Seasons of Change: How the Games Format Affects the Best in the Sport

November 29, 2020 by
Image Credit: CrossFit LLC
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It was just Thanksgiving here in the United States, a holiday built around gratitude and reflection, and considering we are just around the corner from yet another change to the CrossFit Games season format, it is worthwhile to reflect back on the changes from the prior two seasons and how they were reflected on the final leaderboards. 

One big thing: Understanding the influence of format on result is important considering that when we talk about overall finish at the Games we are talking about the livelihood of athletes whose reputation, exposure, and earning power through sponsorships can be drastically altered by the number next to their name on the leaderboard.

  • Typically there are two big thresholds that have been perennial benchmarks for Games athletes that serve as solid parameters for evaluating the shuffling of overall placement at the Games at year’s end.
  • The top-10 overall is the most common cutoff for the true elite in the sport, and consistent finishes here represents the next evolution of a Games athlete that has built a significant presence at the top. Typically athletes in the top 10 have also won Regionals or Sanctioned events as a stepping stone along the way. 
  • The top-5 overall is the next step in becoming one of the “faces of the sport,” as far as establishing oneself as a contender for the podium year in and year out. Consider that one placement difference in one event has been the points margin between the podium and the 4th place athlete in the men’s division in four of the last five years.

When comparing the collection of new athletes that have managed to crack the top-10 and top-5 at the Games over the past two years we see a significant increase in both categories when compared to the 2018 and 2017 seasons when the format remained stable.

  • 16 new athletes finished inside the top-10 during the 2020 and 2019 seasons compared to just 10 athletes in 2018 and 2017, a 60% increase.
  • 8 new athletes finished inside the top-5 during the 2020 and 2019 seasons compared to just 3 new athletes in the 2018 and 2017 seasons, a 166% increase.
  • 24 athletes broke new ground across both categories, compared to just 13 athletes in 2018 and 2017, an overall increase of 84.6% which is a significant jump. 

We’ve seen this before albeit, under slightly different circumstances. The 2015 season was the last time there was a large enough overhaul of the season structure that was on par with recent history. The Regional format was condensed from 17 Regionals worldwide to just 8 “super” Regionals, making the qualification process for Regionals significantly more difficult, increasing the quality of athletes at Regionals across the board. 

  • That year the Games saw 19 new athletes in the top-10 and top-5 which was a single-season increase of 46% over 2014, no small feat considering that 2014 was a bit of an anomaly year featuring 8 women alone as newcomers that haven’t been able to crack the top-10 since.

Worth noting: When compared to the 2015/2014 seasons, the difference over the past two years is that the primary mechanism of change on the leaderboard has been the actual format of competition at the Games versus the qualification process itself. 

  • Elements of the qualification process have also changed, but it’s largely provided more access for the usual suspects to get to the Games (along with some new athletes) before the added combination of cuts, multiple competition stages, and format limitations on programming have ultimately shaped the leaderboard in new ways. 

Go deeper: Upon further inspection of the details of the Games format the past two seasons it is hard to ignore one major difference with regards to programming time domains that analyst Brian Friend presented on the Talking Elite Fitness podcast during a recent episode evaluating leaderboard placement. 

  • There is a glaring absence of “medium duration” workouts during both the first six workouts of 2019, and stage one of 2020 with the breakdown of time domains being long (16+ minutes), medium (8-16 minutes), and short (1-7 minutes).
  • In fact, only one workout out of the 13 programmed during those two sections fit in this category, meaning that the combined subset of workouts selected to cut the field down to only 10 athletes in 2019, and five athletes in 2020 did not include the time domain most commonly associated with CrossFit training.
  • In any other year this would not matter due to the fact that the entire field had the opportunity to tackle the entire test, but when that’s not the case, omitting a particular time domain or modality (ex: weightlifting) can potentially skew the results. This is where the similarity lies with the 2015 changes in that they both were effectively determining, at different stages, who gets to take the entirety of the Games test.

Why this matters: Bringing it back to the opening thought, when we talk about change on the leaderboard and why it happens, we are talking about changes in athlete’s livelihoods and careers, so no change, no matter how small, is insignificant.

  • Sometimes change is necessary. Shifts in demographics and emerging international markets require change to meet the demands of a growing sport and global population. Sometimes change is forced on us, such as a global pandemic and we have to adapt and do the best with what is available to us. 

Either way, the sport stands on the doorstep of yet another set of season changes, the greater community needs to understand the ripple effect these changes can have at all levels and hold each other accountable to avoid blind spots and keep true fitness at the center of our sport for the long-term. 

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