One Size Fits All

By TheBox ,

At the 1961 World Judo Championships, there was a single open category for all competitors, no matter their size. Despite lobbying efforts from European and American athletes, the Japanese federation fought against the inclusion of weight classes. Japan had been named host of the 1964 Olympic Games, where judo would make its debut as an Olympic sport, and Japanese officials wanted to preserve the purity of their national treasure. Judo, they argued, was a test of leverage and timing. Size would make no difference in the face of superior technique.

Enter Anton Geesink, a judo player from Utrecht who was 6 feet 6 inches tall and 270 pounds. The towering Dutchman met former world champion and Japanese hero Koji Sone in the finals. Geesink threw his 5-foot-10-inch, 215-pound opponent to the mat and then pinned him like a big brother bullying a younger sibling, until he was declared the winner. Every judo competition after that, including the 1964 Olympic Games, featured weight classes. Size, it turns out, does have its advantages.

Nearly every sport in which a competitor is required to carry an external load, whether it’s made of iron or flesh and bone, divides competitors into weight classes or uses a coefficient based on bodyweight. Powerlifting, strongman, MMA, weightlifting and sumo wrestling use weight classes. (Even Ironman has a competitive subcategory called “Clydesdales” for triathletes weighing more than 200 pounds.) Every sport takes weight into consideration, that is, except the CrossFit Games.

Incorporating weight classes into CrossFit competitions is a debate worth holding. Would they dilute the titles of “The Fittest Man and Woman on Earth”? Probably. Would a 66-kilogram NCAA Division I wrestling champion or a 62-kilogram elite Olympic weightlifter be able to do some amazing things on the CrossFit stage? Undoubtedly.

At 5 feet 5 inches and 151 pounds, Chris Spealler has played the role of giant killer annually at the CrossFit Games. Despite his virtuosic movement and heroic competitive spirit, the ever-increasing loads have been especially hard on the former 133-pound college wrestler. “Every year things are getting heavier. The 2012 Regionals was the heaviest programming across the board I have seen to date. Two-hundred-twenty-five-pound power cleans, 100-pound dumbbell snatch with one arm, 345-pound deadlift. That was some substantial weight we were moving,” says Spealler, the only athlete who has competed in every one of the CrossFit Games.

The defense of a “one size fits all” approach to the CrossFit Games comes back to the programming. The events that come out of the hopper are a mix of weightlifting, in which the bigger man has the advantage, and bodyweight and cardio events that are far kinder to the smaller athlete. But does a loaded barbell and a 5K run make for an even playing field? At the 2012 CrossFit Games, hulking 225-pound Chad Mackay surprised the field by winning the triathlon event. But if Spealler had won the clean ladder, it would have been a miracle.

Then again, after talking to several of the best CrossFit athletes in the world — both large and small — one common thread emerged from every conversation: When it comes to the best highlights from the CrossFit Games, everyone loves to see a David slay a Goliath.

Photo Courtesy of Pat Barber

Pat Barber

Box: NorCal CrossFit, San Jose, Calif.
Career Highlights:fourth place in 2008 CrossFit Games; 36th place in 2009 CrossFit Games; eighth place in 2011 CrossFit Games
Weight:170 pounds

What do you think of using weight classes in the CrossFit Games?
There are so many different things to CrossFit besides moving external loads. The idea of a well-programmed event is that you will represent both ends of the spectrum. That is not always easy to do, but you want to have the person who is the most well-rounded win. There should be bodyweight stuff so the little guys have an advantage, and if you are a bigger guy, there should be weightlifting stuff to give you an advantage. And the person who performs the most evenly among those should be the top guy. 

Is bodyweight vs. barbell really the definition of a level playing field?
Yes and no. If you look at elite Olympic lifters at the 69-kilo or 72-kilo weight classes, these guys outlift the 10 top CrossFitters, no problem. So the potential for little guys to lift heavy loads does exist. 

But yeah, you don’t generally see a little guy put up huge numbers, so you will never see a little guy win an event like the clean ladder. But you will see him get seventh in the event, which will keep him in the running to win. I don’t think there will ever be a little guy who comes out of nowhere to win a strength event, but I also think that if 100 pull-ups for time showed up, no big guy would then beat a little guy.

