Professional athletes are just like us. They’re in much better shape, of course, but they still find it hard to recover from long plane trips.
Research shows that athletes perform worse after flying long distances. For example, in Major League Baseball, while the typical away team loses 54% of the time, teams traveling across three time zones lose at a rate of almost 61%, with the effect most pronounced for teams traveling from west to east. In Super Rugby, an international rugby league that includes teams from Argentina, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Africa, studies show the visiting team is at a huge disadvantage.
Jet lag will also play a role in this year’s World Cup. The competition takes place in Russia, the world’s largest country by land area. Though matches will only take place in the western half of the country, they are still spread across three time zones, at stadiums nearly 2,000 miles apart. According to data collected by the aircraft charter company Chapman Freeborn, all 32 teams will travel at least 1,000 miles from their base camp to their three matches in the group stage of the competition, and 10 teams will fly more than 5,000 miles going back and forth.
The disparity in travel between teams—Egypt will travel 6,000 more miles than Colombia during the group stage—is part luck and part planning. Not every team in a group plays their matches at the same location, putting some teams at a natural disadvantage. But they did have some agency: Each squad gets to choose their base camp for the tournament. They could choose to optimize their base for travel, or to prioritize other amenities.