I want to hedge what you’re about to read with a couple of caveats: first, this piece represents my opinion and it’s speculative; second, I’m not an expert in anti-doping protocol. With these caveats aside, I do believe that this piece still manages to articulate something that needs to be said about CrossFit’s seemingly willful reluctance to more aggressively drug test its elite athletes.
Over this past summer the 2017 CrossFit games took place in Madison, WI, marking the Games’ 10th year. And over the course of the last decade, CrossFit has moved from a peripheral fitness movement to a mainstream fitness force and international brand generating over four billion dollars a year in revenue. Driving Crossfit’s meteoric rise is the annual CrossFit Games that not only feature the self-proclaimed “fittest on earth” but also serve as the brand’s grand advertisement, showcasing the remarkable performances and physiques of the CrossFit elite.
The Games feature some of the most remarkable fitness performances and physiques ever seen. Despite their exceptional strength (men, for example, commonly deadlift and squat over 400 and 500 pounds and snatch upwards of 300 pounds), these athletes also perform gymnastic and cardiovascular feats—which, if you know anything about exercise physiology and fitness, should raise some eyebrows. It has long been known that there is an inevitable tradeoff between muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance: imagine the swift 5k runner deadlifting 500 pounds or the 500-pound deadlifter running a swift 5k. But somehow, in the CrossFit elite, this inverse relationship between muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance is astonishingly leveled; the norms of exercise physiology and perfomance don’t apply to the CrossFit elite the way they apply to the rest of us mere pedestrian exercisers.
Now I can hear the objection: the CrossFit elite represents the best of the best and just like in any other professional sport, these athletes are the rare actualization of what is possible at the limits of human performance. I agree. And yes, the reason we pay billions and billions of dollars each year to attend professional sporting events is because we want to witness the exceptional: the free-throw line dunk, the 450-foot home run, the leaping one-handed end zone catch with no time left on the clock. Yes, professional athletes are exceptional in every way, which means, by definition, that they are not like the rest of us. I get it. But… There is a difference between exceptional and freakish. Fifty home runs in a season is exceptional but seventy? At the end of the day, even the exceptional athlete is still human; there are real limits to human capacity, performance, and…physique.
Sure we can argue over performance capacity and metrics all day, but when it comes to physique the best available science gives us some pretty concrete limitations for the amount of fat-free mass an individual at a given height and weight can hold. This metric is know as the Fat-Free Mass Index (FFMI), which calculates the sex, height, weight, and body fat percentage of an individual into a value that, based on research, reveals the limits of fat-free mass in non-steroid users. Is this metric perfect? No—but it does give us a sense of probability and limitation when evaluating an individual’s physique. Here’s the range of values for men:
18 – 19 = Average
20 – 21 = Above average
22 = Excellent
23 – 25 = Superior
26 – 27 = Considered suspicious but still attainable naturally
28 – 30 = Highly unlikely to be obtained naturally without steroid usage.
If you’re interested in doing your own calculations just Google Fat-Free Mass Index Calculator or try this website: https://www.thecalculator.co/health/Fat-Free-Mass-Index-(FFMI)-Calculator-794.html
So I ran the men’s top ten finishers in this year’s CrossFit Games (2017) and six of the top ten are in the 28-30 range. The other four are in the 26-27 range. It’s worth noting that I don’t actually know their respective bodyweight percentages, but I generously estimated them all at 7% (which I think is generous). I’m not as confident in guessing the women’s body fat percentages, so I didn’t run the numbers, but I’m confident we’d find a similar trend. Now is this FFMI value alone an unquestionable condemnation of an athlete? No. But when you combine the FFMI value and level of strength andcardiovascular endurance and training volume and training recovery time, something is clearly freakish about CrossFit’s elite athletes.
I’ve speculated performance-enhancing drug use in the CrossFit elite for years (just look at the physiques of athletes from the early Games and compare them to this year’s athletes), but the tipping point for writing about it came when I watched the post Games awards ceremony. Before the awards were handed out, a woman, who’s apparently a champion for the CrossFit brand, came to center stage and gave a short inspirational talk about the larger significance of CrossFit as a “health and wellness” movement that is “fighting chronic illness and disease” (I have since tried to locate the video but to no avail—it’s apparently not up yet. So I cannot quote her at length). As a professional health and wellness educator, I took exception to this celebratory and self-congratulatory CrossFit moment because only a minute later medals were placed around the necks of athletes whose undeniably remarkable performances and physiques simultaneously raise serious questions about their legitimacy.
Let me be clear – I don’t have an issue per se with the idea of CrossFit as a path for improving physical fitness; I do, however, have an issue with the heavily marketed and branded practice of CrossFit, as most notably exemplified by the CrossFit Games. I believe the heavily branded Games deceive and manipulate the general public as it mainstreams an image of fitness and “health and wellness” that likely cannot be attained without the use of performance-enhancing drugs. If the CrossFit brand is really concerned about the congruity of its values of “health and wellness” and its practice of elite fitness, then why is it clearly neglecting to acknowledge the elephant in the room? My opinion is that this neglect permits – even drives – a multibillion dollar fitness enterprise. It seems that where the rubber meets the road, the CrossFit brand is more concerned about its revenue than it is about promoting collective health and wellness.
Yes, CrossFit already has a “Drug Policy” (https://games.crossfit.com/drug-policy), but so did the Tour de France during the years of its most rampant drug use. If CrossFit is serious about health and wellness promotion, then it should address the questions raised by the freakish physiques and performances of its elite athletes. I think adopting a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) protocol would be a good place to start. It’s worth noting that the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) adopted the USADA protocol on July 1st, 2015. Since the UFC’s implementation of USADA protocol, the physiques and performances of many of its fighters, including some of its highest profile fighters, have changed remarkably (http://www.thestatszone.com/articles/doping-in-mma-how-much-of-an-advantage-does-it-give-a-fighter).
I was just texting with a good friend who is an avid CrossFitter. I told him I was going to write this piece and explained why. He responded and said it doesn’t matter if the freakish physiques and performances at the CrossFit Games aren’t real if they nonetheless inspire the average person to get off the couch and into the gym. I appreciate his point, but it too easily glosses over the underlying deception that drives the CrossFit brand. Consider for a moment what would happen to investors in the investment industry if they advertised to clients returns that weren’t real? That’s right, they would end up in jail. But in CrossFit, they end up on a podium with a medal around their necks.