How big is the Olympic host country boost, and how long does it last?

With the Olympics in full flow, there’s been a lot of talk about the benefits of hosting the games for a country’s on-field performance. The BBC’s More or Less reported analysis showing that being the current or next host is one of the best predictors of how many medals a country will win. The UK’s impressive success at this year’s Olympics, currently second in the medal table, four years after hosting the London games, also raises the question of how long these benefits last.

To try and understand the phenomenon, I looked at how each host nation has performed since Italy in 1960 (an arbitrary start date). For comparability, I calculated the proportion of total gold medals won by each country (to account for the fact that the number of events has changed over time). I then indexed these scores to express each year’s performance in terms of the year the country hosted the games.

The result was this ugly thing:

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Though it’s a nightmare to read, it should be clear that almost every country peaked for their home Olympics, though from very different baselines. And almost every country’s performance deteriorated in subsequent games. The one exception you can see in the chart is Australia, who actually improved from 16 golds in Sydney 2000 to 17 golds in Athens 2004. However, both Canada and West Germany also had peaks that weren’t their home games. Canada could hardly fail to improve – they did not win a single medal in Montreal 1976. West Germany’s best performance was in 1984, their third games since hosting in 1972, but they disappear off the chart because they boycotted the 1980 Moscow games.

The chart below should make the scale of different countries’ improvements clearer:

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At one extreme, countries like the USA and USSR, who were always strong, received a relatively small boost from home advantage. Interestingly, Greece is at this end of the table, having done little better at Athens 2004 than Atlanta 1996 – it is likely they invested less in sporting infrastructure than other hosts. At the other end of the spectrum, West Germany and Mexico started from a baseline of zero gold medals before the knew they were hosts. Spain and the UK are particularly interesting here as large, rich countries who received a relatively big boost from hosting the Olympics.

The other thing I looked at was how persistent these host nation boosts were. How long did it take for countries to return to their original level after hosting the Olympics? Most countries were back where they started within one or two Olympiads. West Germany, as mentioned above, are an exception, peaking three games after hosting, but the Moscow boycott and unification complicate analysis. Two other countries are  particularly interesting: South Korea and Spain, both of whom have managed to maintain their gains from hosting. South Korea had never won an Olympic gold before the 1976 Olympics, where they won one. After boycotting Moscow they won six golds in 1984 and 12 at their home games in Seoul, where they came fourth in the medals table. South Korea have won at least seven golds in each subsequent games, and always finished in the top 12. Spain, similarly, had only won three Olympic golds in their history prior to the Barcelona games in 1992. As hosts, Spain finished sixth with 13 golds, and have been in the top 25 at every games since. The UK started from a higher base, but in economic and demographic terms could be considered an Olympic ‘sleeping giant’ like Spain and South Korea. Can they emulate them in maintaining success after hosting the games? China’s faltering in this year’s games suggests we should be sceptical, but it will be years before we know for sure.

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