CrossFit Games

OPINION: Could CrossFit Athletes Take Legal Action to Get Paid for Competitions?

October 17, 2022 by
Photo credit: TJ Danenza
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The European Championships functional fitness competition took place in the 10,000-seat Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham, England this past August. The event advertised itself as an “exciting three-day competition that attracts athletes from all of the world…and has grown to become one of the largest and most prestigious competitions on the Fitness Racing calendar.”

To encourage the best athletes to attend, they were offered prize money totaling £40,000 – payable to those who finished in the top three in their respective categories. 

Two weeks after the competition ended, however, the event organizers disclosed that “due to a large amount of debt, the winners should not expect to be paid anytime soon, if at all.” This announcement came on the heels of another functional fitness competition, the CanWest Games, which was held in British Columbia in mid-July, failing to payout the offered prize money of $105,000 to its competition’s winners.

So where, and under which legal theory, can three-time CrossFit Games athlete Uldis Upenieks and 23-year-old up-and-comer Aimee Cringle, the male and female winners in the Rx category at the European Championships, together with Chandler Smith and Anika Greer, the Elite category winners at the CanWest Games, turn to find legal recourse and collect the compensation offered to them by the event promoters? 

Clearly there are multi-jurisdictional issues involved, competitions held in England and Canada, with athletes from Latvia, England, the United States and Canada being involved. In addition, which country’s procedural and/or substantive law would apply?  

The interesting fact is that these athletes, together with any others who are similarly situated, may be able to find relief within the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). For those unfamiliar, CAS is a legal tribunal independent of any sports organization that presides over sports-related disputes and follows a set of rules customized for the specific needs of the sports world. 

One of its rules, Rule 27 specifically, affords CAS jurisdiction over an athlete’s claim for nonpayment of prize money since it maintains that CAS may hear “disputes involving matters of principle relating to sport or matters of pecuniary or other interests relating to the practice or the development of sport and may include, more generally, any activity or matter related or connected to sport.”

Once jurisdiction is found per Rule 27, even though the Court of Arbitration for Sport is physically located in Lausanne, Switzerland, an athlete can file his or her claim and have that case heard before a panel of arbitrators in one of CAS’s many alternative, mutually agreed upon locations. However, no matter where the hearing is held, all CAS arbitration procedural rules are governed by Swiss arbitration law, which is not necessarily a bad thing since Swiss law is regarded as “arbitration friendly” and an award may be set aside only on very limited grounds.

As for the legal cause of action an athlete would pursue for not receiving the promised payments, that would most likely be for breach of contract. To prove such, an athlete would first have to show that a contract was in full force and effect at the time he or she won the competition. This is not all that difficult since, as a general rule, when an offer or promise for an act is made, the only acceptance of that offer necessary is the performance of the act itself – and this applies to prize purse winners also. 

In other words, the athlete’s act of competing in the event itself may satisfy the elements necessary to form a valid and binding contract. Thereafter, the athlete would have to prove to the CAS arbitration panel that the event organizers breached the contract’s terms by failing to perform the promised obligations – that obligation being the failure to pay the agreed upon prize money amount.

But why should these elite functional fitness athletes have to go to all this trouble in order to receive the monies he or she legitimately earned and are entitled to for reaching the podium? Policies and procedures are needed to ensure that all the prize purses at functional fitness events are protected and paid timely, and one way to do this is by having the event promoters escrow all payout amounts in advance. 
In other words, if the CanWest Games offers prize money in an effort to draw the best competitors to its event, then that amount of money, in this case $105,000, has to be secured into an account by the organizers in advance. Failing to implement some form of athlete payment protection and allowing functional fitness events to fail in paying their advertised prize purses by blaming it on the fact that they did not make enough money is embarrassing to the sport and will ultimately affect its long-term growth.

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