CrossFit Games Debate: Regionals Vs. Semifinals

Two arrows, one marked old way and the other new way, above the text CrossFit Games Qualification.

The CrossFit Games Semifinals have started, and it’s time to decide whether the brand new format is better than the old Regionals system.

The quick lowdown:

  • Regionals around the world used to test athletes with the exact same workouts in selecting competitors for the CrossFit Games Finals.
  • The new Semifinals format has athletes doing very different workouts at each qualifying event (some of which have been forced online by the pandemic).
A head shot of writer Mike Warkentin and the column name "Pressing It Out."

I Miss the Old Format

Tracking event records across Regionals was one of the coolest parts of the previous style of qualification. It was like having a prop bet at the Super Bowl, and it generated a lot of excitement—for the athletes, too.

Almost all the top competitors knew about the world records and wanted to set them in events in their wheelhouses. That would add a lot of excitement to the proceedings even if the certain winner on site was well ahead of the rest of the field.

I remember specifically talking to Noah Ohlsen before Event 3 at the 2018 Atlantic Regional, and he had his sights set on a record in a test with muscle-ups, handstand walks and single-leg squats. He missed it due to a few no-reps, but the heat he utterly dominated was all the more fun because he was racing for a world record.

Here’s a Mat Fraser event record made all the more exciting by the fact that Scott and Saxon Panchik were also ahead of the event record pace at times:

The Old Format Had Some Flaws (and So Does the New Deal)

The other interesting aspect of uniform Regionals: They ensured everyone generally had the skills and work capacity required to compete at the next level. Because Dave Castro and CrossFit staff oversaw programming of Regionals and the Games, they could “screen out” athletes who lacked certain skills they knew would be essential at the next level—like handstand walking.

Nevertheless, the strange and wonderful tests of the CrossFit Games Finals often made that fact irrelevant: Many strong Regionals athletes couldn’t swim well; others were poor long-distance runners or cyclists; and some were completely unable to adapt to odd challenges involving sledgehammers, pegboards and other gear not seen at the Regional level.

Programming Flaws and Bandwidth Problems

The same problem shows up at Semifinals now in a different way: Certain events can favour certain athletes—a fact not lost on viewers.

For example, @alli_eramo had this to say about a recent Granite Games event announcement: “If you aren’t a high power/sprint athlete … I bet they are regretting picking GG as their sanctional … all these workouts seem to favor that type of athlete.”

If a programming bias happens to show up at a Semifinal—or if it’s forced upon organizers by venue features, equipment availability, time constraints or other limitations—you could end up with a few very lucky athletes on the podium.

It’s just a fact of life that any qualifying event won’t have the bandwidth to test all aspects of fitness as well as the Games themselves. That was true in 2018, and it’s true now.

For data nerds, it will be fascinating to see if some 2021 Semifinals select better Games athletes than others. Or if some eliminate competitors who might have dominated had they reached the Finals.

And then there’s the wild card: about half the Semifinals events are online this year due to COVID restrictions.

That means athletes will have to earn their spots without being able to race a competitor in the next lane, and we all know judging controversies will appear without doubt. I wouldn’t want to be the person who has to review sketchy event footage and count reps—but I have a ton of respect for organizers who are making the best of a bad hand during a pandemic.

I Like the New Format

It’s worth noting that some Regional events got incredibly tedious for fans by the final weekend of competition. Not that they were bad tests of fitness. But you can only watch so many burpees and wall balls, for example, before your thumbs start itching to search for then-and-now celebrity photos or fail videos on Kookslams. Some workouts just didn’t age well for viewers over several weekends of competition.

The new format definitely keeps things fresh with fresh tests at every competition, and it allows event organizers to get creative with the space, gear and resources at their disposal.

For example, the first event of the Torian Pro competition Down Under featured 14 km of running, biking and rowing. I love it. The Echo Bike shows up in Event 4 in Australia, the Granite Games will use a ski erg and a Torque sled, and the Mid-Atlantic CrossFit Challenge will feature a TrueForm Runner and Torque sled. I’m sure more regional wrinkles will show up. The weirder, the better as far as I’m concerned.

I also hope regional organizers are able to use the features of their venue and city to create cool tests. I’d love to see more outside and off-site events, even though I know they’re incredibly tough to organize.

The Verdict

I’ll go out on a limb and say the Semifinal format is an improvement on Regionals simply for the variety it allows.

I like seeing what creative minds around the world can come up with to challenge athletes. That’s no sleight to CrossFit’s programming back in the day. I loved coaching athletes at Regionals, covering competitions from San Diego to Madrid, and being part of a uniform worldwide test.

In 2021, I just think it’s really cool to allow different regional “Hunger Games” Gamemakers the chance to offer tribute to the CrossFit Games Finals through their own selection gauntlets.

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