Do you think having multiple CrossFit Games champions would dilute the title of “Fittest Man on Earth”?
Yeah. They’d have to use a little asterisk next to the title that read, “Fittest Man Under 165.” We have a hard enough time talking to people about why we consider our version to be the world’s fittest man. 

Would you be interested in watching lightweight CrossFit, or is it more thrilling to watch big guys push big weights?
I think the combination of seeing a bunch of different athletes competing against each other is what’s exciting. This is one reason I find most conventional sports pretty silly. In basketball, you have like 9-foot dudes out there, and it’s not fun to watch because they are all the same athlete. But then you get these occasional outliers like Muggsy Bogues, and they become fun to watch. If you separate the weight classes, you wouldn’t have those people to root for who have that spirit. So I would not find it interesting to watch weight-class CrossFit. 

In your mind, what is the lightest a guy can weigh and win the CrossFit Games?
I think the lightest weight would be 150 pounds. I don’t think a 135-pounder can win the Games. If a guy has really good technique and huge strength-to-size ratio, then 150 could do it given the right events that come out of the hopper. 

Photo Courtesy of Elisabeth Akinwale

Elisabeth Akinwale

Box: CrossFit Construct, Chicago
Career Highlights: 13th place in 2011 CrossFit Games; seventh place in 2012 CrossFit Games
Weight: 160 pounds

What do you think of using weight classes in the CrossFit Games?
I think the idea of weight classes is counter to what CrossFit is about. We are nonspecialists, and our desire is to be good across the board. I am one of the heavier girls in the field. My response is not “I want to compete with girls who are built similarly to me.” Rather, it makes me want to get better at things I’m not good at. 

I was watching the Olympics last summer, and I saw the race walkers. They have a really extreme body type, very skeletal. And that is true in any sport. You see a particular body type on the Olympic podiums. But in our sport, even at the top levels, you see a wide variety of body types because we test such a wide spectrum of things. I like that. I think weight classes take that away. 

Would you be interested in competing in a weight class?
Weight classes take away the opportunity to test yourself. In my mind, you are avoiding something. My idea of this sport is not about cherry-picking. So I get to avoid the challenge of going head-to-head with Annie Sakamoto in handstand push-ups? As an athlete, I am not backing away from that challenge. I want to meet that challenge!

Do you think having multiple CrossFit Games champions would dilute the title of “Fittest Man on Earth”?
Big time. That would undermine the whole thing. That is what I believe. You go from “Fittest on Earth” — which is the big catchphrase — to “Fittest on Earth … in this weight class”? 

Would you be interested in watching lightweight CrossFit, or is it more thrilling to watch big weights get moved around?
From a spectator standpoint, when I see light weights, I start to see it as Jazzercise. Last year, the girls had to do 75-pound split snatches, alternating legs. So we ended up bouncing around throwing this barbell over our heads, and I thought it looked silly. I think as a spectator it is incredibly compelling to see weights that are heavy enough that it makes people struggle. To watch someone struggle and fight for something adds a lot to the drama.

In your mind, what is the lightest a guy can weigh and win the CrossFit Games?
I think you could see a guy who weighs 170 win, if he comes from a really strong powerlifting or weightlifting background. I don’t know if that’s the case for the average person, though.

Photo by Robert Reiff

Jason Khalipa

Box: NorCal CrossFit, San Jose, Calif.
Career Highlights: first place in 2008 CrossFit Games; fifth place in 2009 CrossFit Games; 16th place in 2010 CrossFit Games; seventh place in 2011 CrossFit Games; fifth place in 2012 CrossFit Games; winner of the 2009 Spirit of the Games Award
Weight: 215 pounds

What do you think of using weight classes in the CrossFit Games?
I think weight classes could be cool. And over time, we might see them. But I think there should always be an Open Division. We are trying to claim that the winner of the CrossFit Games is the Fittest on Earth, but whether you are 120 or 200 or 300 pounds, if life demanded that you perform something, then you have to use your fitness. Life doesn’t care how much you weigh. Nature has no understanding of the individual who needs to perform a task. If you are a firefighter and need to pull someone out of a wreck, big or small, you need to be able to perform that task. 

