Dave Castro Defends How Athlete Cuts Improve the Games Experience

The Games Director shed light on his thought process behind narrowing the field at CrossFit's premiere event.

Friday, July 30, 2021, marks an important day for the athletes competing in Individual events at the 2021 NOBULL CrossFit Games held in Madison, WI. The women will have to play a serious game of catch up to Tia-Clair Toomey-Orr; the Men’s podium is still wide open, and after Day Two, 10 athletes will be cut from the competition. The men and women competing are no longer just fighting for a podium spot but to stay in the Games. 

CrossFit Games Director Dave Castro, the mogul behind the programming of the Games season, spoke on his perspective regarding the sometimes-controversial practice of athlete cuts at a July 28, 2021 press conference, saying, “[In 2019] we cut too aggressively, we cut too fast.”

[Related: See the live CrossFit Games Leaderboard here]

Since the 2009 Games (except for the 2015-2018 seasons), athlete cuts have been made to narrow the field of competitors as the event progresses. The purpose, according to Castro, is to make for more intense competition and allow for more creativity in event creation.

2021 NOBULL CrossFit Games Individual Cut Schedule

  • Wednesday, July 28 — No cuts.
  • Thursday, July 29 — Rest day. 
  • Friday, July 30 — Cut to 30 athletes per division (men and women) at the end of the day.
  • Saturday. July 31 — Cut to 20 athletes per division (men and women) after the first event.
  • Sunday, August 1 — No cuts. 

Cut Controversy

Athlete cuts can be a contentious topic — especially in the eyes of the athletes themselves. Games organizers must balance the athlete experience with the entertainment of the viewer. After admitting at the first presser of the 2021 Games that he went too hard in 2019, Castro defended his decision to reintroduce cascading cuts this year, saying:

“You’ll see throughout as the competition develops, [cuts] give us more freedom with the things we can do, with the schedule, with heat sizes, and with the viewer experience…all of these things are important.”

The athlete’s reactions about the cuts from the 2019 Games competitors were mixed. One argument to make is that cuts, when imposed too early on or on too rigid of a basis, unfairly hamstring the athletes who may not perform well at preliminary events but could make up ground later in challenges that better suit their talents. 

However, trimming the athlete field does provide a better viewing experience for spectators, Castro says, both in-person and virtually. When there are multiple heats of the same event, spectators may find it tedious to sit through the preliminary heats. As the division leaders become more obvious, it makes sense that fans want to focus their attention on them. Fewer athletes mean that CrossFit can program more intricate events without worrying about spacing, heats, and equipment. 

A History of Cuts at the Games

Castro has experimented with various methods of athlete cuts. In some years, the cuts were only for the top 10 athletes in the final event (2009-2011, 2013-2014), which allowed most athletes to participate in these tests of fitness. 

Other years (2012, 2019) saw cascading cuts, which narrow the field more and more as the event progresses. In 2020, 30 qualifying male and female athletes competed in a virtual Games, which was eventually reduced to just five men and five women, who then participated in 12 in-person events at the Ranch in Aromas, CA. 

The 2019 Cuts

The 2019 Games sought to be the most inclusive Games season yet. Including National champions from the 2019 Open alongside Sanctional winners opened up more ways to earn a spot at the Games. This season also saw the most controversial cut strategy to date

With 236 athletes competing as elite individuals, 2019 was the largest CrossFit Games field ever at the time. To manage the high volume of athletes, the first six events led to major cuts.

Athlete Eliminations in 2019 

  • First Cut: Reduced to 75 athletes.
  • Second Cut: Reduced to 50 athletes.
  • Ruck: Reduced to 40 athletes.
  • Sprint Couplet: Reduced to 30 athletes.
  • Mary: Reduced to 20 athletes.
  • Sprint: Reduced to top 10 athletes, who would compete in six further events.

Many athletes who were considered podium contenders — Brent Fikowski, Patrick Vellner, and Annie Thorisdottir among them — were eliminated, drawing ire towards Castro’s methods. Veteran Games participants felt that the order of events was too significant to contain stringent cuts, denying athletes the chance to compete in a later event that they traditionally excel in. 

In 2021, CrossFit has retained the cascading cuts that lead to a narrower field as time goes on, but all athletes will have nine events over the course of Wednesday and Friday to secure a place in the top 30. On Saturday, the top 30 compete to reach the top 20 in the first event of the day, and the top 20 will compete throughout the rest of the competition. 

With nine events before the first cut, athletes have many opportunities to compete and excel in various tests this year. 

Watch the 2021 CrossFit Games

Coverage of the 2021 NOBULL CrossFit Games, held from July 27, 2021, to August 1, 2021, is being presented via both live streaming and multiple broadcast formats. You can find immediate updates on games.crossfit.com, and if you’re looking out for a leaderboard, we’ve got you covered

Featured Image: Ben Garves