Announced to general skepticism, the 2019 CrossFit Games will feature athlete cuts until only the top 10 individual athletes remain with the new point structure adjusting along the way.
The whittling down of the athletes most certainly introduces a new and exciting element and it’s not the cuts, but rather the point distributions that are raising questions. Why the skepticism? Well in some ways this scoring system makes sense, as points should be equally distributed throughout the field of eligible athletes. However, the new scoring distributions introduce both a major strategy component to the Games as well as increased potential for programming bias.
The programming bias occurs because later workouts are much more valuable than the initial workouts (this is explained more in a second). While one could argue this has always somewhat been the case, it is true this year in a pronounced way. Unless similar skills are tested continuously from start to finish, certain athletes will find an advantage based on when workouts that test their CrossFit strengths occur. The potential redemption from this bias is Dave Castro himself as he has proven a programming genius in the past. We know he considers all of this and more when programming the Games, so while this has the potential to be a pitfall for the Games, Dave could also masterfully handle it all.
For the second major impact, the gamesmanship and strategy implications introduced are fascinating to consider. Essentially, if you are an athlete with little concern about making it through the first few cuts save your energy for the later rounds. A win or top performance becomes increasingly valuable with each athlete cut and two simple ways to view this and the point spreads are:
- In the round of 10 athletes (last round) a 3rd place finish is worth the same as a 5th place in the round of 20, which is worth the same as an 11th in the opening three rounds.
- The point spread between 1st and 5th is only 8 points in the first three rounds, 12 points in the fourth round, 16 points in the fifth, 20 points in the sixth, and a critical 40 points in the final round.
Taking a deeper dive we coded a 2019 Games simulator and after 20,000 simulations drilled into the question “In a given workout if an athlete finished top 3 what is the likelihood they finished on the podium and how does this change as the field size changes?” From the simulation and general reasoning we extracted the following:
- A statistic measuring podium likelihood given a top 3 performance in a given workout.
- A baseline likelihood for finishing on the podium if all things were equal. For example, in the round of 10 athletes 3 of the 10 have to finish on the podium, so the baseline is 30%. Similarly, 3 athletes from the round of 75 will eventually end up on the podium, so there the baseline is 4%.
- These two likelihoods are compared for each round and the podium probability delta calculated. The various podium improvements by round are primarily driven by the difference in point distributions.
A couple underlying assumptions to note here. First is that in these simulations we assume nothing about an individual’s propensity to win. For example, in reality someone like Mat Fraser has a uniquely high probability of taking top 3 in a given workout and finishing on the podium. This was not modeled in the simulation because this simulation was meant as a thought experiment. Next, these 2019 Games had the hypothetical structure of 1 workout had all 100+ athletes, then there were cuts and 2 workouts had 75 athletes, then cuts and 2 workouts had 50, 2 had 40, 2 had 30, 2 had 20 and 2 had 10.
Given these assumptions, the simulations highlight the significant increase in the probability that a top finish will result in a podium finish by the end of the weekend as the field narrows, giving weight to these later workouts by placing a premium on performance based on the relative points reward versus the field. Factor in athletes mitigating the risk of a poor performance late in the game with the previously mentioned gamesmanship, and the new scoring system could drastically increase both the relative intensity, and parity amongst the fittest athletes in the field come Sunday.
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