Monday, August 12, 2013
2:58 AM | Edit Post
I went to see the national championships of the Crossfit Games in Los Angeles the week before I left for Ultraman Canada, which combined with my reading of Stefan Fatsis' Word Freak made for a heavy dosage of fringe sports... and hyperlinking, apparently. Since starting on my book about Ultraman I've learned that you really can't answer the questions people ask about it (like why people do it in the first place) without taking a holistic view. Calling Ultraman "crazy," "extreme," or "like nothing else on earth" puts it in a kind of box, sequestering it from the context necessary to honestly analyze and appreciate it. That lesson has taken deep root, because I immediately found myself looking at the Crossfit Games the same way. I would not have gone to watch had some very close friends of mine who are really into Crossfit invited me to come up to Los Angeles and join them, and I'm grateful to them because it was such a fortuitous learning experience. Crossfit has experienced a popularity explosion the last couple of years, to the extent that it appears it will survive the "fad crash" of other fitness crazes like Taebo and aerobics. Perhaps the biggest indicator of its reaching critical mass is the emergence of blog posts and articles finding fault with it. Let's face it, no one bothers to slam something unless it's popular. I could write a blog post detailing how the disparities between the SOWPODS and the OSPD are dumber than the tiered-points system of the ITU, but it would be pointless because World Championship Scrabble and Professional Olympic-Distance Triathlon have the same level of popularity, which is to say they're not popular at all.
But if I wrote that Crossfit and Ironman have extremely similar cultures, then more people would read, because those are things that people actually pay attention to. So let's talk about that, because that's what I discovered.
If you can keep an open mind about it, there's really no difference between walking into the Crossfit Games or an Ironman race. The first thing you notice is the physical appearance of the people-- mostly because they are making a very deliberate effort to get you to notice their appearance. It matters very little if someone came to compete or spectate. Everyone is dressed to some degree in Crossfit-ish attire. Guys are in board shorts and almost too-tight wicking shirts with slogans and graphics on them advertising how "extreme" they are-- if they're in shirts at all. The women are in shorts that either look like running shorts or underwear, accompanied by the same too-tight shirts. The shirts are optional, though. Lots of people are just walking around without, the women are in sports bras.
There are lots of people in compression socks.
All of this compels you to stare a bit for a while if you're uninitiated in the culture. Everyone here is extremely fit, which makes sense. This is just the age-group competition. The pro athletes don't start until tomorrow. So anyone willing to sit under the California sun for five hours on a weekday to watch amateurs is likely a devout practitioner themselves. There's not a single woman in sight I would object to seeing in a swimsuit contest, and just about every guy looks ready to appear in the sequel to '300.' Whether or not they're "extreme" is uncertain, but they are certainly exceptional. Crossfit's motto is to "forge elite fitness," and by all appearances they're succeeding wildly. That's where the weird part comes in, though. For a bunch of people who appear as if they have nothing to worry about in the looks department, there's no escaping the feeling that a crop duster flew over the stadium and sprayed the crowd with a toxic mixture of narcissism and insecurity. You get the sense that everyone is showing off, but at the same time that they're only doing it because they're afraid to not show off. Some of the t-shirts you see have slogans on them like "Crossfitters look better naked" or other sexual overtures. Many of the women's shirts have something referring to how doing squats produce an appealing derriere. Having never seen it before, the volume of visible abs and butt cheeks makes it obvious that everyone is strutting, and it's uncomfortable.
And that's when it hits me that this is really no different than an Ironman transition area. You see the same sort of behaviors among the most serious athletes, the Kona-attendees and multiple-race-a-year folks. Always wearing "tri gear" even when they're not training or racing. Suspiciously unnecessary nudity. Hyperbolic t-shirt slogans, plentifully garnished with all the "right" brand names and the obligatory M-dot logo. The same obsessions with abdomens and bottoms. While Crossfitters seem to hail the glutes as the signature feature of a developed athlete, it's my observation that triathletes, both male and female, strive to push their waistbands as low as possible below the hip bones to show off that V-shaped cut in the lower abdominals. Everyone is out in the communal celebration of their fitness achievements, but the harder they show off the more you get the feeling they pinch at imaginary love handles with abject terror alone in front of the bathroom mirror.
Granted, I'm referring to the most extreme end of both sports. It may not necessarily be characteristic of the typical Crossfitter. But it's definitely prevalent. It's hard to argue that your sport has a distinctly unhealthy brew of vanity coursing through its veins when there are multiple blogs dedicated to "the Crossfit selfie." Triathlon does not seem to have exported its body obsession to digital forums, but the sport does have magazines that indulge in swimsuit issues. And let's not forget the Kona underpants run, which has gone from an event made to rib those athletes who wore their Speedos a little too frequently to something resembling a Victoria's Secret fashion show in Cancun during spring break.
