Competitive athletes are always seeking ways to improve their performance. The results of a new study indicate that they need only look in their closets. A paper published today in Nature suggests that athletes wearing red uniforms experience a slight advantage over those decked out in other colors.

Russell A. Hill and Robert A. Barton of the University of Durham analyzed the outcomes of four sporting events in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games: boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling. All of these competitions involved two-person matches in which the competitors were randomly assigned either red or blue outfits (or body protectors). Their results indicate that the crimson-clad athletes had a small, but statistically significant, advantage and won 60 percent of the time. This effect was seen only in symmetrical contests in which the participants were evenly matched, however, so a new red jersey won't suffice to haul an athlete out of last place.

The scientists also investigated the effect of red togs in team sports by analyzing results from the Euro 2004 international soccer tournament, in which teams wore different color uniforms throughout the event depending on their competition. Comparing five teams that had red shirts as one uniform choice, they discovered that the teams performed better--and scored more goals--when playing in red versus white or blue uniforms.

Hill and Barton surmise that the benefit of scarlet uniforms is tied to the evolutionary psychology of color. For a variety of animals, the authors note, red coloration is a sexually selected signal of male quality and the presence and intensity of red coloration correlates to male dominance and testosterone levels. Thus, athletes facing off against opponents sporting red uniforms might subconsciously feel thrown off their game. Hill and Barton conclude that further investigation in the field is warranted and that "the color of sportswear needs to be taken into account to ensure a level playing field in sport. "