Why the olympics are and aren’t the fastest, highest, strongest (a 17th thought on CrossFit)

Posted on August 12, 2016

(Last Updated On: August 12, 2016)

In 16 random thoughts on CrossFit in 2016 I wrote, with a new emphasis on the bolded:

“Hopefully we’re past the point of “CrossFit is how olympic weightlifters should train.”

If you still feel that way because you hear some CrossFitter is competing in the olympics, like Tia-Clair Toomey, according to the CrossFit site her total (clean and jerk + snatch) is 111kg + 82kg = 193kg. In London in 2012, that’d be good enough for 17th place. Competing and being competitive are not the same thing when it comes to the olympics.”

The above was written before the 2016 olympics started. I thought about putting what will be this article in that post, but I figured with that one sentence, and the fact this site has some smart readers, it wasn’t needed. This has seemed true so far here, but not elsewhere.

Well, Tia-Clair Toomey just competed in Rio, and, predictably, was towards the bottom of her weight class, fgetting 14th out of 16.

I’m rarely on Facebook, but once in a while I get a message on there or something. I happened to go on after this, and see a bit of a firestorm has, predictably, happened over Toomey’s performance. (See the first random thought in the original post.) Those who hate CrossFit piled on her placing. Those who love CrossFit, or thought Toomey was getting unfairly criticized, repeatedly mentioned something along the lines of,

“She still got 14th in the world!”

“Yeah, what a shit performance. To be in the olympics. How many of the seven billion of us make it that far?”

Let’s see if we can find a middle ground.

First, Toomey competed in the 58kg weight class. It wouldn’t be fair to assess higher weight classes, but it’s fair to look at lighter ones. Reason being those women could immediatley hop into the 58kg class and be allowed to compete. You can’t be over the limit, but you can be under.

In the 53kg class, five women still out lifted her. So right away she’s bumped to 19th “in the world.” Annnnd two more in the 48kg class lifted more than her. 21st.

Second, there is the assumption the 16 people in that weight class are the strongest 16 in the world. They aren’t. To Americans, this should all be obvious.

  • Kawhi Leonard
  • Lebron James
  • Stephen Curry
  • Russell Westbrook
  • Damian Lillard
  • Chris Paul
  • Lamarcus Aldridge
  • Andre Drummond

All those guys were All-NBA this year. The first four were first team. None of them are in the olympics. The above could be an entire roster. Does anybody think any country in the world has a team with better players? Does any other country have a single player better than those guys? (No, they’d be on the All-NBA team then!) Assuming USA wins, is anybody really saying whoever gets second in the olympics this year has the second best players? Does anybody say the Chinese team they just beat by like 60 points is full of elite players? Merely because they’re also in the olympics?

If we look at the 100m track results in 2012, here are some of the times,

  • 11.05
  • 11.06
  • 11.17
  • 11.19
  • 11.25
  • 11.30
  • 11.42
  • 11.48
  • 11.53
  • 11.55
  • 11.56
  • 11.72
  • 12.81

13 runners didn’t even get under 11 seconds. There are 13 year olds who can run faster than the above. There are numberous 5year olds who have run this fast. This is in the olympics.

This is where the definitions of elite, or “best in the world,” aren’t so clear. Are you reallly part of the best-in-the-world-group if you make the olympics, regardless of performance? The person who got 54th in the 100 meters ran 10.94. That’s nearly a full second -in a race that’s not even 10 seconds- from what the last place finisher got in the final heat. (Ignoring Asafa Powell, who got injured in the race.) Is that what we think about when we say best in the world? Or let’s say that one person really is the 54th fastest person. Does anybody consider that -10.94- elite for the 100 meters? Were you rushing to see the 54th fastest person run? (Do you even care about the ninth fastest? (There are only eight in the final heat.).)

-> The other way to view this: 158 performances have been better than 10.94 in the eight months of 2016. 158 is only how many have been kept track of. There are more, they just aren’t listed.

