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Research in Summary

The Olympics edition!
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Shannon Szabados looks on prior to the Women's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group A game during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Shannon Szabados looks on prior to the Women's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group A game during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

No one gives out medals for Olympics-related research. But that hasn’t stopped scholars from using the games as a springboard to study everything from terrorism to traffic patterns. Type the term “Olympic Games” into Google’s Scholar directory, and 57,300 entries come up. To commemorate this month’s Beijing Games, we present a few of the more interesting Olympics-related research papers of recent times.

Home-Field Advantage

Do athletes competing in Olympic events in their home countries have an advantage over their competitors from abroad? Several studies suggest the answer is yes. In their 2004 paper "Who Wins the Olympic Games?" in The Review of Economics and Statistics, Andrew Bernard of Dartmouth University and Meghan Busse of the University of California, Berkeley concluded the best predictor of Olympic performance is a nation’s total gross domestic product. But they added an intriguing caveat: “Host countries typically win by an additional 1.8 percent of the medals beyond what would be predicted by their GDP alone.”

A research team led by Nigel Balmer of John Moores University in Liverpool looked at this phenomenon in the February 2001 Journal of Sports Sciences. Examining Winter Olympics from 1908 to 1998, the scholars found “some evidence of home advantage” in figure skating, freestyle skiing, ski jumping, alpine skiing and short-track speed skating but “little or no” advantage in ice hockey, speed skating, bobsled or luge.

Being on intimate terms with nearby mountains is clearly a plus. The researchers reported that “familiarity with local conditions was shown to have some effect, particularly in Alpine skiing.” However, their most striking discovery was a matter of psychology rather than geography: “Significantly greater home advantage was observed in the subjectively assessed events.” In other words, the judges of, say, the figure-skating competition sometimes bump up the scores of host-country athletes — perhaps in reaction to the cheers of the crowd.

Sprinting Ahead

We may or may not reach gender equality in society by the year 2156, but if Oxford’s Andrew Tatum and his colleagues are correct, that year’s Olympics will mark a major breakthrough for women. For the September 2004 issue of Nature, they created a graph plotting out the winning times in the 100-meter sprint over the past 100 years. They found women sprinters have been very gradually catching up with the men and concluded: “Should these trends continue, the projections will intersect at the 2156 Olympics, when — for the first time ever — the winning women’s 100-meter sprint time of 8.079 seconds will be lower than the men’s winning time of 8.098 seconds.” Reserve your tickets now.

Media Marvels at Male Muscles

A number of feminist scholars have studied media coverage of the Olympics as a snapshot that reveals ongoing sexism in society and the persistence of gender-based stereotypes. In the August 2002 issue of Mass Communication and Society, a team led by C.A. Tuggle of Florida International University analyzed NBC television’s coverage of the 2000 summer games. The researchers concluded that “women received proportionately less coverage than they did in 1996,” an Olympics widely touted as “the games of the woman.” Four years later, the focus was back on the guys. “As was the case in 1996,” they added, “women who competed in 2000 in sports involving power or hard physical contact received almost no attention.” (One suspects that would change if mud wrestling became an Olympic sport.)

In "Pretty Versus Powerful in the Sports Pages," a 1999 paper in the Journal of Sport & Social Issues, a research team led by the University of Pittsburgh’s Ray Jones examined print coverage of women participating in team sports in the 1996 Summer and 1988 Winter Olympics. Their survey of seven major American newspapers and the magazine Sports Illustrated found many examples of under-the-surface sexism.

Female athletes who excelled at traditionally male sports such as basketball and hockey were often the subject of “condescending comparisons” to their male counterparts, according to their analysis. For traditionally female sports such as gymnastics, the researchers noted a positive trend toward reports “that focus more on describing their performance — providing details of what a gymnast does — as opposed to simply describing how graceful she looked or how she has the personality to make her America’s next sweetheart.” Nevertheless, “the beauty and grace of the gymnasts was still the main point of emphasis, even with the U.S. women’s gymnastics team winning the gold medal for the first time in Olympic history.”

Go for the Bronze

Would you rather earn a silver medal or a bronze medal at the Olympics? Don’t answer too quickly. A team of psychologists led by Cornell’s Victoria Husted Medvec reported in the October 1995 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that “an analysis of the emotional reactions of bronze and silver medalists at the 1992 Summer Olympics — both at the conclusion of their events and on the medal stand — indicates that bronze medalists tend to be happier than silver medalists.”

The authors attribute this to “counterfactual thinking” — our tendency to judge our own success or failure in relative terms. In many instances, the key factor determining our satisfaction is not what we accomplished but rather how it compares to the alternative outcome foremost in our mind. This phenomenon is seen with remarkable clarity among the Olympic medalists.

“Whatever joy the silver medalist may feel is often tempered by tortuous thoughts of what might have been had she only lengthened her stride, adjusted her breathing, pointed her toes, and so on,” the researchers write. But while the second-place finisher is thinking “what if,” the bronze medalist is feeling relief that he or she made it to the medal stand. For that athlete, the most vivid alternative outcome is coming in fourth, which would mean not being recognized at all.

The Gold Medal in 'D'Oh' Goes To ...

Finally, just because the extent of your participation in the Olympics has been limited to watching the games from your couch, don’t think you haven’t been studied as well. In an article entitled “The Living Room Celebration of the Olympic Games” in the December 1988 Journal of Communication, Eric Rothenbuhler of the University of Iowa arrived at a conclusion that is impossible to argue with. Here is his abstract in its entirety:

“Watching the Olympics on television proved to be a media event for which people planned their viewing, paid close attention to the television, and arranged to have visitors with whom they ate, drank and talked about what they saw.”

Duly noted.