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Home-Field Advantage at the Olympics - A Quick Analysis

Tokyo 2020 is well underway. If you’re anything like me, once every four years you turn your attention to and become a die-hard fan of sports that you only care about once every four years. Whether you like sports or not, the Olympics are a great time to hear inspirational stories and cheer on your home-nation. As the 2-week phenomenon comes to an end, the medal table begins to take shape:

At the top of the table, you have the USA and China. With more athletes, huge populations, and greater athletic funding than other countries… these two nations are staples at the top year over year. What really caught my eye throughout these Olympics is how well Japan, the host nation, has performed. Looking back to 2016, you can clearly see that this year their athletes performed better than ever before. This got me thinking, is there a home-field advantage at the Olympics? This might seem like an obvious yes, but my immediate hypothesis would be that fans generally cause this advantage. However, with no fans in attendance this year, how/why is Japan still seeing an uptick in results?

Let’s dig into the numbers and see if there is home-field advantage at the Olympics, and if so, why?

What is Home Field Advantage / Does it really exist?

Home-field advantage is a well-documented and discussed phenomenon across the sporting world. Home-field advantage is the reason teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB work so hard to be atop of their respective leagues in the regular season -to gain this perceived advantage in the playoffs. Looking at the numbers, the advantage is clear in these four major sports leagues:

- NBA: 73%

- NHL: 59%

- NFL: 59%

- MLB: 51%

The next question that must be answered is WHY home-field advantage exists. There are many studies trying to answer this question. One of the main factors most studies point to is that the officials or referee’s tend to favour the home team. Studies show that basketball referees call more fouls on the visitors, Pitchers for the home team get more strikes called than the visitors, and home teams in soccer get fewer yellow cards. However, even these factors are hypothesized to be tied to pressure that the home-team fans put on referees. Therefore, the next question is, is there still a home-field advantage during the COVID era when there are no fans in stadiums.

Luckily, John Bica did a statistical analysis in his project ‘Home Field Advantage: Does it Exist without Fans?'. He found that although it does exist, the impact of it is much lower than usual, as the referees tend to call the games more evenly with no pressure from the fans. This will be important to understand as we look at home-field advantage in the Olympics.

Home field Advantage at the Olympics

To see if the host nation has an advantage at the Olympics, I first looked at the change in medals won from the year a country hosted the Olympics to the previous games. Below shows the number of metals won.

The trend seems to show the host nation does possess an advantage, with an average medal increase of 18.7 medals.

Why is this?

As stated above, most research on home-field advantage points towards the officiating favouring the home team, stemming from the pressure the fans put on the referees. However, as there are no fans in Tokyo and we are still seeing an uptick in medals (although it is below the average), there must be another unique factor that contributes to this advantage.

One factor I identified that leads to this advantage is that host countries simply send more athletes to the Olympics. Below shows the number of athletes sent.

As the host nation, the number of athletes greatly increases due to the fact that the qualification standards and efforts to send an athlete are much lower. As demonstrated in this study from fivethirtyeight, athletes actually don’t perform much better when participating in their home nation. Below is a graph of the number of metals per athelete.

Clearly, it is all a numbers game. Athletes of the host nation actually win fewer medals per athlete when compared to the results four years earlier.

In conclusion, home-field advantage at the Olympics truly does matter. Unlike other sports, officiating and fans have much less of an impact. Rather, the sheer number of athletes that participate when a country hosts the Olympics is one of the major contributing factors.

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