Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal have dominated British soccer for the last 40 years. Each team wears red uniforms. Coincidence?
Perhaps not, says soccer fan—and Durham University evolutionary biologist—Russell Hill. He and his colleague Robert Barton studied four combat events at the 2004 Athens Olympics in which contestants were randomly assigned red or blue uniforms. In the competitions (boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling, and freestyle wrestling), red beat blue on average 60 percent of the time in close contests—much more than predicted by chance alone. The color also proved victorious for team sports. Five clubs at the Euro 2004 soccer tournament scored an average of one goal higher when they wore red versus other hues.
The results apply only to male athletes. “Wearing red may cause elevated testosterone in the wearers, suppression in their opponents, or possibly both,” Hill speculates. His and Barton’s work builds on earlier studies that show crimson plays a role in animal behavior. Attaching a red band to the leg of a male zebra finch, for instance, boosts his dominance. And male mandrill monkeys develop red facial streaks when they rise to power and lose them when their reign ends.
Hill and Barton don’t know if wearing red affects female athletes. That will be a subject for future research. Meanwhile, they point out that red doesn’t necessarily lead to gold. “Skill and ability,” says Hill, “are still the primary determinants of a sporting outcome.”