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In last summer's Olympics, United States wrestler Daniel Cormier lost a close bronze medal match. You might explain the loss by saying his opponent was a little better on that day, or maybe Cormier was just wearing the wrong color. New research looking at some data from the Olympics concludes that athletes who wear red seem to win more often. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.
DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:
The idea for this study began around a coffee machine in Durham, England. Russell Hill is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Durham. He says his colleagues kind of hang out there in the morning. They were talking about how in nature the color red is sometimes associated with dominance and testosterone. And then someone mentioned soccer.
Mr. RUSSELL HILL (University of Durham): The three most successful football teams that we have--Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal--have all worn red.
KESTENBAUM: And Tiger Woods wears red on Sundays when he's playing in a tournament. Anyway, a little later, one of Hill's colleagues was watching the Olympics and realized he had found the perfect natural experiment to test the idea. In wrestling, boxing and Tae Kwon Do, the athletes either wore red or blue, and the color was chosen randomly; in wrestling, by pulling tokens out of a bag.
Mr. HILL: And so if color has absolutely no impact on the outcome of a sporting contest, what you'd predict in these situations is there should be an equal number of red and blue winners across the breadth of these competitions. But what we actually found was that there were significantly more red winners.
KESTENBAUM: For the competitions they studied, the athlete wearing red won 55 percent of the time. Red won more across the board, in boxing, Tae Kwon Do, Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling. And when the victory was a narrow one, color seemed even more important; red won 64 percent of the time.
Mr. HILL: So if, in effect, what's happening is when two individuals are very closely balanced or very closely matched, it's the red that's tipping the balance in favor of one of those two competitors.
KESTENBAUM: But why would a colored uniform matter? Hill says color matters in nature. Mandrill monkeys who rank high in the social order have red coloring on their faces. And he says one experiment showed that if you took a bird and put a red-colored band on its leg, the bird's status rose. He has two ideas for how this might play out in sports.
Mr. HILL: One is that it's having a positive influence on the people as they pull on their red shirts. And this is maybe creating a sort of a testosterone surge, if you like, that's helping to elevate their performance. But equally, it could also be having a suppressive effect, a negative effect, on their opponents.
KESTENBAUM: Hill plays soccer and says he's going to lobby for red uniforms next season. The research is being published in the journal Nature. It will probably raise a number of eyebrows.
Mr. SCOTT BERRY (American Statistical Association; Columnist): My first impression was that it was kind of silly.
KESTENBAUM: Scott Berry chairs a group on the statistics of sports for the American Statistical Association, and writes an occasional column called A Statistician Reads the Sports Page.
Mr. BERRY: These athletes are so well-trained. The idea that the color of a uniform just seems so unlikely that it could be a factor.
KESTENBAUM: Berry says he can't really find anything wrong with the research, but he suspects it's just a statistical fluke.
Mr. BERRY: So if you look in enough places, you will find green is a good color to wear, you'll find that black is a good color to wear. And so to really make a judgment here, we need to look at more data, and my guess is this will be refuted in the future.
KESTENBAUM: Berry coaches a baseball team called the Dragons for 12-year-olds; his son plays catcher. They have a winning season so far. And, of course, the Dragons wear green. David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
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