Let’s get one thing straight: Team GB will not get anywhere near as many golds in Rio 2016 as they did here. Andy Hunt, the head of Team GB, has claimed that there is “opportunity to improve” after the British team’s startling performance at the Olympics. But he is, I confidently predict, wrong. Britain will come well down the medal table in four years’ time. And there is no shame in that.
There are two factors at work here. One is that when a team does as well as Britain has, they are unlikely to achieve it again. They (not we) won 29 golds; in Beijing 2008 they won 19. You don’t improve on your previous (exceptional) result by more than 50 per cent without good fortune, and quite a lot of it. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, the Daniel Kahnemann book which I was going on about yesterday, tells a story about his time working as a psychologist in the Israeli Defence Force flight training corps. He was pointing out to the flight instructors that rewards have been shown to be more effective in training than punishment. One of the instructors piped up: “On many occasions I have praised flight cadets for clean execution of some aerobatic manoeuvre. The next time they try the same manoeuvre they usually do worse. On the other hand, I have often screamed into a cadet’s ear for bad execution, and in general he does better on his next try.”
What the instructor failed to realise is that this is precisely what you’d expect. If a cadet does sufficiently well to deserve praise, then external factors – luck – almost certainly played a part as well as skill. So next time, on average, he will not do so well. Conversely, if a cadet does so badly that he requires a full-on rollocking, it’s to be expected that he will improve next time. It’s called regression to the mean, and it’s as straightforward as if you roll a six on your first throw, your second throw is likely to be worse. But because we’re talking about human behaviour, we are less likely to see the workings of randomness.
Even with no other factors, then, it would be unrealistic to the point of delusional to expect Team GB to match or surpass their heroic medal haul next time around. But there is another factor, and it’s a big one: home advantage. It’s been observed for years that the home team is more likely to win, in almost all sports. It was first noted in the 19th century, right at the dawn of modern organised sports. What’s less clear is what causes it.
There is a popular explanation, and it’s the roar of the crowds: you can hear this in the post-match interviews and the pundit’s excited commentary. “The crowd were like a 12th man out there”; “The crowd were willing him over the line”; “She was drawing her energy from the support”. There is some evidence for this, but it’s far from clear, and certainly not the only factor. In derbies between two teams who share a stadium (eg Internazionale and AC Milan), there is never any home advantage, even though the designated “home” fans for the day always outnumber the “away” fans, and home teams tend to win even without a crowd at all, according to a 2011 article in the Journal of Applied Psychology. “The current data show that home crowd support is not a necessary precondition for the home advantage,” the author concluded.
There are other, more prosaic explanations. The away team tends to have to travel significant distances; this may be a factor, as home advantage is reduced in local derbies, although the evidence is unclear, according to a 2008 review of the literature by Richard Pollard in the Open Sports Sciences Journal. Likewise home teams are more familiar with their surroundings, and this could help; again, it’s not clear. Pollard points to “overwhelming” evidence that referees disproportionately favour the home team over the away in terms of fouls, cards and penalties awarded; that could help explain some of Team GB’s performances in those sports, such as dressage, diving, boxing and gymnastics, in which a panel of judges decides the winner.
But the most interesting explanation, to my mind, and one which has some evidentiary support, is that of territoriality. Animals everywhere will fight more ferociously to defend their territory; humans, it seems, are little different. It has been suggested that players respond to the arrival of an away team in the same way they do a home invader; a 2003 study in the journal Physiology & Behaviour found that footballers had significantly raised levels of testosterone ahead of a home game than an away game, making them more aggressive and dominant. This effect was greater when the other team was a perceived rival, as in derby matches. Team GB might never have been so pumped up in their sporting lives.
None of this is to detract from the incredible skill, determination and hard work that all the athletes displayed. But it does mean that we shouldn’t place unrealistic expectations on their shoulders when, in four years’ time, they troop off to Brazil, where they will not only have their prodigious 2012 medal haul to live up to, but no home advantage with which to do it. They may not even beat Australia. And if so, it’s not their fault.