew and Reiche say that in fact there is no statistically significant case to be made for a home advantage in an Olympics. If there is any advantage, they say, it is because the host is allowed to have a much larger squad of athletes because of preferential qualification criteria for the home nationality. (At London 2012, Brazil had 258 athletes participating in 24 sports. In Rio, it has 465 participating in 28.)
But even this didn’t really help, say Pettigrew and Reiche. “Considering total medals per athlete tells the same story. Roughly half of host countries saw a decrease in this statistic. We estimate the hosting effect to be more of a disadvantage than an advantage, with host countries winning 0.007 fewer medals per athlete than in the prior Games.” But they do acknowledge that further work needs to be done to understand and quantify the judging bias mentioned before.
Things get even more complicated when you take into account sporting legacy. Does hosting an Olympics make you better in sport? Greece finished 15th in Athens, but 58th in Beijing and an abysmal 75th in London. Spain finished 6th in Barcelona but hasn’t made it into the top 10 since.
The situation with Great Britain is even more intriguing. Shortly after London 2012, British sport administrators said that they were targeting 66 medals in Rio—one more than in London. More recently, this target has been downgraded to 48. (And so far Team GB has had a somewhat sluggish start.) Even more damning was a June report by Sport England suggesting that number of people in England playing sports or exercising at least once a week had dropped 0.4% since the London Olympics. The drop in economically backward social groups was even starker: -2.9%.
So does hosting an Olympics actually help you win more medals in the near-term, and/or make a nation better at sports in the long?
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I hate to do this at the end of a column…but I think the answer is: “It’s complicated”. But if you have a few billion dollars lying around then please by all means host one. And make it awesome. It is great fun for the rest of us who don’t have to pay for it.