Tiger Woods wears it. So do the world champion Sox. Now scientists say it's no coincidence that that winners frequently sport red.
In the first serious study of how color influences competitive performance, researchers analyzed the results of four 2004 Olympic events and found that athletes who wore red frequently triumphed over opponents sporting other hues.
There was one catch: Red seemed to work only in contests between closely matched opponents.
"If you're hopeless, wearing red is not going to make you a winner," says Robert Barton, an anthropologist at the University of Durham and co-author of the study in today's issue of the journal Nature.
"It's only going to tip the balance under certain conditions."
That, he says, probably explains why one traditionally scarlet baseball team, such as the St. Louis Cardinals, can boast the best record in the National League while the Cincinnati Reds have one of the worst.
What makes the findings so intriguing, scientists say, is that they appear to draw a direct link between observations of animal behavior in the field and human behavior on the playing field.
For example, among mandrills, colorful primates found in the rainforests of western Africa, the most aggressive males typically have the reddest face, genitals and rump.
Researchers have also found that the redder an animal is, the higher its levels of testosterone.
"It's rather nice that red, which is such an important color in the animal kingdom, is also important to us," says Jo Setchell, a zoologist at Cambridge University in England who studies mandrills. "We tend to ignore the fact that we're animals."
Some athletes might have subconsciously learned the red lesson. Golfer Tiger Woods, for example, traditionally dons a red polo on Sundays, the final day of most tournaments.
"We've showed him some other colors," says David Hagler, global director of apparel for Nike Golf. "But if it doesn't fit in the red zone, he says, `Uh-uh.'"
The Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots, both of which won U.S. championships this year, also wear uniforms splashed with red.
For their study, Barton and colleague Russell Hill analyzed the results of four one-on-one events in the 2004 Athens Olympics - boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling.
In each event, combatants are randomly assigned either red or blue jerseys or protective gear. If color has no effect, the scientists reasoned, the outcomes of the matches should be statistically indistinguishable.
But when they excluded forfeits and lopsided matches in which one competitor was clearly superior, scientists found that 16 of 21 rounds in each competition produced more red than blue winners.
The effect might also hold true in team play.
In a separate analysis of results from the Euro 2004 international soccer tournament, the researchers found that teams scored more goals and racked up more wins when they wore predominantly red jerseys.
"If we're right, then it's creating a slightly unlevel playing field," says Barton.
Scientists say they don't know exactly what's going on.
The color red might boost athletes' testosterone levels or even trip some primordial fear circuit in the brains of competitors. Scientists at the University of Bristol, for example, recently showed that mice fear the color and avoid red cages.
Barton says he's already planning a follow-up study. This time, he wants to scan the brains of people looking at athletes wearing different colors to see whether red provokes a different reaction from blue or some other hue.
Not everybody buys into the red scare.
"There's not a large enough sample to draw any conclusions from," says Joel Fish, director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia.
Fish points out that other sports scientists have found that professional football and hockey teams with black uniforms were more aggressive and more likely to be penalized than others.
And Rulon Gardner, who won a gold medal in the 2000 Sydney Games but lost in the semifinals in Athens, says the blue singlet he wore in his losing match had exactly "zero" influence on the outcome.
"It doesn't matter what color you are," he said. "Everybody can make an excuse about why they didn't win. I just lost."