The Castro conference. | YouTube


Since 1993, the Kick it Out campaign has challenged discrimination in football. Yet, despite the continued racism, football just carries on. Former FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, sparked controversy in 2011 for saying that racist abuse on the pitch “could be settled with a handshake”. But even if his comments lead to every player going on strike; for fans to boycott stadiums and every club to go bankrupt, the sport- in which a round ball is kicked about until one team sticks it in the back of the net- would still live on in our minds and hearts. Kill all the institutions you like but the beautiful game will never die.

Only I’m not here to talk about football. I’m here to talk about the much younger, less well-defined sport of CrossFit. You might have never heard of the self-proclaimed ‘sport of fitness’, but an insensitive comment made by its owner and founder, Greg Glassman, has me questioning its immortality.

On June 7th, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation tweeted that ‘Racism is a public health issue’, with the words printed in bold upper case on a black background. Glassman, who founded CrossFit in 2000 as a tonic for the obesity epidemic, felt the need to weigh in on the IHME’s stance. “It’s FLOYD-19”, he commented, a direct reference to the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

Fans, sponsors, affiliates and athletes found his comment short and distasteful. Reebok, CrossFit’s official sponsor, immediately cut ties with the brand. Among other athletes, last year’s runner up, Noah Olsen, announced that he would not compete in this year’s CrossFit Games.

Glassman immediately issued an apology, stating, “I, CrossFit HQ, and the CrossFit community will not stand for racism. I made a mistake by the words I chose yesterday. My heart is deeply saddened by the pain it has caused. It was a mistake, not racist but a mistake.”

That might have been the end of it, but two days later the news website released audio recordings of Glassman on a private Zoom call. In the conversation- that happened just over an hour before his incendiary tweet- Glassman talked to gym owners and staff about conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd. Glassman says in the audio clips: “I was asked by the Italians, ‘what would you do, coach?’ And I said: ‘I would agree to any restrictions put on me by the health authorities, and I would open my gym, and then 10 minutes later I would do whatever the fuck I wanted. That’s what I would do.’” He went on to say that “We’re not mourning for George Floyd – I don’t think me or any of my staff are.”

Before Glassman’s comments, CrossFit Inc. had over 15,000 affiliate gyms around the world, in 150 countries. Each pays a $3,000 annual affiliation fee. Now many are cutting ties with the company. According to Morning Chalkup- a CrossFit newsletter- hundreds of gyms have already cancelled their affiliation and over 1000 have stated their intention to end their relationship with CrossFit.

In an attempt to steady the ship, Glassman resigned as CEO of the company on June 10th, replaced by long-serving director of the CrossFit Games, Dave Castro. Many Twitter followers were unsatisfied with the change in leadership, complaining that Glassman still retains a 100 per cent stake in the company. Apart from a CEO title, not much has changed in the company hierarchy.

There are other warning signs that appointing Castro might not quell the storm. At a CrossFit Games press conference last year, a reporter asked Castro about plans for increasing diversity in the sport. Sitting next to a row of Caucasian athletes, Castro held the microphone to his face, smiled awkwardly at the reporter for about ten seconds, and then seemingly changed the subject. At least, that is how it is currently being reported.

What he actually said, after the question on diversity was posed, was that the first event for the competitors would be a water event. Was he changing the subject? Or was Castro making a subtle remark about black athletes and their natural handicap in the water? (The lack of competitive black swimmers is well documented. This isn’t an issue of racial discrimination, but to do with differences in fat storage between Blacks and Caucasians and the associated buoyancy.) I might be reading too much into it, but Castro is known for being a cunning character, releasing cryptic photos on his social media that serve as clues for upcoming workouts and events. Such a sly riposte is not beyond him.

So, what happens if Dave Castro was not the leader-in-waiting that can appease the public? What if the dominoes continue to fall and CrossFit Inc. ceases to operate? Will the ‘sport of fitness’ fade into a ‘noughties fad like aerobics in the ‘80s? Or can it live on, independent of its institutional roots?

I think so. I see parallels between ‘the sport of fitness’ and obstacle course racing. Many have complained about the arbitrary nature of CrossFit events, with this subjectivity preventing CrossFit from ever being a clearly defined sport.

But just as Dave Castro chooses which events comprise every CrossFit Games, Spartan Race Inc. (the global leader in the sport of OCR) organisers have carte blanche over which obstacles challenge competitors in their races. And, despite the arbitrary nature of the sport, obstacle course racing is scaling its way to inclusion in the Olympic Games.

Until now, the ‘sport of fitness’ and its founding company have been inextricably tied. But if OCR can be considered a sport independent of institutions like Spartan Race Inc., then I have faith that the ‘sport of fitness’ can survive the death of CrossFit Incorporated. After his careless remarks, Glassman might have to accept that the sport he spawned is finally fleeing the withering nest.