What Separates a Games Athlete From a Regional Athlete?

June 10, 2016

Mike Macpherson

We answer that question, and look at trends in the Games field over the past five years.

Forty women and 40 men persevered through the crucible of regionals, managing to secure for themselves that most elusive prize: an invitation to the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games.

Those 80 athletes distinguished themselves from a pool of 660 that competed at regionals this year. This got us to thinking: how, if at all, does an individual Games athlete look or perform differently from a regional athlete?

Using the athlete data reported here on the CrossFit Games site, we took the averages from this year’s Games athletes over ten personal and performance characteristics, and contrasted them with the averages of regional athletes that did not qualify this year. Here’s the result:

For example, the average clean and jerk reported for female Games athletes is 222 lb., compared with 203 lb. for non-Games-qualifying regional athletes. By and large, the numbers are (absolutely breathtaking and) very similar between the two groups. Games athletes, however, tend to be about a year younger, a few pounds heavier, and a few percentage points better in each of the performance categories, all of which makes sense.

The rows in the table are sorted by how well they distinguish Games athletes from regional athletes, using a t-statistic, if you remember that from stats class. So the items at the top, which are the Olympic lifts for both women and men, are what most separate Games athletes from regional athletes in a statistical sense. Athlete height is the least significant between Games and regional athletes for both women and men, which makes sense because the average values are nearly the same.

Stars mark the measures that really do appear to differ statistically between Games and regionals athletes. For the remaining rows, even though there’s some difference between the averages, there’s so much overlap between Games athletes and regional athletes that there’s no evidence that there’s a real difference between the groups.

Proficiency in the Olympic lifts, i.e. the snatch and clean and jerk, stands out for both women and men as a distinguishing feature of a Games athlete. For the women, the power lifts, i.e. the squat and deadlift, are also different. For the men, Games athletes are also stronger in the power lifts, and the differences nearly reach statistical significance. This all suggests that strength, especially the ability to apply that strength dynamically, is the biggest difference between a Games athlete and a regional athlete.

The twisted sisters, Fran and Grace, also produce significant statistical differences among the women, and Grace makes the list for the men. This suggests that anaerobic power and/or the ability to tolerate the discomfort of anaerobic work is also a distinguishing feature of a Games athlete.

Max pull-ups, age, height, and weight appear to be about the same for Games and regional women. Male Games athletes are about five pounds heavier on average, and age is right on the cusp of statistical significance.

This is necessarily an incomplete look at what separates Games athletes from regional athletes. In particular, of the 10 general physical skills, endurance and stamina are not well-represented here. The Games site does collect 5K run times, but it’s seldom reported by athletes so we haven’t shown it here.

Trends in the Games Field

Among these movements that separate Games athletes from regional athletes, how have they changed in recent years? We plotted the trends from 2012 to 2016 to have a look:

For the Games men, it looks like across all these performance measures, they may be reaching a plateau—while there are those like Mat Fraser and Ben Smith who snatch more than 300 and clean and jerk more than 350, those may not become average numbers for a while yet. In contrast, the Games women mostly continue to show steady gains, and it’s not clear where they might plateau.

Roughly, it seems like the 2016 regional athlete averages are about three years behind the 2016 Games athlete averages. In a limited sense, a 2013 Games athlete is like a 2016 regional athlete. This aligns with the programming—the 3 rounds of 7 deadlifts at 405/275 lb. we saw in 2016’s Regional Event 5 (aka, ‘Corediac Arrest’) was presaged by the 2013 Games finale "The Cinco 1,” which featured an, at the time, gasp-inducing 3 rounds of 5 deadlifts at 405/265 lb. This makes one pretty curious about what a 2019 Games athlete may look like. If the men truly are reaching a plateau in terms of strength, Games athletes might need to find new ways to distinguish themselves. 

Rookies vs Vets

In researching this article, we also took a look at rookie vs. veteran stats in the Games field over the years. Interestingly, it was mostly totally uninteresting—rookies are a little younger (big surprise), a little lighter, maybe a little weaker, but for the most part there’s no difference. Except for this gem, which compares average Games ranks for rookies and vets from 2012 to 2015:

The rookies, in green naturally, have been closing in on the vets since 2012, to the point where in 2015 there was very little difference in performance. This is not driven by outstanding rookies, like Mat Fraser’s second-place finish in 2014/2015 and Sara Sigmundsdottir’s third-place finish in 2015; you see essentially the same pattern if you use the median instead of the mean.

Time will tell, but if the performance difference at the Games is eroding between rookies and vets, what might be behind this? A couple of ideas: it might be that Games “rookies” these days are generally actually pretty seasoned competitors, through high-level team competition or multiple regional appearances. It might also be that through the Games ESPN coverage and the collective experience of the training community showing how best to the prepare for the Games, it’s becoming clearer what will be expected of athletes at the Games. Or perhaps with the increasing demands of the Games, youth and the ability to recover quickly are becoming relatively more valuable.

Edit: This article initially incorrectly reported that Sara Sigmundsdottir took second in the 2015 Games, when she took third.