209,585: Rise of the Open

March 27, 2014

Hilary Achauer

How does participation in the 2014 CrossFit Games Open compare to other large-scale athletic competitions? More importantly, what is it about this five-week online competition that gets people so…

“Our gym has really come together through the shared experience of the Open.”
~Kate Denny

Photo by Chris Nolan

Photo by Alicia Anthony

Photo by Alicia Anthony

Photo by Shaun Cleary

Landscape photo by Shaun Cleary

In 2014, 209,585 people signed up for the CrossFit Games Open, a five-week, online, worldwide qualifier for the CrossFit Games—a competition to find the Fittest on Earth.

The Guinness World Record for the most participants in a racing event was set by the Run for Pasig River in Manila, Philippines on Oct. 10, 2010. The event, which included three simultaneous races, had 116,086 participants. The Kahit Isang Araw Unity Run on Jan. 22, 2012 in Manila, which had 209,000 registered runners, unofficially broke that record.

About 36,000 runners are registered for the 2014 Boston Marathon. More than 50,000 runners participated in the five-day Walt Disney Marathon Weekend in 2014, which included a 5 km, a 10 km, a half marathon and a marathon. And from February to July 2008, 63,000 bowlers took part in the United States Bowling Congress’ Open Championships in Albuquerque, N.M., in what is called the world’s largest participatory sporting event.

Most people who sign up for these large-scale events don’t sign up to win. They don’t even sign up to place in the top 100. With no hope of placing near the top, what is the motivation to join in?

“Best-case scenario ... maybe I’ll surprise myself and accomplish something I wouldn’t have thought I could,” said Abraham Abreu, a first-time Open participant. “Even if not, I get a real hard look at my weaknesses and can make a blueprint for the next year.”

Open Growth

Each year, participation in the Open grows exponentially. In 2011, about 26,000 people signed up for the first-ever Open. The next year, 69,370 people signed up. In 2013, there were 138,619 participants, and this year registration closed with 209,585 people.

The growth tracks nicely with the number of CrossFit affiliates around the world. This averages to about 23 Open participants per affiliate each year. Of course many affiliates have many more participants than that. This year, CrossFit NYC has the most Open participants of any affiliate: 676 of their approximately 2,000 members registered for the Open this year.

You don’t have to sign up for the Open to do each of the five workouts, just like you don’t have to pay money, show up on a certain day, and wait for your assigned starting time to run 5 km.

But as anyone who has participated in a race or a competition knows, it’s not the miles or the amount of weight lifted that makes these races and competitions memorable. It’s coming together with other people and raising the stakes just a little bit; it’s pushing beyond the everyday and finding out what lies within when the gun—or the timer—goes off.

Abreu is a relatively new member of CrossFit NYC—he has been doing CrossFit for about eight months. When he first heard about the Open, he was sure it wasn’t for him. 

“I still can't do a pull-up ... what business did I have participating in the same competition as Rich Froning?” he remembered thinking.

He found his answer almost immediately. “I can be a bit shy about meeting people,” Abreu said, “so I’d been kind of popping into classes, doing my thing and leaving. The Open has helped me meet other members and start to become more a part of the awesome group of people here.”

“In total honesty, I had more or less written off the Open when I’d first heard about it,” he added. “But the coaches at my box encouraged me to sign up anyway … considering part of why I joined CrossFit in the first place was to push myself … I figured, why not?”

Kate Denny is on the other side of the Open spectrum from Abreu. She has competed in the Open for a number of years, and she’s on the competition team at CrossFit NYC.

As much as she’s focused on the competitive side of the Open, and qualifying a team for regionals, she said she loves seeing such a diverse group of people experience the Open.

“Our gym has really come together through the shared experience of the Open,” Denny said. “We have different leveled classes, so the unifying nature of the Open workouts allows individuals to connect through sharing personal difficulties and humbling experiences, regardless of class level.”

Denny is doing the best she’s ever done in the Open—she’s in the top 50 in the North East Region after 14.3—and while she’s thrilled with her individual performance, she said her favorite thing about the Open is the camaraderie among her teammates.

“We always make a point to attend another teammate’s Open attempt despite what hour it might be,” she said. “We help one another calculate strategy, stick to the pacing plan when executing a workout, and provide emotional support when something doesn’t go as planned.”

Goals and Logistics

Joshua Newman, co-founder and co-owner of CrossFit NYC, said they took a different approach when presenting the Open to their members this year.

Newman said they thought about the measurable and repeatable aspect of CrossFit, and presented a challenge to their members.

“We told them to do the Open, and see where they rank.”

Then, Newman told the members if they followed the gym’s programming and paid attention to their nutrition for a year, they would see a 10-percentile improvement in their overall rankings in 2015. For example, if most of the 2014 Open participants at CrossFit NYC placed in the 50th percentile, the goal for 2015 would be to have the majority of the participants in the 60th percentile. 

“We are using the Open as in-house testing,” Newman said. “We have a rule around here: WWGGD? It’s, ‘What would Greg Glassman do?’ The magic in CrossFit is CrossFit,” he said. Newman said setting a long-range, achievable goal made the Open accessible to everyone at CrossFit NYC.

The incentive worked. In 2013, CrossFit NYC had about 400 people participating in the Open. This year, more than 600 people signed up for the five-week challenge.

Newman said they were excited about the participation, but realized immediately that running 600-plus athletes through the Open workouts, and then making sure each score is entered and validated, would be a logistical challenge.

“We have five or six people on logistics,” Newman said. CrossFit NYC is committed to upholding a high-level of judging, so they instituted a system of checks and balances. “There’s a process in place,” Newman said. “Everything is double-checked before it’s validated.”

Running that many people through the Open means there’s been some exciting moments. Each week, CrossFit NYC shows the live Open announcement in their gym on the big screen TV. When 14.1 was announced, the couplet of double-unders and snatches, “I could see demoralized faces,” Newman said.

“Stacey, the head of community, told people it was worth doing, even if you don’t have double-unders. Then dozens of people got their first double-under in the Open,” Newman said.

He said one member came in and wasn’t even planning to set up a bar for the snatches, because he had never before done a double-under. “He made it through the second round,” Newman said, which is a total of 60 double-unders.

In This Together

It’s worthwhile to think about the sheer number of people doing the Open, and what that means. The athletes at the top of the Leaderboard get a lot of attention, but it’s really the pages and pages of athletes behind the leaders that make the Open so extraordinary.

For five weeks, thousands of people around the world are united by a challenge. Some will experience success and some disappointment, but all over the world people show up, their heart in their throats, to test themselves, to cheer on their friends and to push their limits.

Abreu, the first-time competitor, said he’s excited to see what he can accomplish between now and the 2015 Open.

“From where I stand, the only way to go is up!"



Hilary Achauer is an award-winning freelance writer and editor specializing in health and wellness content. In addition to writing articles, online content, blogs and newsletters, Hilary is an editor and writer for the CrossFit Journal and contributes to the CrossFit Games site. An amateur boxer-turned-CrossFit athlete, Hilary lives in San Diego with her husband and two small children and trains at CrossFit Pacific Beach. To contact her, visit hilaryachauer.com