Reflections on the 2019 CrossFit Games

It’s been a strange year.

Once we started to get word of large scale changes to the landscape of competitive CrossFit after the 2018 Games, each new revelation left us with more questions than answers. I’m not entirely sure that’s no longer the case, but I do feel a little more confident in giving an assessment of where we stand, now that the 2019 CrossFit Games have come to a close.

Qualification Process: By and large, I think the Open + Sanctionals model has the potential to be a significant improvement over the Regionals model. From my perspective, there's nothing particularly desireable about a system in which an athlete's entire season can be upended with a relatively minor injury a week out, or something of that nature. All else being equal, having more opportunities to qualify is better for everyone, though it certainly can present some financial challenges. My hope is that Sanctional coordinators do a good job of dispersing payouts among competitors fairly evenly, rather than making it extremely top-heavy. That would make make it easier for competitors to attend multiple competitions in their efforts to qualify, and also disincentivize athletes who are already qualified from attending multiple competitions to make more money.

National Champions: Although the National Champions were, on average, behind the curve this year, I think the decision to include them will prove to be a good one. lt was pretty great to meet people from all around the world, who were absolutely stoked to be part of the Games. And I suspect that we're going to see a fairly rapid increase in the average fitness level of National Champions going forward. Event one knocked a lot of National Champions out of the Games - just as rope climbs have brickwalled Rich Froning and Mat Fraser. I'm excited to see who this year's rope is a major catalyst for.

Cuts: In general, I'm fine with the move to an elimination model. And the sense I get is that the athletes are fine with it too - they're willing to compete, and being willing to compete means being willing to get beat.

But the way the cuts were handled this year was atrocious, and needs a complete overhaul.

This is the core of the problem for me: there were twelve total scored events at the 2019 CrossFit Games. The field was cut from 140+ athletes to ten athletes by the end of the sixth event. That means that outside of the top ten, no athlete completed more than 50% of the scored events.

This raises a series of questions. First - are the event coordinators confident that the first six events were sufficiently predictive to determine the ten fittest athletes in the field? If so, why were there twelve events? If not, how could it possibly be appropriate to cut 90% of the field based on them?

One possibility is that the first six events were sufficient to determine the ten fittest atheltes in the field, but not sufficent to rank those athletes. If this is the case, there ought to be some plausible, mathematically explicable reason for this. I'm not a numbers guy, but if such a reason exists, it doesn't jump out at me.

A related problem is the aggressiveness of the cuts. Eliminating half the field after a single event is unacceptable - there is no single event that can provide a sufficient sample of the athlete's performance to eliminate them from a competition specifically about exposing the athletes to a broad range of tests. Barring the inclusion of a single event which is really multiple events (e.g. 5k row + 30 muscle-ups for time + 1RM clean & jerk, or something like that), there's just no way that one event provides the information needed to be sure that all of the athletes being eliminated are actually in the bottom HALF of the field.

This isn't a programming issue - all the events were perfectly fine. The problem is that the more aggressive the cuts are, the more the sequencing of events matters, and the more the sequencing of events matters, the more arbitrary the eliminations become. There were athletes eliminated in the first event who undoubtedly were fit enough to move forward if measured across a range of tests - which, again, is supposed to be the point of the CrossFit Games.

Fortunately, I think this is a relatively easy fix with two basic heuristics.

  1. Never cut based on one event. To make it simple, it could just be three events per day with a cut at the end of each day. If day one of the Games had been a classic CrossFit workout, a long endurance piece, and a heavy lift, a fairly large cut at the end of the day would have been appropriate.

  2. At any point in the competition, the number of athletes eliminated should be reasonably commensurate with the number of events completed. I'm not sure what the "right" ratio of events to eliminations is, but I'm quite confident that it's not 93% of athletes out on 50% of events - unless, of course, the coordinators believe that the first six events are sufficiently predictive, which returns us to the problem above...if six events are enough, why have twelve?

Overall, I’m feeling optimistic about the future of the sport. I’m hopeful that feedback from the community at large will make its way to the right people, and that those people will listen carefully. The CrossFit Games and the broader mission of CFHQ do not have to be in conflict - with a few modifications, the new model has serious promise to both find the Fittest on Earth and to contribute to the ability of the CrossFit community to change people’s lives for the better.