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Why Men and Women Are Always Equal in CrossFit

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BY MIKE WARKENTIN
July 15th, 2018

In 2007, Wimbledon made a change to award equal prize money to men and women.

It was the last major tennis tournament to do so, and it was behind the U.S. Open by 34 years.

That same year, the Sport of Fitness was born, and equality was a prominent feature from Day 1.

In the first CrossFit Games, held June 30-July 1, 2007, in Aromas, California, James FitzGerald and Jolie Gentry (now Gentry Macias) were both awarded US$500.

Dave Castro hands a wad of cash to 2007 CrossFit Games winner Jolie Gentry. The men’s champion received the same amount. (Staff/CrossFit Journal)
Dave Castro, Director of the CrossFit Games, explained why the prizes were equal.

“When we first created the CrossFit Games in 2007 and decided to award cash prizes for the winners of events and the overall title, it never even crossed my mind to do anything but make the amounts equal. We do not look to major sports or leagues for guidance on how to handle our sport. We make decisions based on what’s right for our sport, and oftentimes that has to do with what’s fair, morally and ethically,” he said.

Nicole Carroll was an athlete and coach at CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman’s original gym, and she was featured in the “Nasty Girls” video many women have pointed to as their reason for starting CrossFit. Carroll is now CrossFit’s Co-Director of Certification and Training. She said equal prize money came about because equality was always part of CrossFit.

“It was not part of our culture to even consider that women are not equal or that their performance should not be as equally valued,” Carroll recalled.

The pattern hasn’t changed over the years. When a major sponsor signed on to increase the prize money in 2011, the total purse grew dramatically, but the split remained exactly equal.

“The discussion wasn’t even had about the cash prizes being higher for the men and less for the women,” Castro said of the era when prize money jumped to six figures. “We just did what we all intuitively knew was right: equal prizes for both genders.

“I can’t imagine what message it would have sent to our athletes and, more importantly, our community if we would have given the men more than the women. It’s frankly just wrong.”

In 2017, Mat Fraser and Tia-Clair Toomey both took home $285,000 for winning the Games, and this year’s champs will walk away with $300,000.

Nicole Carroll lifts at the original CrossFit box in Santa Cruz, California, in 2007. (Staff/CrossFit Journal)
Not so in other sports.

Forbes’ 2018 list of the world’s highest-paid athletes is a boys’ club. No females are on the list, though one might suggest Serena Williams would have made it had she not taken time off in 2017 to have a baby. In another article, Forbes noted that Williams had made $27 million in prize money and endorsements in a 12-month period.

Forbes noted Williams is an anomaly: “Her earnings between June 2016 and June 2017 of $27 million from prize money and endorsements are twice the total from any other female athlete in the world.”

Tennis, of course, is an exception. Women in most sports are not treated as equals. For but one dramatic example, you need only look at basketball. The average NBA salary is about $5.7 million, while the average WNBA salary is about $72,000. The maximum salary in the WNBA is less than $116,000. Stephen Curry and LeBron James both made over $33 million in the 2017-2018 season.

Revenue and economics clearly play a part in the disparity, but that doesn’t mean the disparity can be disregarded.

If Serena Williams is an outlier in the sports world, so is CrossFit. But that’s always been the case.

CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman was kicked out of gyms repeatedly as he bucked the machine-driven, 3-sets-of-8 trend and developed his revolutionary program. Similarly, Glassman had the vision to let women train on gymnastics rings—an apparatus they’d never use in traditional gymnastics—and he had no qualms about having women compete with men or beat them in the same workout. That attitude continued when his company grew dramatically.

“Whether my involvement was with the sport of CrossFit, being a trainer at the original gym or being an executive in the company, I’ve never felt that I was given any less opportunity or pay than anyone else—especially not based on my gender,” Carroll said. “If anything, I feel that I was given more opportunity due to my gender. I was given the opportunity to compete and win against men. At a certain point, this was even expected of me.”

Carroll congratulates Julie Foucher at the finish line of the Camp Pendleton endurance test at the Games in 2012. Foucher beat all but eight men in the event. (Nicole Bedard/CrossFit Journal)
In the early days of CrossFit, when most people were coming to seminars after years of isolation training and what Glassman called “the dumbing down of PT,” Carroll was given the chance to prove CrossFit’s efficacy by beating men in tests including overhead-squat showdowns.

“During each seminar, my job was to beat the men using the same loading,” Carroll said. “The bigger, the fitter, the more alpha those men were, the better.

“The idea behind this—and this is important—was not to shame men or anyone else. These men often held jobs where a lack of fitness could cost their lives or the lives of others, and we wanted to shame the damn PT they were wasting their time with. It was effective. It was not uncommon to hear things like this: ‘I cannot believe a 5-foot-2 pottery teacher from the hippie high school in Santa Cruz just overhead-squatted more than me.’

“From there, it was very difficult for them to deny that what we were doing was more effective than what they’d been doing.”

Carroll said the men she beat never once responded with anger or arrogance. It was clear, even in those early seminars, that CrossFit culture places respect and hard work above all else.

For years, Glassman and his staff never posted “women’s weights” to CrossFit.com. The load was the load, and to hell with the chromosomes. CrossFit.com only recently started posting loads for women, but that was in response to a mountain of requests for help with scaling. The women’s loads are guidelines only. Strong, fit women are more than welcome to go head-to-head with their male counterparts in any workout.

Go ahead. Beat the boys. We encourage it.

In CrossFit competition, women are often given a chance to compete against men, either by comparison after the fact or in mass-start events that are easier to run at the Games, where space and logistics are lesser concerns.

For example, consider Emily Bridgers’ recent time in Regional Event 3, a triplet featuring muscle-ups, handstand walks and single-leg squats. Her 8:21—a record among women—places her seventh overall on a leaderboard that combines both sexes. Helen Harding, the 68th and last woman to complete all the work before the 13-minute time cap, would have placed 161st on a combined leaderboard—one spot ahead of 2014 Games veteran Eric Carmody. Many men could not log all the reps before the time cap, meaning 68 women bested more than 150 Regional-level men in an event that was the same for both sexes.

In Run Swim Run at the 2017 Games, eventual champion Tia-Clair Toomey beat every male except Brent Fikowski—and she was less than a second behind him. In previous years, Sam Briggs, Julie Foucher and others provided similar moments. You can expect more in the future.

2016 at The Ranch: Sam beat him. (Naveen Hattis/CrossFit Journal)
It’s in our DNA to treat men and women as equals and celebrate the accomplishments of women who ignore outdated, misguided gender roles and refuse to be called “the weaker sex.” Equality is simply part of CrossFit.

“A funny thing about CrossFit is that we’ve always been edgy and, at times, quite irreverent in language or humor, but true sportsmanship, hard work and respect are the pillars upon which our culture has been built,” Carroll said.

She continued: “It makes me proud to be part of an organization with roots in such an ethos, and these roots inspire a passionate determination to see these values carried on for all who come in contact with our sport.”

And so prize money will always be equal at the Games, regardless of whether other sports follow suit.

It is—and always has been—the right thing to do.

Correction: Updated to state 2017 Games champions won $285,000.

Cover image: Michael Brian/CrossFit Journal

About the Author: Mike Warkentin is the managing editor of the CrossFit Journal and the founder of CrossFit 204.