Opinion: Can Eric Roza and CrossFit Achieve its Ambitious China Domination Plan in a New Age of US Geopolitics and COVID-19 Ideology?

September 20, 2021 by
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As CrossFit kicks off its world domination push under new CEO Eric Roza, who just completed a European tour, the sport will undoubtedly find itself in an uphill battle in one region moving forward: Asia.

Roza’s post-pandemic landscape looks rosy in a number of emerging and Westernized regions, but Asia’s differing strategy when it comes to Covid-19 may prove a serious hurdle. China, which has been pegged by Roza and company as a vast, untapped market, finds itself stuck with its “zero Covid-19” strategy, enduring lockdowns after lockdowns, trying to chase variants out of the country with a vaccine proven to have low efficacy in Sinovac.

In an interview with the Hong Kong-based newspaper, the South China Morning Post in early 2021 before the pandemic hit, Roza threw out an ambitious number: 20,000 boxes in 20 years in China, up from under 100 currently. 

China desperately needs its citizens to embrace fitness as well as it encounters a demographic wave like no other, in which a once youthful population ages into retirement with little in terms of replacements. This has been compounded by an obesity epidemic in the country, which in turn has led Chinese Communist Party president Xi Jinping to place a growing emphasis on sport and healthy living, an entirely new concept for the once insular Eastern empire.  

The mainland has largely been shut off to foreigners since the start of 2020, and reports are that the borders won’t reopen anytime soon. Articles from Chinese state media, controlled by the CCP’s propaganda arm, are that nothing will happen before the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, which takes place this coming February, and it could be at least 18 months before the CCP decides to allow outsiders in with any regularity.

China’s strict three-week quarantine, even for locals, which also applies in some respects to its semi-autonomous region Hong Kong, has essentially cut off travel to the two areas to anyone other than mainlanders. Thus Chen Aichan and Zhou Zhenhua, the first time China has had two country champions from the mainland (Taiwan and Hong Kong have previously won titles) find themselves being crowned queen and king, respectively, in a new, much more difficult age of relations with the US-based CrossFit.

Tensions with the US and China have somewhat simmered under Democratic president Joe Biden, but the lingering tail of Republican Donald Trump’s battle with China has left lasting scars that may take years to repair. If Chen or Zhou were to qualify for the games, it would also present visa challenges to head to Madison, Wisconsin much like Russian athletes, most famously Roman Khrennikov, have experienced in the past.

Before the pandemic, China had held two successful Sanctionals, one in Shanghai and one in Chengdu, however, there seem to be little plans for CrossFit to try and stage more official events or qualifying competitions on the mainland. This could douse cold water on a wave of Chinese middle-class citizens who are taking up the sport, along with other more Western types of lifestyles that prioritize health and wellness, along with social standing and image.

CrossFit does have a few aces in its sleeve though, Gary Gaines, the new general manager of affiliates and international for the company, who comes in with a proven track record in the US, having previously worked for Lyft and Tesla. CrossFit also has a strong foothold in Hong Kong, where there are a number of boxes, and the region is home to Ant Haynes, who competed at the 2019 CrossFit Games and came 27th. 

However, without any relaxation of its stringent Covid-19 rules, China will remain cut off from the world until it decides to switch to an endemic response to the coronavirus. Glimmers of hope are emerging as a number of other Asian nations who previously had similar strategies, such as Singapore and Malaysia, are quickly realizing getting to zero cases is hard and staying there is nearly impossible. 

China has proven to be a stubborn nation and its initial Covid-19 response, which featured snap lockdowns in 2019, was heralded as world class, now looks outdated as North America and Europe have largely opened back up for business and travel. 

If Roza and company can’t even get to China or try to set up events on the mainland in the future, the sport of CrossFit will remain fringe at best, and be unable to grab any type of a foothold in the marketplace when competing against other traditional sports such as soccer, basketball and a growing running scene, which already have deep roots in the country. 

Crossfit’s accompanying brands, such as NOBULL and Wit, are also relatively new to the marketplace, and will be unable to penetrate the mainland when stacked against such heavy hitters as Nike, Adidas and Lululemon. With no way to set up brick and mortar stores, and heavy tariffs and sanctions still hurting trade between China and the US, the outlook is bleak unless drastic change happens.

This also includes trying to get CrossFit stars, such as Sara Sigmundsdottir, Mat Fraser, Tia-Clair Toomey and new men’s champion, Justin Medeiros, to accompany business ventures on trips and woo customers. Chinese culture is remarkably similar to the US when it comes to its burgeoning middle class as its citizens love to follow and emulate their stars and heroes, along with fevered shopping and product buying. 

CrossFit’s outlook on China was bullish, as Roza stated in the South China Morning Post, which is based in Hong Kong, back in 2019. But we are now in the “new normal” of 2021 and unless China decides it is time to live with the virus and wants to recast its relationship with the US when it comes to trade and ongoing geopolitical tensions, the country will no longer be a viable area of growth for the sport, and once again remain a forbidden kingdom. 

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