But again, I feel like all of this is driven by a deeper insecurity among the athletes, and I further suspect it's driven by something else the two sports have in common, which I hadn't noticed before in triathlon. Namely, extreme marketing. You can't throw a rock at the Crossfit Games stadium without hitting someone wearing a shirt that affirms they can crush it into dust with their bare hands. If it bounces off of them, it will land at the feet of someone else wearing a shirt that says they can chew it. I want to say it's testosterone, except for the fact that the women are wearing equally intimidating items on their apparel. For a while I entertain the idea of shouting "This is madness!" to test whether the entire crowd will shout "This is Sparta!". Everyone here, whether they are exceptionally fit or extremely fit, defaults to the assertion of being extreme. Crossfit is really hard. It will make you puke. If you don't pass out doing it, you're not doing it right. Everyone here is really amped up. Just thinking about grabbing a heavy thing and lifting it really fast makes their nostrils flare and their eyes go wide-- a sure indication they are manifesting the extremist's state of nirvana known colloquially as "Beast Mode." They are a living, breathing powerthirst commercial.
And no one can blame me for insulting the sport, because I'm just quoting what they write on their own packaging.
Triathlon is the same way. Oh, look at us. We get up super-early to go to the pool and swim back and forth for hours on end, then go ride a bike for hundreds of miles. Then we eat some food, go to bed, and do it all again. We do the same three activities over and over, day in and day out, for lengths of time and distance such that they become exclusive to all other pursuits, hobbies, and relationships in life. And we are tougher and stronger than everyone else because of it.
Participants of both sports proudly declare their physical preparation for the zombie apocalypse, which is more fitting than perhaps even they realize. Yes, the very best among them are uniquely developed to perform exceptionally well in extraordinary conditions. But the likelihood of those very conditions and the rationale of their invocation clearly demonstrates just how weird and silly some of the messaging sounds to everyone else. Seriously, in terms of preparedness what's the difference between the coffee shop owner who spends 20 hours every weekend riding a bicycle, the nurse whose goal in life is to bench press a John Deere tractor, and the guy building an urban assault lawnmower for the global blackout?
Most of us hit the treadmill a few times a week and keep spare batteries in the house. I think the human race will go on.
Again, the common thread is marketing. Also what seems common is the impetus behind their respective messaging campaigns. Time for a hard look in the mirror-- triathlon and Crossfit are more than just niche sports. They're white yuppie sports. If you don't want to take my word for it, consult other self-proclaimed and internet-certified experts on the subject. That said, there are necessary economic forces driving both sports. While you may think that your relationship with Crossfit/triathlon makes you part of a larger collective that shares an authentic bond of dedicated participation (and, to an extent, it does), to the people who make it possible for you to participate you constitute a different type of collective known as a market. Your boxes and clubs and WODs and races are made possible by a group of people who make the products and provide the services necessary for you to do it. Their business necessarily depends on you to keep doing it if the ecosystem is to grow. So they advertise.
Because of the special nature of this market, a large portion of the marketing is aimed at affirming how special your participation in the sport makes you. And the easiest way to set yourself apart as special from everyone else is to define yourself as "extreme." Whether you go really far or lift really heavy doesn't matter. What's important is that your activity makes you different from everyone else. The brighter and clearer the line between you and the general population, the more difficult it will be for you to cross back over to the ranks of the ordinary and average. This works well for the growth of the sport, and thus its attendant industry. But it has its drawbacks. I never really saw it so clearly as I did at the Crossfit Games, because by the time I'd begun studying these things I'd been fully immersed in triathlon. Seeing it happening in a different sport was like being slapped awake. Everyone is wearing all this specialized gear with odes to extremism, some of which even touts its techno-magical ability to enhance performance-- all to ensure they're living up to the advertising emblazoned on every stitch of cloth. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, but does it actually leave those who believe in it fulfilled? I can't say for sure that it does.
What I do know is that the triathlon industry should absolutely view Crossfit as a competing brand. They are after the same demographic and marketing the same way. It doesn't matter if you swim-bike-run or squat-thruster-flip tires. You are white, in your mid-20s to mid-30s, and predisposed to engage in high levels of physical activity as a means of exercise, social behavior and recreational pursuit. You have the time, energy, inclination and, most importantly, the money to do this. And in the eyes of a market researcher, there aren't that many of you. There were, at maximum, 93,000 slots for the 31 Ironman races around the world this year (assuming 3,000 slots for each race). By contrast, 140,000 people signed up and took part in the Crossfit Open Qualifiers.
