What the Olympics teaches us about the height of CrossFit Games athletes

Last month, we published a piece about the ideal height for a CrossFit Games athlete.

Our conclusion was this:

If you want to become a CrossFit Games champion, you’re best to be pretty damn close to the average height in the western world: 5’9” for a man and 5’5” for a woman.

Missed that article? Read 'How Tall Do You Need to be to Win the CrossFit Games?' first, and see the data here.

(For the record, the recent CrossFit Games continued to prove our theory: Not a single outlier on the podium. All 6 medalists were within 2 inches of average.)

Podium finishers at the 2016 CrossFit Games confirmed that 'Average is best' when it comes to height and competing in CrossFit. 

The interesting outcome of my data analysis led me to shift my attention to this year’s Rio Olympics that kicked off at the weekend. I decided to take a look at average heights for the Olympic sports that arguably most pertain to CrossFit, and where CrossFit athletes fit in comparison.

The sports I selected were:

  • Gymnastics
  • Olympic weightlifting
  • Sprinting
  • Olympic distance Triathlon
  • Rowing

I would argue that if an athlete had skills in all of the above sporting disciplines—which is exactly what the sport of CrossFit is—you’d probably want to be of average height to be able to handle the unique demands of each sport.

For example, to be 4’9” like Simone Biles, the three-time World Champion who has a realistic opportunity to win five gold medals at these Games—and who after the qualification competition yesterday is being hailed as the best athlete in the US today— would kill your chances to be an elite rower. And being a 6’2” gymnast would be next to impossible—for one, your feet would touch the ground when you reached up to the bars. The opposite is true for rowing, on the other hand, which favours the taller athlete.

Biles had the highest scores of any competitor in the all-around, vault, beam and floor in qualification. And if gymnastics were a football game, her team beat the rest of the field by the equivalent of 10 touchdowns. The betting line on the US women to win gold in the final is an unheard of 24-to-1!

On this basis, our hypothesis is that the best CrossFit athlete height would be the average height between the five sports listed above.

Where I got my data from:

To determine average heights of the sports in question, I turned to the following:

Gymnastics: I took data from this article– 'Historical Trends of the Size of U.S. Olympic Female Artistic Gymnasts', plus I looked at average heights of gymnasts from the top five teams competing at the current Olympic Games.

Weightlifting: This data came from the 2012 Olympic Games.

Triathlon: This data also came from the 2012 Olympics.

Sprinting: I took average heights from the 100 m, 200 m and 400 m finals from the 2012 Olympics, and to gather a larger sample size, I also looked at national team average sprinting heights (100 m, 200 m, 400 m runners) from the USA.

Rowing: USA, Canadian and British national team average heights.

Team Canada Olympic Rowers

The average height of a Male Olympic Rower is 6'4"– a stark contrast to the height of Team Canada's coxswain Brian Price who stands at 5'4, 120lbs and has multiple Championships and Olympic medals with the crew. Photo via The Ottawa Citizen.

What the data shows:

Women’s height averages:

Gymnastics: 5’0”

Weightlifting (all weight classes): 5’3”

Triathlon: 5’6”

Sprinters: 5’6”

Rowing: 5’11.5”

Men’s height averages:

Gymnastics: 5’5”

Weightlifting (all weight classes): 5’7”

Triathlon: 5’11”

Sprinting: 5.10”

Rowing: 6’4”

When I crunched the men’s and women’s average heights between gymnastics, weightlifting, triathlon, sprinting and rowing—arguably the best height for a CrossFit athlete—the numbers that emerged were:

Drum roll…

5’9.5” for men!

AND

5’5” for women!

Interesting…

So it seems that the height of the top male and female athletes in CrossFit hits that sweet spot—the spot where they will be equally good (or bad) in sports where there is an advantage to being an outlier, such as gymnastics or rowing. If we think back to Rich Froning’s successes at the CrossFit Games, it was his consistency at doing OK, rather than winning each event, that led to his dominance.

Rich Froning stands at the Male average height of 5'9"

Is it really that simple?

There might be another way of looking at this...

The conclusion of “average is best” could also be a result of probability AND selection bias. Let me explain:

Firstly, with most of the population sitting near the average height, it’s difficult to rule out the fact that there is simply a much larger pool of people in this height range, meaning a much larger pool of people with the potential to be successful at CrossFit.

Secondly, because some sports favour outliers, there is the possibility that taller and shorter athletes are channeled into these sports as there is more demand for them there. If you live in North America, are 16 years old and over 6-feet tall as a woman, chances are your high school basketball coach has plans for you. With all the talented taller and shorter athletes being siphoned off to compete elsewhere, could it be that there just aren’t many outliers left to compete in elite level CrossFit?

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Joel Tait

Joel Tait

Very informative & interesting. But as a 6’ Crossfit athlete this is not what I see & experience in my gym on a day to day bases. This very definately must be accurate as far as top place holders & finishers in the games: it is statistically demonstrated & proven. What isn’t really explored well here are the statistics behind top place holders in each region at the end of an open. This would corrallate, I believe, with who does best in most gym WODS. The 5’ women & 5’5" men smoke most everyone at the daily gym wods & the open. Gyms generally do not program or subscribe to programming where athletes are evenly tested for good old pure strength as evenly as metcon. The programming is done on a “one size fits all” bases for all ages. This heavily favors the shorter athletes, if very few WODS demand a man to Clean & Jerk 225, or a women to Overhead Squat 155. In most Wods the reps are 30+ at medium weights: tops. Since Work equals Force x Distance, the shorter the better. The short folks are not only moving the weights much less distance (less work), but since they are shorter, they are much less body weight (less work & even less work). This is true of the open as well: same story. It isn’t until Regionals that there are true weight challenges that start screening out all the real short people. So you Mr stats would probably hold true at the regional level as well, but not at the open level. All the shortest people at our gym are usually at the top of the leaderboard on Wodify at our gym,,,,until there is a true test of weight wod, & then all the short stacks can’t even check the Rx button. So I would love to see what the stats are for average height of Open top place holders. I would also love for Crossfit to put more emphasis on strength in the open wods, rather then weighting until Regionals to test this aspect. They did some in 15.1 a & b, so this is improving, but most programming & gym leaderboard respectively heavily favor the shorter athletes. Very few wods are just rowing & wall balls. Very few wods have any serious weight, until regionals. Unless the weight is real heavy & in the 1-3 rep range, shorter, yet still strong athletes still have some work load advantage of doing less work per rep. I actually thought the Granite games programming did a great job of being much more balanced in this regard.

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