In the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, European soccer, 54th best in those means a lot. We’ll watch them. In sports where you only care about the medal finishers, it doesn’t. Even if we go by the entire track and field sport. That is, 54th best in one of those means much more than 54th best track athlete.

Now for the crux of all this, hopefully obvious by now, which is making the olympics does not say much about your world ranking. It says something about your national ranking. The olympics is a representation by country event. Relative performance; not absolute. This is why there are endless people on a college and high school track team who could run times seen in the 100m in the olympics, yet they aren’t there. (Top 10 100 meter times in 2014, for high school, all faster.) Each country only gets so many athletes in each event.

Maybe you thought USA basketball was an extreme example. “We have such a big talent pool.” Ah, we Americans are such elitists aren’t we.

First, we consider half of Brazil could make our men’s soccer team.


Chinese national weightlifting results womens 48kg Chinese national weightlifting results womens 53kg Chinese national weightlifting results womens 58kg

The above are the results for the 2016 Chinese National Weightlifting Championship. (Hat tip to allthingsgym for this.)

The pink boxes are all the lifters who would have beaten Tia-Clair Toomey. Look, this isn’t to pick on her, but this point needs to be harped on:

  • In the weight class 22 pounds lighter than her’s, eight lifters would beat her
  • In the class 11 pounds lighter than her’s, twelve lifters would beat her
  • In her class, thirteen lifters would beat her

In her class and the one right below it, essentially if the person made their lifts, they’re going to beat her. That’s more than 30 lifters. She was 14th 19th 21st in the world before. Now we’re into the 50s, and we’ve only looked at China. It doesn’t look like Toomey would make their national championships, which would mean we can say she is not an elite lifter in just China, yet she’s simultaneously one of the world’s strongest?

-> You only get to maybe send six men and four women to the olympics for weightlifting. China would have had a higher average total than the lifters at the olympics; last place in the 58kg Chinese class would have been 8th in the olympics, but they can’t send them all. Certain countries, for cultural or political reasons, focus on certain sports. USA has basketball; China weightlifting; Jamaica sprinting; Ireland drinking.

Are Toomey’s physical abilities impressive? Yes! But not in a strength only comparison, when looking at the strongest our species has to offer.

Making the olympics does not mean being the best in anything. Being on the podium in the olympics? Yeah, you’re probably about as fast / high / strong as it gets. (Though again, as we saw in basketball, even second place might not mean much on a world scale.)

Does Toomey illustrate people can be plenty strong / muscular while still doing a ton of cardiovascular work? While still running around a good deal? That as an everyday person you’re misguided if you have fear that running will kill your strength / muscle gains? That “I don’t want to go catabolic bruh” is nonsense for nearly everybody? Yes! This is what CrossFit (everybody?) should be focusing more on. After all, the combination of physical attributes is what they champion most anyways. That you can’t be a specialist at something like the CrossFit games, or as a CrossFit athlete. You need to be well rounded. Wellll, you can’t have it both ways!

Again, I’m not trying to pick on her, nor do I think most are. She just got thrown in the middle of the overarching argument, which has an obvious winner- CrossFit is NOT the way to make an elite olympic weightlifter. And it’s poignant to bring this up at this time, because we have about as good of proof as we ever could. For those of us interested in figuring out the best training methodologies, then we’re given evidence what’s been touted as so grand is only so grand in a niche environment, we should examine that. And when CrossFit’s religious sector continues to berate how strong their athletes are, then falls flat on its face when seeing what strong really means, it should be brought up.

It’s somewhat bewildering this is even an argument. CrossFit has been around more than 15 years. Last I heard there were over 10,000 CrossFit gyms. At a conservative 30 people per CrossFit gym, that’s 300,000 CrossFitters out there. Currently. Lord knows how many people have tried it. If they’re so multi talented, where are all the other CrossFit olympians???

