Tia Toomey is the first athlete ever to compete at the CrossFit Games and the Olympics in the same year. On July 24, she finished second at the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games for her second silver-medal CrossFit Games finish in a row. And she just finished 14th in the world in weightlifting’s 58-kilo class, at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Roy Masters is a 74-year-old Australian sports journalist who has focused his career on rugby league football. Masters does not know much about weightlifting. He knows even less about CrossFit.
Masters penned an article on Toomey’s unprecedented accomplishment, “World CrossFit Games runner-up Tia Toomey finds Rio 2016 a different beast.” He appended Toomey’s Olympic results to her CrossFit Games finish with a “but,” instead of an “and.” Masters seems to think that Toomey’s CrossFit Games finish diminished her weightlifting performance. He concluded from the CrossFit Games that,
clearly all that exercise, including bizarre events such as handstand walking, ocean swimming and “suicide sprinting” does not prepare a woman for the snatch and the clean and jerk of Olympic weightlifting.
Bizarre? Who would apply that label to suicide sprints–a staple of athletic strength and conditioning for decades before CrossFit–and ocean swimming–a pasttime enjoyed by millions that can be essential for survival? Perhaps Masters is unaware that the Kona Ironman Triathlon World Championship has included a 2.4-mile ocean swim for decades.
The geriatric sports writer even derided Toomey as “accustomed to the 17-exercise routine of CrossFit competition.” Masters literally must have glanced at the 2016 CrossFit Games events, miscounted them, and then falsely assumed that the events remain the same every year.
Masters’ article constitutes journalism like guessing an appropriate tip while counting on your fingers constitutes mathematics. He did not trouble himself with basic research. CrossFit Games events are the opposite of a “routine”–they vary every year and the athletes only learn what they are weeks, days, or even hours ahead of time. The individual competition included over 30 different movements this year (the exact number depends on whether you classify movements with varying loading and/or contexts as distinct–e.g., is a suicide sprint different from a long hill run or a run in a weight vest?).
The idea that CrossFit detracted from Toomey’s weightlifting is also flawed in an obvious way: CrossFit is the reason Toomey qualified for the Olympics in weightlifting. According to the Australian athlete, “If it hadn’t been for CrossFit, I wouldn’t be going to Rio.” Clearly Masters did not give Toomey the opportunity to correct his ignorant thesis when he interviewed her. Perhaps Masters listened to the Australian weightlifters that Toomey edged out, who protested her Olympic slot.
Or maybe Masters was influenced by the dogmas of exercise science. Much of exercise science has considered the development of endurance to conflict with training for strength and power. To be sure, there are some good reasons to perceive such a conflict–athletes who excel at distance running or triathlons rarely demonstrate impressive strength and power at the same time. The performance of Toomey and her fellow CrossFit Games athletes, however, challenges this paradigm. If an athlete can excel in an event that includes distance running, distance swimming and high-rep bodyweight exercises, and two weeks later finish 14th in the world in a test of strength, speed and power, perhaps the human body is capable of more than we thought. Toomey and her fellow CrossFit Games athletes are surpassing arbitrary limits emanating from dogma. Isn’t that what the Olympics are about? Isn’t that what sports are about?
Let’s consider what someone with actual experience in CrossFit and competitive weightlifting had to say about Toomey’s accomplishments. Matt Bergeron took 8th place in the 2015 USAW Nationals in the 85-kilo class. He posted,
At the current rate of the 58kg women’s A session, Toomey will finish at 14th place, and if she had made her last clean and jerk, she would have finished 12th, which after competing at the CrossFit Games 2 weeks or so ago, is a pretty gangster achievement for your first Olympic Games.
Finally, we may be accustomed in the west to seeing weightlifting training as an endless procession of snatches, cleans, squats and their variants. But is it so strange for weightlifters to run, jump and perform gymnastic movements? Many Chinese weightlifters perform a wider variety of exercises to build strength, muscle and develop general conditioning. For example, Kirksman Teo, a Malaysian weightlifter with a Chinese weightlifting coach, described the early stage of training for Chinese weightlifters:
… many exercises that seemingly don’t relate to weightlifting are used. Athletes at younger ages from 6 onwards, begin from gymnastics work, such as tumbling, handstands, flips and a whole lot of bodyweight work to create a good strength structure. They also sprint and jump to develop their explosive abilities. The coaches believe it’s necessary to start them young, but they don’t lift weights immediately.
(Other sources support Teo’s account).
Handstands and sprints? These “bizarre” movements pays dividends, and this broad stimulus continues throughout their careers. Take these weighted handstand push-ups, for example. Or check out Lu Xiaojun and Liao Hui performing human flags and weighted bar dips with 75 kg:
Have Lu’s gymnastics movements detracted from his weightlifting? His Olympic gold medal, world records in the snatch and the total, and three world championships suggest otherwise. As for Toomey, she started CrossFit in 2013 and began competing in weightlifting 18 months ago. Yet she already reached the Olympics in weightlifting, a sport where competitors often begin training for hours daily before they reach their teens.
Imagine what Toomey will accomplish at the 2020 Olympic Games with four more years of solid training under her belt. Perhaps by then the Sydney Morning Herald will have hired someone with a basic knowledge of CrossFit and weightlifting to write about these subjects.