I come not to praise marketing, nor to bury it. It is neither good nor evil, only necessary. We qualify its morality through our own actions. As surely as Ironman needed Timex, Crossfit needs Reebok. That people buy the watches and the "official gear" is helpful to their respective sports. The extent to which they buy into the attendant ideologies is a much different matter. I'm not saying that Ironman or Crossfit are "unhealthy" occupations. The most balanced and level-headed triathlete I've ever met has 78 Ironmans and an Ultraman finish under his belt. I've met others that were ready for divorce proceedings by their fifth race. I don't think that every guy doing Crossfit is secretly ashamed that he never tried out for the Navy SEALs or that every Crossfit woman has an eating disorder. Just looking around that stadium, though, I can't help but think that a lot of them do. The best explanation of the pitfalls each sport has developed is the simplest one. Never have I seen a triathlon or Crossfit shirt that gives an objective number of miles or weight or reps that define a reference for validation. Everything is based on sex and macho. Why are two sports that rely so heavily on clear metrics of time-based performance advertised in such subjective terms?
I'll let you answer that for yourself.
The final thing I noticed was the commercial end of things. Toward the end of the day, I went with my friends to the "athlete village," or something like that. All I know is that everyone laughed at me when I asked an obviously-uniformed "Crossfitter" where the "vendor expo" was. This was "triathlon lingo" I was told. "It is not what you called it. We call it the other thing." I laughed along with them. Because, you know, a turd by any other name...
The expo was what you'd expect if you've ever gone to an Ironman, except bigger. There were a few unique finds, a few good ideas and products. I found that Crossfit now has its own version of Strava. There were some pretty tasty organic (also, paleo) food offerings. Mostly, however, everything was crap on the same level as the thigh master. I watched as one of my friends took every energy-health-organic-protein-anti-fatigue-tastic elixir that was offered to her. There were at least eight. Having been to Interbike and seen people try to rally from after-expo party hangovers with these concoctions, I knew well enough to steer clear and wait for the projectile vomiting to begin. All that was missing was the little old lady in the powder-blue polyester jumpsuit to match her hair smoking an extra-long menthol while she chucked her life savings down the one-armed bandit. Otherwise, it looked just like the Venetian in September.
Except with more muscles.
The thing that surprised me most, however, was the official gear worn by the athletes. Since Reebok had scored the deal to be title sponsor and was the official gear supplier of Crossfit, all the athletes wore Reebok stuff. I found this fascinating. First, the Reebok gear looked like crap. I expected something resembling triathlon-gear. Sturdy, well-fitting and wicking shirts and shorts. Instead, it was a cotton-polyester blend that fit so-so on even the fittest people competing on the field. For a company that's magnitudes of order bigger than 2XU or Champion System, they came out looking like amateur hour. Many of the male athletes went sans shirts, and I could understand why. Even the skimpy outfits on the women looked like they'd be warm. It made me wonder what option they had, if any, to wear alternate brands. That led to another question-- what happens if an athlete is actually sponsored by a different brand? Ironically, 2XU had a presence at Crossfit Games. They didn't have any athletes on the field. The obvious explanation is that few if any of them are sponsored yet. But with the Games paying out more than twice as much to their champion as the Kona winners, it shouldn't be long before that starts to happen.
Overall, I thought the Crossfit Games was an engaging spectator event. It was certainly more fun that sitting around a triathlon transition area all day. It's an experience that is significantly more accessible and amenable to the everyday sports fan than an Ironman. However, based on my observations it has yet to grow that population of viewers (unless they're all at home watching it on television because they're too afraid to sit next to the ultra-fit people). Based on what I've learned about the history of Ironman and that sport's state of affairs, it seems that Crossfit is approaching a crossroads, if it does not already stand at it, where it will have to choose whether to continue indulging its core group of paying customer-athletes or risk "watering down" the branding in an effort to attract a broader spectator/fan base. That's a difficult decision. For whatever personal and cultural baggage they bring with them, the "hardcore" athletes are the ones who can be most depended upon to pay the gym memberships, become coaches, and buy the greatest volume of high-priced brand-name gear. However, catering solely to them necessarily puts a ceiling on long-term growth. That's the route Ironman generally took, and it has yet to grow out of private equity holding after thirty years. Just for comparison, hey look, it's MMA.
It's fascinating to see so many sports reaching this critical juncture of growth. Crossfit is already in the throes of a major growth spurt. RAAM is doing extraordinary things. Ultraman is growing. REV3 and Challenge are emerging as genuine rivals to Ironman. Obstacle course races like Tough Mudder are drawing huge crowds. Video games are getting huge in America. Maybe I'm looking in odd places, but everywhere I do look there are exciting upheavals taking place in the status quo. Sport is changing around the world. What comes next and how people receive it will be fascinating to observe. The key to success will be leadership with a strong conceptual and philosophical understanding of what makes something a sport, and what makes a sport a good sport. If Ironman and Crossfit show us anything, it's that you can't keep all the bad things out. Making things work depends instead on finding and fostering enough good things that people will enjoy themselves. Crossfit seems to be off to a good start-- perhaps even better than Ironman. Can they keep it up? Only time will tell.
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