In Rio, last / 21st place, in the men’s 85kg weight class -what most males would be in CrossFit- was a total of 283kg. 19th place was 320kg. Mat Fraser (313kg total; would have to lose three pounds), who has been weightlifting since 12 years old, couldn’t get this. Ben Smith (289kg total; would have to lose eight pounds) couldn’t get this. Rich Froning Jr. (306kg total; would have to lose 11 pounds to compete) couldn’t get this. Those are the last three winners of the CrossFit games.

“Well, at least they could be in the olympics.” No, they couldn’t. All the 85kg lifters in America lift more than them, and you get to go based on your overall country ranking. There would be a minimum of 33 lifters ahead of them! 

-> One reason someone like Toomey is likely doing so much better relative to her gender than any male CrossFitter is Toomey is from Australia, which is, I’m assuming as I don’t know Australia well, more progressive with women participating in sports than a lot of the world. It’s analagous to U.S. women’s soccer compared to men’s. As (if) other countries get their women more involved performance will go down. (This may already be happening, as the U.S. team isn’t in the gold medal game for the first time ever.) A great thing happened this year where an Egyptian woman, allowed to compete in weightlifting only for the second time because she could wear full clothing, got third in her weight class. More competitors = better competition.

CrossFit is great for many other things, as went over in the original piece. The sporting element is particularly fun / interesting, but that element also disqualifies any argument CrossFit had about transfer to other sports. Has any sport credibly made the argument “Oh, you want to be elite at the 800 meters? You should train like a badminton player. Oh, you want to be better at football, you should train like a basketball player. Oh, you want to be elite at Judo, you should train like an olympic weightlifter. Oh, you want to be elite at Y sport, you should train like X sport.”

Each sport requires its own training. Sure, you may take some tenets from a given discipline, but you don’t train like they do overall. Going from 100 meters to 400 meters -a quarter of a lap to a full lap- necessitates an entirely different pool of athletes. Just that difference becomes, essentially, a new sport.

What other sport says it’s elite, or even has the cabability of being elite, in multiple sports? Where are those dual professional athletes? Where are those olympians winning medals in two different sports? They don’t exist. CrossFit is the only sport arguing about this.

Steph Curry is an elite NBA player, and a scratch golfer. Yet you don’t see the NBA throwing a shitfit if somebody says “Steph Curry is not an elite golfer.” Nor do you see the NBA saying “If you want to be a great golfer you should play basketball.” Say it out loud and you realize how silly it seems. Plus there’s that reality of he’s an outlier. No other NBA player is near him in golfing ability. You don’t use outliers to make rules. How many of the lifters at the games, how many of the athletes, are not doing CrossFit??? CrossFit does 400 meter runs a good deal. They swim a lot. They row a lot. Where are their 400 meter / swimming / rowing olympians?

-> If somebody is thinking “But in CrossFit they do the same lifts. Basketball and golf they don’t do the same movement.” Is it really the same? In the olympics they lift a weight one time, then 5-10 minutes later do it again. Is that similar to CrossFit? Basketball and golf are both trying to put a ball through a hole from a distance, by swinging their body to the hole. That’s about as similar as CrossFit weightlifting is to olympic weightlifting. They’re both trying to lift a bar overhead. There’s a great deal of variety after that though. Much like nobody is saying the 100 meters and 400 meters are similar because they both consist of running on a track.

Many NFL players could run the 100 meters in times seen in the olympics. Many have run those times, in high school or college. Yet same goes for them. You don’t see some push from the NFL or their players saying they’re elite sprinters, when any sane person knows anybody in that final heat would destroy them. You don’t see the NFL writing an editorial in defense of one of their athletes if people say Adrian Peterson is delusional thinking he could beat Usain Bolt.

If CrossFit wants more respect in the sporting and fitness world, it would be wise to stop this. Otherwise, you get articles attacking you, people making fun of you, people who won’t take you seriously. You get people ignoring the fact that is IS awesome a person could pull off what Toomey just did. Even if she got lucky to make the olympics by being in the right country at the right time.

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