In Defense of the Wildcard (Opinion)

May 28, 2019 by

Of all the changes made to the CrossFit Games schedule and qualification process, the one that seems to have elicited the greatest amount of emotional reaction from the CrossFit community is the introduction of Wildcards. Four invitations to compete with and against the best CrossFit athletes in the world, free of charge, without ever having competed in the sport.

From the outset, it seems wrong and several high profile Games athletes have spoken out against it. Understandably, anyone who has dedicated themselves towards achieving something, especially something as challenging and seemingly impossible as qualifying for the CrossFit Games, would be upset to see someone else receive the same rewards for nothing.

Equally, being a “Games Athlete” is an awe-inspiring designation. A title that tells the world (at least the CrossFit world) that you are as good as it gets. As fit as it is possible to be. The introduction of Wildcard Games Athletes clearly dilutes and diminishes such claim (although arguably the invitations to hundreds of National Champions waters it down more – but that’s a story for another day).

However, taking a step back and looking at it from a broader long-term perspective, I believe these wildcards can be good for the Games, the sport and ultimately the athletes themselves.

More to the point, I think it is right.

The key rests in the title “The Fittest on Earth”. Winners of the CrossFit Games are not crowned “World CrossFit Champions”, but rather given a remarkably grandiose honor, one that to those outside the CrossFit world would seem like something the relative sporting newcomer has no right to proclaim.

Taking a step back and looking at it from a broader long-term perspective, I believe these wildcards can be good for the Games, the sport and ultimately the athletes themselves.

How can a single sport make such a claim? Who says that the “Fittest Man on Earth” has to do CrossFit?

This Greg Glassman quote lined the staircase underneath the coliseum at the Alliant Energy Center at the 2018 CrossFit Games.

What if there’s someone out there who doesn’t do CrossFit; who is actually the Fittest Man or Woman on Earth? What if there’s another sport that develops athletes in as well-rounded a manner as CrossFit?

For the record, I don’t believe there is anyone outside the CrossFit sphere who can compete across all disciplines with Mat, Tia, or just about anyone you’ve heard of, and I’m guessing, neither do you.

But, and this is key, if there is someone out there, wouldn’t you like to know about it?

Who says that the “Fittest Man on Earth” has to do CrossFit?

What if there’s someone out there who doesn’t do CrossFit; who is actually the Fittest Man or Woman on Earth?

CrossFit memberships are expensive and not available to everyone. So, if someone somehow managed to develop themself into a CrossFit Games caliber athlete while never partaking in the sport, wouldn’t you like to know about it?

I believe, as do you, that CrossFit Games athletes are the fittest athletes in the world. And if they are, then they have nothing to fear in a Triathlete or an Obstacle Course World Champion competing alongside them.

In fact, wouldn’t you love to see the best athletes in other sports embarrassed by CrossFit’s finest?

Wildcards in sport are not anything new. In tennis, wildcards are often issued to local players who might draw in crowds or big name stars who, perhaps due to injury, were unable to qualify.

Ultimately, drawing in crowds is what it’s all about. If no one is watching these guys compete, the Games will cease to be. Professional athletes are essentially entertainers. They’re not doctors or lawyers or plumbers or even road sweeps. They make their money because we love to watch them do what they do. They inspire us. And if we are no longer interested in watching what they do, their job will cease to be.

By giving a wildcard to a big name draw from another sport can only be good for the sport itself. Increased spectatorship, generated from crossover appeal from fans of said athlete’s previous sport, is an obvious pro. But the secondary benefit is more important. Those first-time viewers of the sport are far more likely to join a box.

Increased spectatorship leads to increased participation, which leads to greater revenue generated for the athletes.

By giving a wildcard to a big name draw from another sport can only be good for the sport itself…Increased spectatorship leads to increased participation, which leads to greater revenue generated for the athletes.

An obvious counter argument to this would be: why not just invite the athletes with the greatest number of instagram viewers? I don’t have a logical response to that, so let’s just hope that doesn’t happen and we don’t have to discuss it further.

There’s another handy benefit of wildcards. They can guarantee that the stars we all want to see compete are able to do so on the biggest stage. For example, if a big name female athlete has a baby, and is unable to compete until close to the Games, but is an obvious contender for the title, having this option would be great.

One potential use of the wildcard I cannot get behind is issuing it to an athlete who tried and narrowly failed qualify. Who does that benefit? Likely this person is not good enough to do well at the Games and is also unlikely to bring in any outside viewership. The one possibly exception to this would be Ben Smith, who at the time of publication has still not secured a spot at the Games but is unquestionably a proven athlete who could compete at the highest level.

One of the arguments made against the wildcard stems from the fact there is an established means by which to qualify, which anyone in the world is open to enter. This is true. However, if you’re looking for athletes from other sports who bring something new to the table, it’s a lot to ask them to commit to a 5-week course in what may be the middle of their season.

Equally, it wasn’t that long ago that all-comers were welcome to the Games. Granted, this was an entirely different era in CrossFit Games history, but it wasn’t 100 years ago, it was 2008. Obama was running against McCain for President. Surely you can remember that far back.

If you want to exclude people outside CrossFit, you’ll have to stop calling Mat Fraser and Tia-Clair Toomey the “Fittest on Earth” and start calling them “CrossFit World Champions.”

I, for one, don’t want to be the one to tell them.


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