Colors are everywhere in sport: on the jerseys of the Tour de France, football or rugby teams... But do they have an impact on performance?
Yellow, the color of July
For the past hundred years, yellow has been the color of sport in France in July, ever since a yellow jersey has been worn by the overall time leader in the Tour de France. Last year, the Tour celebrated the centenary of its emblematic maillot jaune: yellow because, one hundred years ago, it was the color of the pages of L'Auto, the daily sports newspaper that organized the bicycle race, changing its name to L'Équipe after the Second World War. It’s for the same reason that the front-runner in the general ranking of the Giro d’Italia wears a pink jersey, the color of the pages of the Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, responsible for organizing the Tour of Italy. And when you see the efforts made by Julian Alaphilippe to hold on to it, you can assume that its color boosts his determination tenfold. But is it the color or what the jersey represents? Because in sport, the color of many jerseys or shirts is so highly emblematic that the players are named after the colors they wear. This is why the players in national French teams are known as Les Bleus (“the Blues”), the New Zealand rugby team are the All Blacks, the Juventus players are the bianconeri (black & whites), the Belgian team are die Roten Teufel (the “Red Devils”, just like Manchester United in the UK) while the players of the Liverpool football team, the winners of the 2018-19 Champions League, are known as the Reds.
Wearing red to win
We are therefore justified in asking whether the color worn has an impact on sporting performance? In 2015, the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine published research on this subject entitled: “The color of a football outfit affects visibility and team success.”
Researchers Joris Olde Rikkert, Vincent De Haes, Annemiek D. Barsingerhorn, and Thomas Theelen analyzed the results of teams wearing a red jersey, a color considered to be favorable, over a 50-year period in the five major European championships. They discovered that these teams had better results on average than teams wearing a different color. It is possible to add to this research by pointing out that in the English football championships, teams playing in red are historically the strongest: Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal... Clearly, the statistics argue in their favor, as they are historically strong teams. But we could also reverse the argument: could it be that these clubs built up this impressive list of achievements because they play in red? Indeed, researchers have found that these same teams, when they change the color of their shirts, have poorer results! Finally, these findings corroborated the results of another study published in 2005 by researchers Hill and Barton, who analyzed the results of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games in combat sports (taekwondo, boxing, and wrestling) and showed that athletes wearing red jerseys won more fights than those in blue…
However, another study published in 2017, also in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, on penalty shooters in red and blue jerseys, entitled “Do Red and Blue Uniforms Matter in Football and Handball Penalties?” showed no influence of jersey color on the outcome.
The black of justice and the black of... the All Blacks
Note that red is the color of the most serious sanction in sport: exclusion: the infamous “red card.” The historian of colors Michel Pastoureau explains in an article entitled Les couleurs du stade (“The colors of the stadium”) that “in the Middle Ages, red was already the color of crime and sin. Under the Ancien Régime and in the 19th century, red was the color of convicts, galley slaves, and forced laborers. Gradually, this red, reminiscent of blood, spread from the field of condemnation to that of prohibition, as in the first uses of the red flag in maritime, rail, and road signaling codes (...). Yellow was then the color of betrayal, felony, and lies.... When red became the color of punishment, yellow naturally became the color of half-sanction...” Whence the red card and the yellow card, handed out by the man in black!
The color of the referee's outfit appeared in the 1920s according to Pastoureau. “In Western societies, this color has long been that of authority, taken in its dual function of police and justice...” A perfect definition of the role of a referee! Today, referees no longer wear black. Only the All Blacks remain on the field wearing this color. At first, New Zealand rugby players played in blue and white until, in 1893, the captain of the New Zealand team, Thomas Rangiwahia Ellison, who was of Maori origin, proposed to the New Zealand federation that the national team should play in black, a color representing life and fertility in his popular culture. The federation approved his proposal and, ever since then, the best team in the history of the game has been playing in black. It is customary to say that the uniform is worn to mourn the defeat of the team’s opponents... But, above all, it is believed that this black color has a psychological impact on the team’s opponents. On this subject: during the famous quarter-final of the World Cup in 2011, Jo Maso, the manager of the French team, won the draw on the choice of jerseys and he chose blue for the XV of France, forcing the All Blacks to play in grey... with the result that we know! A historic victory for the Blues over the Blacks...