It was 2014, and Chris Spealler was the last man on the tennis stadium floor.
He faced the final barbell of the Speed Clean Ladder Quarterfinal: 275 lb., almost twice his body weight. Everyone else had cleared the ladder a good 40 seconds earlier.
Speal gripped and ripped but tipped forward before he could stand the weight up. The barbell spilled to the floor as the crowd sighed a collective “Oh!”
As he took a step back to shake out his hands, the crowd crescendoed again, chanting “Speal-ler! Speal-ler!” before the chants collapsed into a cacophony of screams when he stood the weight up.
It was one of the legend’s final individual performances, and he would go on to thank the crowd later for its support.
Six years later, the CrossFit Games crowd is looking a lot different. Meaning, it’s nonexistent, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watching the livestream from home, you might not realize it at first.
The competition field at Morgan Hill on Saturday looked professional and pristine, the field dotted with platforms and placards and the perimeter lined with the usual CrossFit Games banners. It wasn’t until the cameras panned out that you saw the empty bleachers.
Of course, that doesn’t mean no one was watching.
“Can’t hear many cheers here this year, but I can feel them coming in from all over the world,” Noah Ohlsen wrote on Friday night.
Hundreds of thousands of viewers tuned in to watch the livestreams of Friday and Saturday’s events, proving that not even a pandemic can keep the fans from the world’s greatest display of fitness.
CrossFit’s not the only sport to bring its audience to the screen.
Fans of Major League Baseball can pay to catch a glimpse of their cardboard-cutout likenesses in the stadium, while the NBA is featuring its fans on 17-foot video boards behind the bench, showing fan faces on its broadcast periodically throughout play.
The arts-and-entertainment world has been forced to adapt as well. Writer-director Richard Nelson wrote and released a play designed for Zoom performances. The Barcelona Liceu opera opened its concert season to an audience of plants.
The efforts might seem ridiculous, and they beg the question: Is it worth it? What makes an auditorium full of plants more satisfying to perform for than a sea of empty seats?
“Having a crowd always makes it so much more fun to compete,” said Kari Pearce, who stood in third after Saturday’s events. “Whether it is during the introductions and when we run out or (when) trying to dig deep to finish a workout, the spectators always push me to give my very best. I’ll certainly miss that this year, but I’m glad I’ll have the other girls next to me.”
Katrin Davidsdottir echoed the sentiment.
“It gives energy. It gives adrenaline,” she said. “It celebrates with you.”
It’s a notion even the most everyday of CrossFit athletes can agree with. Who among us hasn’t been able to pull out just one more rep when surrounded by cheering friends and fellow athletes?
But virtual audiences are not new to the CrossFit Games, which have been broadcast since 2010. And you won’t find any cardboard cutouts or robot mannequins on the sidelines at the Ranch or in Morgan Hill.
Maybe that’s because while crowd support is powerful, top-tier athletes don’t need it.
“I don’t mind that there’s no crowd,” Mat Fraser said after winning Snatch Speed Triple. “It’s the same for me; I’m looking to the guys to the right and left of me, I’m trying to tap every ounce of my potential. With all the changes, I still focus on me, and I have full control over that.”
It’s not that the crowd energy isn’t nice. It’s just that when you’re competing with the best of the best, it’s best not to rely on crutches. Maybe that’s why Mat doesn’t train with music.
“I like to hear my breathing, be in my own thoughts and just focus on the task at hand,” he said.
Tia-Clair Toomey, reigning three-time CrossFit Games champion and current leader, agreed.
“I’m just so focused on what I’ve gotta do that the surroundings — it doesn’t play an effect at all,” she said.
After all, to be the fittest in the world, you’ve got to learn to be at your best when you’re alone and uncomfortable. Besides, CrossFit’s all about preparing for the unknown and unknowable, right? It’s unlikely that a bear will give you a countdown and play your favorite Motörhead track when it decides to chase you down for lunch.
So maybe a spectator-less Games isn’t so bad. Sure, we all miss the beers, the reunions, and emptying our pockets at Vendor Village. And if you were there, the athletes would surely appreciate your support.
But it’s kinda cool to watch them succeed without all the pomp and circumstance — and maybe that’s exactly what we all need right now.
To know that no matter the circumstance, who’s watching or who’s not, we can still overcome obstacles and do great work.
That’s what the Games have always been about anyway, right?
Cover photo by Meg Ellery