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How Home Field Advantage Gives Olympic Host Countries An Edge — And More Gold Medals

Japan's Yuto Horigome competes in the men's street final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Sports Park Skateboarding in Tokyo on July 25.
Jeff Pachoud
AFP via Getty Images
Japan's Yuto Horigome competes in the men's street final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Sports Park Skateboarding in Tokyo on July 25.

Home field advantage is known in sports for giving athletes competing on their own turf an edge over their opponents. It seems to still hold true even at the highest levels of competition, including the Olympics.

Japan, who is hosting this year's games, has far surpassed its gold medal count from the previous Summer Olympics in Rio in 2016.

Data shows, almost without exception, that Olympic athletes from the host country end up on the podium more often and take home more gold medals in the summer games than they did when they were competing away from home.

But if all the Olympians are sleeping on the same cardboard beds, eating the same Olympic Village food, training on the same equipment and duking it on the same course or in the same swimming pool, why do some athletes have an edge over others?

It turns out there are lots of reasons home team athletes get a boost. And in the Olympics in particular, the deck is stacked even higher in favor of the host country.

Home field advantage is real, athletes and experts say

One of the biggest pluses to competing at home is the positive energy from a supportive crowd, athletes say. (That is somewhat out the window at this year's Olympics, where fans were banned from entering facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Briana Scurry, a former goalie for the U.S. women's national soccer team, said playing in the U.S. during the 1996 Summer Olympics helped the squad beat China to win gold that year.

"We had 76,000 people at the final in Athens, Georgia, all cheering for us. And China had, literally, a little tiny section of red up high in the nosebleed seats," she said.

Three years later, during the 1999 Women's World Cup in California, Scurry said the home field advantage pushed the team to play better again. During the final, Scurry herself made an iconic save in the game-deciding shootout, deflecting the ball with her fingertips, helping the team win the championship.

"[The] times where I haven't really felt exceptionally energized, if I think about it, are the times usually when we weren't the home-based team. We were overseas and playing," she said.

Another factor that can hurt athletes from different places, especially other countries, is travel. International competitions such as the Olympics often require long flights across multiple time zones, which can give athletes jet lag and impact their sleep.

Foreign athletes may also be unaccustomed to the food and training equipment available at the competition. Even the weather, such as the oppressive humidity right now in Tokyo, may throw off a competitor used to a different climate.

For some athletes, though, the disadvantage to playing away may be more nebulous. It could simply be the feeling of being off in a new place.

"When we compete at home, we're comfortable. We're familiar with our surroundings, and that gives us some confidence. We know our course. We know the stadium we're performing in. We know the crowds that are there are generally cheering, hopefully, for us to do well," said Tim Baghurst, director of FSU COACH, the athletic coaching center at Florida State University.

"Now flip that, and you go somewhere where maybe the crowd base is more hostile. You haven't prepared the same way. Maybe the equipment to warm up isn't available that you're usually used to warming up with. Now we have that uncertainty of, 'maybe I'm not prepared for this.' And that little bit of doubt creeps in," he added.

"Theoretically it should be no different, but we know that it is."

Olympic host countries get an even bigger boost

The home field advantage is dialed up even higher for the Olympics, where host countries are afforded additional benefits to help their athletes succeed.

Competitors from host countries have to meet lower qualification standards than their foreign peers, according to FiveThirtyEight.

That may contribute to the phenomenon of host countries sending much bigger squads to their Olympics than the previous summer games when they competed abroad.

Japan got yet another benefit this year thanks to an Olympic rule change. A new policy adopted by the The International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2016 allows the organizing committee for the host country to propose several new sporting events for their games.

It meant that baseball and softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing — all popular sports in Japan — were Olympic events in Tokyo. And Japanese athletes have already medaled in four of the five sports, at times crushing the competition.

History shows host countries perform better

In every Summer Olympics since 1952, with two exceptions, the host country has won more medals than it did in the previous summer games.

So far this year, Japan nabbed 10 more medals than it did in 2016. In the 2008 games in Beijing, China won 100 medals, 37 more than it took home in 2004. (Finland, in 1952, and the United States, in 1996, saw their medal counts drop at home.)

Host countries not only win more medals; they take home the top prize more often, too. Since 1952 only two countries (including Finland, again) have failed to improve on their previous gold medal counts when they hosted the summer games.

With the Tokyo Olympics still underway, Japan has already bested its 2016 gold medal tally. Brazil took home seven golds in 2016, more than double its previous haul.

Baghurst, the Florida State University professor, says it pays for host country athletes to do well. It likely means more money for the IOC and the host country through merchandise and other sales. It also makes for a buzzier, more enjoyable competition for that country's citizens, who not only have to put up with the disruptions caused by the Olympics but also may want to take part in what is a rare, even patriotic-feeling, event.

"When there is success in an event at home, more people are talking about it, more people are coming to watch" he said. "It just increases that fervor and interest in what's going on."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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