Their survey of four sports at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens shows competitors were more likely to win their contests if they wore red uniforms or red body armor.
"Across a range of sports, we find that wearing red is consistently associated with a higher probability of winning," report Russell A. Hill and Robert A. Barton of the University of Durham in England. Their findings are in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
Red coloration is associated with aggression in many animals. Often it is sexually selected so that scarlet markings signal male dominance.
Just think of the red stripes on the scowling face of the male Mandrill, Africa's largest monkey species. But red is not exclusively a male trait. It's the female black widow spider that is venomous and displays a menacing red dot on her abdomen.
Similarly, the color's effect also may subconsciously intimidate opponents in athletic contests, especially when the athletes are equal in skill and strength, the researchers suggest.
In their survey, the anthropologists analyzed the results of four combat sports at the summer games: boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling.
In those events, the athletes were randomly assigned red protective gear and other sportwear.
Athletes wearing red gear won more often in 16 of 21 rounds of competition in all four events.
The effect was the same regardless of weight classes, too: 19 of 29 classes had more red winners, and only four rounds had more blue winners.
The red effect also might come into play in team sports.
The anthropologists made a preliminary analysis of the Euro 2004 international soccer tournament, in which teams wore jerseys of different colors in different matches. They found that five teams scored more goals and won more often when they wore shirts that were predominantly red, as opposed to blue or white jerseys.
Scientists don't precisely known how wearing red might give athletes an advantage. But the color delivers implicit messages of vigor and danger. When people get angry, their faces turn red. It's also a reason why stop signs are red. So are most Ferraris.
A case can perhaps be made that most of the recent winners of U.S. sports championships have at least a touch of red on their uniforms: among pro teams, the Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, the Detroit Pistons. And in college sports, the USC Trojans.
But it's the gracious sport of golf that offers the best example. Tiger Woods wears an iconic red shirt on Sundays, the day when most tournaments are won.
By Joseph B. Verrengia