On Sunday, the final day of competition, I had a chance to speak with the event organizer, Nick Frasca, and watch a little bit of the Outlaw Open, which was taking place in a room adjacent to the American Open. In the context of the current climate in our sport—the debate over CrossFit’s value (or lack thereof, according to some)—both turned out to be rather interesting experiences.
First, the Outlaw Open: as noted above, this was not an official CrossFit competition. Maybe most of these things are unofficial; I have no idea. Official/unofficial status aside, it was of course a “CrossFit” style meet. I spent a fair portion of the morning/early afternoon watching. Of the many things I noted, one was that these athletes love—deeply, passionately, romantically—love kinesio tape (kinesiology tape). I saw more colors, styles, applications, and configurations of kinesio tape than I ever thought possible. The only thing more prevalent than kinesio tape were tribal tattoos. I’ve used kinesio tape before but I know nothing regarding the science behind it (i.e., whether there is evidence to support any of the claims made for it). All I recall is that the chiropractor who applied the tape looked like he was defusing a bomb while he stared at my knee, tape in hand, reaching out to apply it and then withdrawing, thinking, as though the entire office would explode if he didn’t apply the tape at exactly the precise angle necessary.
One of the really critical things I took away from watching their competition—aside from the tape thing—was how essentially unexciting it was. Which is not to say it wasn’t fun to watch; it was. And clearly the sport is popular—new gyms are popping up, it’s featured on ESPN, Reebok is a major sponsor. They’re doing far better than USAW in this country. But, so far as I can tell, it’s not because of anything more inherently extreme or exciting than Olympic Weightlifting. In essence, all you’re doing is watching people exercise. To people involved in the sport, or to general fitness enthusiasts, that can be exciting but it’s not something you would expect large segments of the American public to be interested in. (And in my own, humble view, Olympic Weightlifting—that is, really good, high level Weightlifting—is about as edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting exciting as it can get, what with weight changes, jockeying for position, mental games, etc. But I may be biased…)
(i mean, does it get any more exciting than suleymanoglu vs leonidis at the 1996 olympic games in atlanta? )
What the CrossFit people do have is a supreme ability to market, package, produce, and disseminate their product. The CrossFit Games are made exciting because they invest the time, money, and energy in making them look exciting. In this front we could learn a lot from these people.
After watching the Outlaw Open for a bit I had the chance to speak with Mr Frasca. Prior to our meeting he had emailed me and mentioned he had read last year’s American Open writeup (presumably this) and expressing interest in whether I was writing something this year. I had thus hoped for someone far more unscrupulous—or downright corrupt—than the man I met. I had imagined an offer of gifts or money in return for a highly favorable review of the American Open, an offer I would then refuse out of my high sense of journalistic integrity. Or, if the price were high enough—fistfuls of money, the chance for an hour of cuddling with Klokov, even a comped meal or two—I could toss my morals aside and write whatever was asked of me.
Unfortunately for my bank account (but fortunately for my principles), Mr Frasca had no such intentions. I spoke with him for about twenty-odd minutes on Sunday, as he was rushing in between the American Open and the Outlaw Open. Like many CrossFitters he’s an extraordinarily fit individual. He is also passionately interested in the success of USAW—also like many CrossFitters. What I took away from the conversation was that he really just wants to use his knowledge and resources—in the CrossFit community and the sponsorship world—to contribute to the bigger effort of getting Americans on the medal podium in 2020. To that end he’s working to find and recruit talented kids (via CrossFit Kids, for example) to get them started training at the right age. That alone would be a worthwhile effort, and more than what most in USAW (yrstrly included) do at the practical, grassroots, everyday level for our sport. He’s also working to find sponsors and promote the sport, and he worked damn hard putting on a fantastic American Open.
Not to harp on the CrossFit thing too much, but at this point the arguments against them, or against working with them, are looking increasingly ridiculous. No, they are not the Soviet or Chinese style system that some would like. But that option—sending government workers into the fields to find little boys and girls endowed with thick wrists and mustaches—is not an option here. What is an option is a working relationship with a major fitness company that has done more to promote awareness of the classic Olympic lifts in the past few years than anybody else since the days of Bob Hoffman.
It’s worth recalling that many of the same people today disparaging CrossFit are the same people who for years, decades even, thought that another sport outside of Olympic Weightlifting would be our savior: football. But consider that football is perhaps the worst option for talent recruitment: football offers athletes the dream, however illusory, of earning millions of dollars or, at the very least, a free ride to college; football coaches, by all reports, are often resistant to the Olympic Lifts (but are happy to have kids blow shoulders doing bench presses); football coaches, when they do teach the Olympic lifts, often do so with technique that makes your average CrossFit athlete look like Kakhiashvili by comparison; and by many accounts (and some experience) football coaches at all levels are under the assumption that they know best in all things, Olympic Weightlifting included. Why did anyone ever think football, of all things, was a serious outlet for the dissemination of Weightlifting and the discovery of young talent?