Do you think the Games are fair for all competitors?
It’s just what comes out of the hopper. Is the clean ladder going to be fair for a small guy? No. Is a triathlon going to be fair for a big guy? Not necessarily. But it’s our duty to train all these modalities. If we are not prepared to do that, we should not be competing in the CrossFit Games. It’s our duty to be well-rounded. 

If life demands that Chris Spealler pick up a heavy object, he has to do it. If there is a demand for me to run 10 miles, well my 215-pound build is not going to enjoy that, but I need to be able do it.

Would you be interested in watching lightweight CrossFit, or is it more thrilling to watch big guys push big weights?
Watching CrossFit at any weight is inspiring to me. It’s not like boxing where the lighter weights are not as fun. Watching any person throw down at any weight is exciting. 

In your mind, what is the lightest a guy can weigh and win the CrossFit Games?
One hundred seventy-five pounds. I believe the most well-rounded weight is 195. I think you can be a little bigger than that and train your body to perform well. I would find it very, very unlikely that a guy who is 140 pounds would ever win the CrossFit Games.

Photo Courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

Annie Sakamoto

Box: CrossFit Santa Cruz Central, Santa Cruz, Calif.
Career Highlights: ninth place in 2011 CrossFit Games; 23rd place in 2012 CrossFit Games; winner of the 2011 Spirit of the Games Award
Weight: 122 pounds

Why do you think CrossFit doesn’t use weight classes?
I think there aren’t any weight classes because the idea was always for the workouts not to favor the heavy or light athlete. I always think of “Fran” or “Diane.” In Fran, thrusters are harder for the lighter person, but the pull-ups are easier. Then with Diane, the deadlift might feel heavier, but the handstand push-ups are easier. If you look across the board, ultimately the goal is for it all to come out in the wash and reward the fittest all around.

As a smaller athlete, would weight classes help you?
I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times that I wished I had a couple more inches or a few more pounds on me, for sure. But not enough to say that I think there should be weight classes. For the most part, I think it’s pretty fair. Look at the triathlon from 2012. That was not a big-person event at all. The last three workouts of the 2012 Games were the classic workouts that combined weightlifting with bodyweight movements. 

The only thing that I wonder why they haven’t done yet is when the barbell gets set relative to the athlete’s weight. Back in the day, a metric that showed you were really in shape was 15 overhead squats of your bodyweight. I think that would be interesting.

Do you think the debate is more about body type than bodyweight?
I do think there are some beneficial body types. I think I benefit from my shorter limbs. I have really short arms, so in handstand push-ups or pull-ups, I have an advantage. Then again, jumping to the pull-up bar is much harder for me. I remember in the Killer Cage event [CrossFit Games 2011], the monkey bars were so far apart that I had to swivel my body; I couldn’t go straight on. My reach was too short. 

Would you be interested in watching lightweight CrossFit, or is it more thrilling to watch big guys push big weights?
I think that it’s more exciting the way it is. To watch Chris Spealler do what he can do — given the loads that he has to do it with — I think that is way more exciting than if it was lighter for him. One of the most inspiring things to watch is Spealler snatching some weight that makes you think, “Oh my God, how is he able to do that?”

In your mind, what is the lightest a woman can weigh and win the CrossFit Games?
I really think it depends on the order the events come out of the hopper, but I will say 121 pounds because I weigh 122!

Photo Courtesy of Rogue Fitness

Rob Orlando

Box: Hybrid Athletics, Stamford, Conn.
Career Highlights:22nd place in 2009 CrossFit Games, 15th place in 2010 CrossFit Games; winner of 2010 North East Regionals; winner of six strongman competitions
Weight:190 pounds

What do you think of using weight classes in the CrossFit Games?
I liken CrossFit to basketball. Did Spud Webb petition for a different league so he could play against guys 5 feet 10 inches and under? CrossFit is what it is. Basketball is not fair to me, and CrossFit might not be fair to someone who is 6 feet 6 inches, but that doesn’t mean you have to change the sport. Somebody like Josh Bridges, who is 5 feet 6 inches and 160 pounds, will hang with the strongest guys out there, and he has an engine like no one else. I like it the way it is. I think there is a certain beauty in it.

