Here's what you need to know...
- The CrossFit Games are an awesome spectacle, but HQ needs to do more to protect the health of the athletes.
- CrossFit's popularity has outpaced its maturity according to Dr. Schulte.
- Dedicated medical personnel, if properly utilized by HQ, could advise the gamemakers and help prevent many issues.
- CrossFit Games fans need to speak up and demand that athletes are treated better. CrossFit HQ should additionally apologize to competitors.
No Seat at the Table
I recently returned from covering the 2015 CrossFit Games, marking the third consecutive year that I've volunteered my services as a sports medicine physician on the EMS/Medical team for the annual competition.
Each year we've learned and improved upon the previous year's experiences to provide our athletes with the best care available from seasoned medical professionals within the CrossFit community.
Many of us volunteer throughout the year at various local-level events as well, all in a concerted effort to further bolster the services we provide.
What may (or may not) come as a surprise to most of you is that none of us have a seat reserved at CrossFit HQ's table.
Despite multiple attempts from myself and other dedicated medical staff members, there has been absolutely no discussion about developing a medical oversight division within the ivory towers of CrossFit HQ.
Popularity > Maturity
I frequently have medical students join me when covering local and Games-level CrossFit events. Before the day begins, I give them two form-letter disclaimers:
- CrossFit's popularity has dramatically outpaced its maturity.
- CrossFit HQ's hubris causes the sport to take two steps backward for every one step forward.
A post-event quote by one of CrossFit HQ's more notorious media bulldogs, Russell Berger, succinctly characterizes these two observations:
"This was one of the best CrossFit Games competitions I've seen. New top athletes, dramatic last minute victories and defeats, and great programming. Yes, I said it – great programming.
"The events chosen were simple but devastatingly challenging. The pegboard event might be my favorite of all. I've seen many complain about too many athletes being unable to complete such a simple task (one that dates back to early CrossFit Journal articles). But that's exactly the point.
"The CrossFit Games is not a place to highlight talent, but to test it. As with every year, there has been plenty of complaining about the programming of the Games. I believe those complaints are completely misplaced...
"Withdrawals, injuries, and failure should be expected. Fatigue is a popular excuse for those who couldn't make the climb, but that fatigue magically didn't effect Margaux [Alvarez], [Amanda] Goodman, or [Kari] Pearce. They showed that athleticism was the limiting factor, not energy."
To state that the programming was great is to imply that careful, meticulous consideration was given during the planning and finalization of event design and implementation.
It implies that medical personnel and other professionals versed in sporting event planning were consulted and asked for their professional opinions to ensure the safety and appropriateness of the workouts.
It's not as though the Games staff was completely unaware of potential environmental influences. In fact, quite the opposite.
As recently as last year's CrossFit Games, heat exhaustion affected numerous athletes as a result of the Triple 3 workout, which consisted of a 3000 meter row, 300 double-unders, and a three mile run.
Somewhat ominously, the Triple 3 workout was also the first individual event on Friday morning that year, and ambient temperatures were equivocal to those during Murph this year.
Editor's note: "Murph" is a WOD/event consisting of a 1 mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, and another 1 mile run, all while wearing a weighted vest.
Additionally, dozens of Masters athletes acquired thermal hand injuries as a result of equipment exposed to prolonged sun and radiant heat. This has long been known to be a frequent injury mechanism at outdoor local-level events, yet no preventative efforts were made by Games staff to reduce this particular injury risk.
Image of severe thermal injuries. Athletes sustained similar injuries during Murph as a result of increased surface temperatures from prolonged sun exposure of the equipment. CrossFit Games staff did not provide any protective covering of the pull-up rig between heats despite this being a known mechanism of injury to numerous masters athletes at the 2014 Games.
One of my colleagues bumped into CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman at the conclusion of the event and expressed our concern about Murph being conducted during the hottest portion of the day. "We don't want anyone to get hurt; we don't want anyone to die," was his response.
Really? Because you almost deep-sixed one of the most recognized and respected female athletes in the sport.
Without hesitation, a member of Glassman's posse – one of the supposedly 100 lawyers they proudly keep on retainer – piped up, "If that were to happen you'd need a couple more of us!"
A Grim Portrait
Spectator photo of a female athlete being assisted off the floor during the 2015 CrossFit Games secondary to suspected heat exhaustion.
