by Dan Blewett T-Nation
Here's what you need to know...
Competitive bodybuilding is not a sport. Though skillful physical training is required to build the muscle that wins bodybuilding competitions, competitors are not judged on those muscle-building skills only the muscle and physique itself.
While CrossFit is a sport, 99.99% of its participants are not athletes.
You may live and breathe CrossFit, bodybuilding, powerlifting, and Olympic-lifting, but the athlete label may not apply to you. Signing up for competitions doesn't earn you that label unless you're a champion or close to it.
Participation ribbons don't count.
Since CrossFit came on the scene, there's been heated debate behind the CrossFit Games. Are their athletes really athletes? Is CrossFit a sport at all? And, what about bodybuilding is it a sport? Can one really be a "pro" in the lifting world? I've got answers to all of these questions.
First, Let's Define Sport
Here's the standard definition: An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.
We've all had this discussion before. In college, I majored in Philosophy, and our roundtable definition of a sport was similar to the Oxford's:
A contest of athletic prowess, played according to a set of predefined rules, for the purpose of mass entertainment.
To boil it down further, we all surely must agree that a sport contains the following elements:
Athletic or physical prowess
Entertainment value to participants and onlookers
Athletic prowess is what sets a sport apart from a hobby, art, pageant, or game. Chess, for example, is a game. It's competitive, but the skill is intellectual and not dependent on the physical exertion of the chess player. And entertainment of fans is what separates real sports from snow-shoveling contests, pillow fights, and Olympic curling (who watches that nonsense?).
Bodybuilding Is Not A Sport. Period.
Delay that death threat you're currently typing and let's reason our way through this:
All sports compare physical exertion or the athletic prowess of the competitors.
Bodybuilding contests do not compare the physical exertion or athletic prowess of the competitors; they are not criteria for winning.
Therefore, competitive bodybuilding is not a sport.
Sorry, folks, but it's pretty cut and dry. Though skillful physical training is required to build the muscle that wins bodybuilding competitions, competitors aren't judged on those muscle-building skills, only the muscle and physique itself. Sure, posing is required to best represent one's physique, but, again, while the posing is important, it's only important to showcase what's being judged the physique.
In the end, how much a bodybuilder squats, benches, or deadlifts is irrelevant. Bodybuilders don't run, jump, or perform any athletic task on stage as criteria for winning. (The very early days of bodybuilding did, however.) Today it's a contest of comparative physical aesthetics and one models his or her body as the sole means to victory. Understand that this doesn't make bodybuilding less great, less important, or less of anything. It just objectively doesn't fit the definition of a sport.
Competitive CrossFit Is A Sport
The main argument against CrossFit is best articulated by the infamous Kenny Powers:
"I play real sports. I'm not trying to be the best at exercising!"
Before we start, understand that I'm referring to CrossFit and CrossFit-style competitions, not the average Joe participating in a CrossFit workout. The latter isn't a sport because there's no competition that would interest a fan base; it's exercise. The purpose of visiting the local CrossFit box is health and fitness. At a CrossFit competition, however, the purpose is to compare CrossFit workout prowess against other very skilled CrossFitters and therein lies the difference, and this difference draws fans.
People watch the best CrossFitters on TV and attendance at local events is growing. But that's just the thing the CrossFit Games have a stage, as does a weightlifting meet. Your local facility does not, and posting your time on the CrossFit website doesn't count. "The sport of fitness" is a sport only when it's a sport, and is fitness when it's fitness. Got it? Didn't think so. But, reverting to our definition above, let's run CrossFit competition against the checklist:
Athletic skill or exertion? Check.
Entertainment? There's clearly a growing fan base, so check.
Therefore, CrossFit is a sport.
So Why All The Hate?
CrossFit gets jeers because some think that "real sports" require a ball. Sure, the most popular sports in the world all use a ball soccer, baseball, football, basketball, cricket, and hockey (puck). But, although it appears to be criteria for maintaining a big fan base and thus creating big salaries, it's by no means a requirement for being a sport. Rather, the people who say that the CrossFit Games isn't a sport are likely just jealous of the attention it draws away from their favorite "legitimate" sport. Plus, it's inconsistent with their beliefs about other sports.
