I was born into a Yankees family. My cousins, all of two miles away in our small Connecticut town, were born Red Sox fans. This made for interesting family summer barbeques and tense autumnal moments as we groaned or cheered with each crack of the bat broadcast on our televisions.
Rivalries will do that to people.
Now that my obsession with CrossFit has dwarfed my love of baseball, basketball and other sports, I find myself wondering about rivalries and whether CrossFit will generate the kind of rivalries we see in other sports. Or is CrossFit too young of a sport to have real rivalries? CrossFit has a history of seven CrossFit Games. Maybe that’s just not enough time.
Or maybe it is just enough time. One could certainly argue that Khalipa/Froning took a step toward rivalry with the 2013 Games, or that the return of both Julie Foucher and Annie Thorisdottir this year could progress their rivalry. Also, a second year of Lindsey Valenzuela vs. Sam Briggs could turn that friendship into a rivalry.
Still, is this just wishful thinking? Let’s take a look at what makes a good rivalry.
Some people would argue that great rivals compete against each other often; absent frequently repeated action, there is no rivalry. When LeBron James was asked about a Miami Heat/Indiana Pacers rivalry, he said: “You see someone year, year, year and year after year and you guys battle it out, that's when it becomes a rivalry.” James continued: “There is no real rivalry in the NBA these days. You don’t see the competition enough or play the competition a lot … Cowboys-Redskins is a rivalry. Ohio State-Michigan is a rivalry. Bears-Packers is a rivalry.”
Don’t like LeBron? Try these academics on for size: “Prior interaction is central to rivalry, as relationships are generally formed over time and via repeated interaction.”
Think about the great women’s tennis rivalry of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert in the 1970s and ’80s: these two women played each other 80 times in 16 years, with 60 of those matches being the finals of major tournaments. Yale and Harvard play annually in college football, as do Auburn and Alabama. University of North Carolina and Duke meet twice each year in college basketball.
The UConn women’s basketball team used to square off against the Tennessee women at least twice a year and seemed on the verge of creating a long-lasting basketball rivalry, replete with the moniker “The Evil Empire.” Once these two teams failed to compete in regularly scheduled season games, the rivalry faded.
But we also have Ali-Frazier considered to be one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports history, and that rivalry consisted of two boxers who only fought each other three times.
CrossFit athletes compete each year in the Open, the Regionals and the Games. Is that enough frequency to support rivalry formation, whether at the Games and/or at the regional or Open levels? Maybe.
2. Reasonably matched competitors
It would seem that a great rivalry would need great athletes of similar caliber, so the contests would be evenly matched. Or, as simply as Faith Hill sang: “The champion wants a challenger who just might have the strength to take him down.” Again the academics would agree: “Great similarity may breed greater rivalry.”
As the 2013 Games progressed, we in the CrossFit world watched excitedly as Rich Froning chased down Jason Khalipa to win the title. That match-up would certainly point to a rivalry formation.
The storied Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers rivalry also would support this point, as would many others. But is it a great rivalry if one actor is repeatedly dominant in performance over the other actor? Again, maybe. See: Canada-U.S. in Olympic hockey. Also, the New York Yankees won 25 World Series in the 20th century while the Red Sox did not win one championship between 1918 and 2004. Hmmm. Maybe parity is not that important in a rivalry.
3. Exists in the mind of at least one of the competitors
You can’t have a rivalry if no one thinks it’s a rivalry. (See: me vs. Talayna Fortunato.) But the interesting point here is that both actors don’t have to believe it’s a rivalry—it only takes one to tango. And the important factor is actually the less-talented competitor because he or she has the most to gain from the formation of the rivalry. “It may be the case that actors try to present themselves as rivals to high-status competitors to gain status by association.”
Let’s go back to the Celtics-Lakers: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were obsessed with playing each other. Bird said: “The first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn’t care about anything else.” Their rivalry was apparent to both of them and to fans.
But have we heard many top CrossFit athletes talk about their competition being one or two people in particular? Or have most of them talked about competing against themselves? Can a rivalry exist among 30 people in a competition? Or must it be between two players or teams?
4. Not mentioned by the researchers, but let’s talk about the fans
Passionate fans amp up the rivalry, pure and simple. The screaming fans turn everything up a notch. As a kid, I learned this early when the Red Sox fans would chant “Yankees suck” on our Catholic school playground. Trips to Yankee Stadium taught me anatomical terms for acts performed by Red Sox players.
There is seldom any love lost between the fans of true rivals. But in CrossFit, the fans are often supportive of everyone on the floor of competition, not just their own favorite athletes. Can you ever imagine a group of Khalipa fans chanting “Froning sucks” at the CrossFit Games? And would we even want that? My guess is no.
Still, the idea of rivalries is intriguing. There’s an appealing mystique to the concept. Some folks might argue that the potential for rivalry is greater in the team competition at the Games, or that perhaps the CrossFit community is already engaged in a rivalry with the rest of the fitness world. There is something primal about enduring sports rivalries, something that makes you long for them in CrossFit. Maybe we’ll see more of them in the future.
What do you think?