An interview of female individual competitor Emily Abbott contained a grim portrait of the Murph aftermath: athletes propped up against the wall underneath the stadium, crying, bewildered, obtunded, and fearful that in less than 90 minutes they would have to go back out for the next event, the speed snatch ladder.
"After Murph, going into the snatch ladder, we didn't have much time. I was looking at everyone in the corral, and everyone looked so fucked up. You could see it in their eyes.
"Kara Webb passed out after Murph and said she came to when she was being wheeled into the medical area. When I went out for my run, Annie [Thorisdottir] was walking back – like she was taking a slow stroll. If I had anything left, I would have chased her down as much as I could have.
"After Murph, I grabbed my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and was sitting against the wall next to Lindsey Valenzuela, who was crying, and medical people were coming over to me and asking me, 'Do you know what day it is?' because I looked pretty rough.
"I was pretty angry after Murph. I felt like, 'This is just ridiculous. I feel like we were part of a circus.'"
In none of the 30-plus sporting events I've covered in the past three years have I ever witnessed such wanton neglect for the well-being of the athletes.
Maddy Myers, the 18 year old junior Olympic weightlifter and CrossFit Games rookie, was hospitalized after withdrawing from competition, suspected case of exertional rhabdomyolysis.
Anne Thorisdotttir, who has been crowned twice as the Fittest Woman on Earth, wrote on her Instagram account:
"I had difficulty standing and my vision was blurred. The medical staff on site brought me in and made sure I was healthy enough to continue in the competition. 1.5 hours and 2.5L of saline solution later I was standing on the floor to do the snatch ladder."
She later withdrew from the competition.
Infrared surface temp readings in the range of 120-150 degrees were recorded by our EMS staff in the soccer and tennis stadiums, yet the Games staff never batted an eye nor asked if it was safe to continue competition.
Dave Castro, the oft-ridiculed Ryan Seacrest of the CrossFit Games, and Justin Bergh, general manager of the CrossFit Games, unceremoniously sauntered into the medical treatment area following Murph, had a short discussion with the medical director, then walked out.
No apologies, no outward expression of concern toward the affected athletes. Nothing.
Suggestions to CrossFit HQ
- Apologize immediately to your athletes and community for not taking every measure to ensure the safety and integrity of the sport.
This is a tall order, but a necessary one to demonstrate that you understand important changes need to be made.
- Recognize that you have a groundswell of medical expertise at your disposal that is currently going underutilized because you insist on believing that you know as much – if not more – than they do.
There are established guidelines set by the American Medical Society of Sports Medicine that need to be followed to protect your athletes, which is more important than promoting your brand, renewing contracts with your sponsors, or securing increased airtime on ESPN.
Without your athletes, without this community, you don't have a job.
Constructive Criticism or Sacrilege?
Making these bold statements will very likely get me removed from volunteering at future events, as CrossFit HQ has historically interpreted constructive criticism as sacrilege.
I've never volunteered out of self-interest to shamelessly promote myself nor to get a free backstage pass. I started volunteering in 2013 when I saw a grave need to improve the medical treatment and management of a population of athletes that currently wasn't being addressed by the entity that represented them.
I will continue to do so in my practice and at local level events, but for those Regionals and Games athletes who I've had the pleasure of getting to know personally over the years I would strongly encourage you to speak up.
If you want the standard of care to improve, if you want physicians like me to continue to serve as your advocates and have a seat at HQ's roundtable, please voice your opinion.
Otherwise, CrossFit will continue to do as they "see fit."
Update: I received word recently that CrossFit will not be allowing me to take part in any volunteering capacity this Games season. This is all-encompassing. That means staff members were told I was not to be a part of any Regional event medical team service. I'm not upset so much as I am disappointed that HQ would knowingly diminish the standard of care available to their athletes, all because of a personal dispute.
Related: A Doctor's View of CrossFit
About the Author
Dr. Adam Schulte is a primary care sports medicine physician based in Fort Worth, Texas. He has served as the medical team lead at four CrossFit Regional Events, medical staff at three CrossFit Games, and has provided medical services at numerous local-level CrossFit affiliate events. He has conducted three medical studies focused on the CrossFit population, and has been an active member of the CrossFit community since 2011.