If a football player says that CrossFit isn't a real sport, he's also tacitly saying that powerlifting, Olympic lifting, track events, and numerous others aren't real sports either. But, he probably wouldn't go that far. CrossFit is the new, popular sport on the block and so the criticism will naturally fall upon it. Though CrossFit does come under fire for safety and poor lifting technique, these jabs don't threaten its status as a sport. However, while CrossFit is a sport, does that make its participants "athletes?" For 99.99% of them, the answer is no.
Can You Call Yourself An Athlete or a Pro?
"I'm a CrossFit athlete!" declares my sandwich-artist as he cascades a fistful of spinach onto my hoagie. Uh, no. Paying a fee to obey a whiteboard does not make one an athlete. In short, as an adult, you're only entitled to call yourself an athlete if you're a professional. Here's how it works:
Johnny Biceps played football for his high school. He was a high school athlete. Johnny then moved on to play college football. He was a college athlete. Johnny doesn't get drafted, and gets a real job as a lion tamer. He is now a former college athlete.
He can call himself a lion tamer, which will no doubt still get him the girls, but he's kidding himself if he starts a strength sport and begins referring to himself as an athlete in the same sense as Adrian Peterson. If Adrian Peterson is an athlete, Johnny B. certainly is not. Formerly an athlete and currently athletic, sure. But a present-day "athlete?" No.
Bottom line, if you have a day-job but go to CrossFit, powerlifting or Olympic lifting meets on weekends and don't make a significant portion of your income from it, you have no business calling yourself an athlete. Where do you fit in? Read on.
Types of Non-Athletes
Recreational: You exercise, play, train, or compete for fun. Even if you did compete, you wouldn't really be competitive because you aren't very good. Entering a triathlon in which you get 28th, or a powerlifting meet where you don't reach the podium, puts you in this category.
Competitor: You compete a few times each year and win, or come close to winning, at these events. But, you don't make much money, if any, competing. Winning a little prize money once or twice a year doesn't qualify you as either of the following types of pro athlete. You can be a competitive lifter, CrossFitter, or whatever.
Types of Pro Athletes
Rule of Thumb: If one can maintain a stable, year-round full-time job, his sport probably isn't consuming enough to qualify him as professional on any level.
Part-Time Professional: A major portion of one's income is produced by his or her sport, and a major portion of his or her time is consumed by competing in it.
This is where minor league sports fall in minor league baseball, most Olympic sports, arena football, Major League Lacrosse (yes, that's a thing), foreign leagues of basketball, volleyball, etc. Very few strength athletes can earn enough to qualify as a part-time pro simply because the fan base, and thus prize pool, is meager. For example, minor league baseball players only get paid during the six-month season, but are utterly consumed by it during that time since it's their only job. Yet, minor league baseball doesn't pay the bills year-round like it does in the Majors, so 95% of minor leaguers aren't true pro athletes either; they're part-time.
True Professional: "My sport is my job. I am paid well enough to not require a second job, and my sole concern is competing in or training for my sport."
This is much more rare than we realize. To be a true professional not only requires immense skill, but participation in a sport that has a fan base sufficient to merit a large paycheck. In Europe, there are true professional Olympic weightlifters. In America, where the sport is relatively obscure, you'll find very few examples.
But, if you're a powerlifter, Olympic lifter or CrossFitter with significant endorsements and take home consistent prize money, you may have earned the label. Rich Froning, three-time CrossFit champion, is a professional athlete, whether the mainstream athletes like it or not. But, with no organization to pay salaries like in the MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, maintaining earnings is much tougher. But, competition is also proportionally smaller, so it may be easier to stay on top longer.
Sorry if Your Bubble Has Burst
I know you live and breathe CrossFit, bodybuilding, powerlifting, and Olympic-lifting, but the athlete and/or pro label may not apply to you. Signing up for triathlons, marathons, meets, CrossFit competitions, etc. doesn't earn you that label unless you're a champion or close to it. Labels are like medals you work hard to earn them, and I don't believe in the participation ribbon. But, if you win enough to fit the competitor or part-time pro label, congrats! It's rare, and something to be proud of.