CrossFit, by comparison offers a ready-made network with millions of passionate and dedicated followers; a program that is already reaching out to kids (CrossFit Kids, which seems to be an excellent endeavor); and, most importantly, A LARGE GROUP OF PEOPLE WHO WANT TO LEARN. This final point cannot be overstated: they are interested in learning the Olympic Lifts, in learning from USAW coaches and athletes, and they are willing to pay us for our knowledge and services. In short, they are giving us the opportunity—if we are smart enough to take it—to become professionals. I spoke with several people over the AO weekend, former athletes and coaches, who told me that never in their dreams would they have imagined getting paid to do what they love, which is to train and coach people.
With CrossFit they have the opportunity to do just that. By turning this sport from a hobby to a professional activity CrossFit is providing us the chance to replicate, in our own, American way, the system that works best in the rest of the world: paid coaches and paid athletes, both of whom devote the majority of their time to this sport. We don’t need to do this as a hobby anymore. With more time to spend on training, coaches and athletes will have the chance to move beyond what is possible for an amateur. There can be more hands-on time, more time with athletes, more time with other coaches, time to research, time for seminars, time to keep learning and improving, etc., etc. Not every coach will take these chances, and not all people can (or are willing) to give up their jobs for this life. But the important thing is the opportunity is there.
In short, we’ve got a good chance to make some serious changes for the improvement of our sport. CrossFit is providing us with exposure and resources at an undreamed-of level (consider how easy it is these days to find a place with an Olympic Bar almost anywhere in the US and, increasingly, across the globe).* Furthermore, the evidence is mounting (finally) that not only is strength training not bad for kids but that it’s actually good for them, which is news to exactly no one in the Olympic Weightlifting community. ( See, e.g., this and this. That the myth of weight training’s danger to kids survived for so long is one of the great public health debacles of the twentieth century; what a terrible irony that parents were told not to let their kids lift weights while for years little to nothing was said or done about the dangers of consuming enormous quantities of fast food. I’m willing to bet there are still more parents out there who would let their kids eat a BigMac everyday than lift weights.)
Admittedly, getting everyone in USAW on board with an outside organization is not easy. As our new CEO, Michael Massik, pointed out to me (and many others) over the weekend, we in USAW are addicted to name-calling and insulting others’ intelligence. “Stupid” and “idiot” are words thrown around our community like rice after a wedding. Some of you reading this now are probably thinking about how stupid I am. Some of you may be right. But enough of that.
The issue with this in our sport—one of many issues, more accurately—is we’re often our own worst enemy. We’re so focused on talking about who is wrong and just how idiotic they are for being wrong that we fail to consider anything of true value to moving the sport forward. Which is not to say we don’t need healthy debate over issues of technique, training, talent recruitment, etc. etc. But name calling is far from productive. And if we get so lost and focused on our own tiny little world, we’re going to completely lose sight of the fact that the rest of the world is passing us by for other options—football, wrestling, soccer, CrossFit, whatever. Yes, lots of those sports, indeed all sports, feature name calling and insults. But most of them can afford a little bad publicity or even a lot of bad publicity; they already have the benefit of a whole set of institutions—grade schools, high schools, colleges, social factors, publicity—working in their favor. We, it ought to be noted, do not.
As a final thought, to remind everybody that this sport is about and for athletes (contrary to what the national refs would have us think), consider what was, to my mind, the most impressive lift of the competition: Jenny Arthur’s phenomenal 127kg clean and jerk. The lift set a new American Junior AND Senior record, breaking Danica Rue’s 126 from 2005. A junior American girl doing 127 kilos (and doing it well, I might add) is damn impressive. Jenny only managed her opener in the snatch (90) but took shots at 94 and 97, no doubt within her capabilities. (To put this in a World context, consider that a few years ago I met a Kazak girl who was doing comparable weights of 100 and 130; she also had a voice like Thulsa Doom and a handlebar mustache. Now, these aren’t World Record levels, but these are good lifts by any standard, national or international.) There were lots of other good lifts over the weekend—Jon North’s attempt at the 94 class snatch record (166) for one—but few can compare with the magnitude of Ms Arthur’s lift.
Anyways, this has gone on long enough. The CrossFit topic has been beaten to death and anyone still unable to see the potential merits of the organization is unlikely to change now. CrossFit and its followers (like our own organization) are neither inherently good nor bad. CrossFit a tool and it is a body of knowledge and it can be used well if we so choose. Disparaging the organization because a few YouTube videos showed people doing shitty clean and jerks is like saying indoor plumbing is bad because your toilet backs up once a year. It’s a narrow-minded view and is entirely beside the point. Let’s instead focus on the ways the organizations can help each other, both in the small world of Olympic Weightlifting, where medals are the goal, and in the broader public sphere, where public health (and, of course, money) is the goal. With a little work we might have a better showing in 2020 than we did in 2012. Eight years is a long time if you’re doing the right things; it’s no time at all if you’re doing the wrong things.
* Whether CrossFit has its own Olympic Games ambitions is unknown, but it is something we—as the current barbell sport of the Games—should keep in mind. There probably isn’t room for another strength sport. A CrossFit event is a long ways off but it’s not an impossibility (if that’s their goal). But that’s another topic.