How do you see weight classes affecting the sport as a whole?
You could see some lighter guys come out and do some amazing things, and if you opened it up to heavier weight classes, you would see some amazing strength and met-con numbers come together. The landscape would change.

Would it be an advantage for you personally to compete in a weight class?
I am in that sweet spot, where if I needed to gain 10 pounds to add brute strength, I think I could do that, and if I needed to drop 5 pounds so I could do more burpees, I could probably do that. I think my main advantage is my baseline of strength. I have been lifting heavy since I was 13 years old. 

Do you think having multiple CrossFit Games champions would dilute the title of “Fittest Man on Earth”?
Yeah, it would be like having heavyweight champs and welterweight champs. If you cut it at 190, shouldn’t you cut it at 180, then 170 and then every 10 pounds? It would get really complicated. 

As a fan, would you be interested in watching lightweight CrossFit, or is it more thrilling to watch big guys push big weights?
I guess I would be a little bit biased. I like seeing big weights being moved around. But if you watch the 2011 Games, the rope climb and clean-and-jerk workout, look at Chris Spealler do his last rep at 225. He whipped that thing over his head like it was a PVC pipe. Then you saw much bigger guys miss the jerk multiple times. Take a light guy who can compete with the bigger guys, and that adds depth to the sport as opposed to watching Spealler just crush everyone at 150 pounds. 

In your mind, what is the lightest a guy can weigh and win the CrossFit Games?
I think Josh Bridges is around the lightest you can be and take a top three or four spot. He’s about 160 pounds. 

Photo Courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

Chris Spealler

Box:CrossFit Park City, Utah
Career Highlights: fourth place in 2007 CrossFit Games; 10th place in 2008 CrossFit Games; 25th place in 2009 CrossFit Games; third place in 2010 CrossFit Games; 11th place in 2011 CrossFit Games; 22nd place in 2012 CrossFit Games; winner of the 2010
Spirit of the Games Award
Weight: 151 pounds

Do you think the Games are fair for all competitors?
No, I don’t think CrossFit is fair. Anybody who does think it’s fair is stretching a bit. But I don’t think it’s designed to be fair. They do a good job of balancing things out, but I don’t think that every Games is fair. And this is not a “woe is me” type of thing, but it’s easier for a bigger athlete to come into CrossFit with a great strength background. It takes less time for that guy to get cardio endurance and stamina than a small athlete to gain strength. Strength takes a lifetime to build, while getting a set of lungs takes six months. And look at the guys out here now. There are some big freaking guys who have developed a ton of capacity in gymnastics and running. I think you will see more of that than small athletes pushing massive amounts of load because that takes so much longer to build.

Would you be interested in competing in a weight class?
Probably not. I like being the underdog, being that guy who shouldn’t be able to do what he’s doing. It pushes me so much more to go up against guys like Khalipa, [Matt] Chan and [Rich] Froning, guys who are 190 or 200 pounds. 

Would you like to see an event in which the load was based on the athlete’s bodyweight?
I think that would be really cool. I don’t think the entire Games needs to revolve around that, but I’d like to see one event at each competition like that. We do see main-site workouts like that. “Linda” is like that. “Lynne” is like that. And that is something we haven’t done at all. That’s just classic CrossFit, and that is what people like.

Would you be interested in watching lightweight CrossFit, or is it more thrilling to watch big guys push big weights?
I just think CrossFit is fun to watch. I don’t think it’s a big-guy or little-guy thing. I just like classic CrossFit, with people pouring their hearts out.

In your mind, what is the lightest a guy can weigh and win the CrossFit Games?
I think you are probably talking to him. I don’t know anyone who is lighter than me or smaller than me doing this stuff. I guess 150 or maybe 145 pounds. Any less than 140 pounds and you’d have to be such a strength specialist at that weight that other things would have to suffer. θ

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