Judging More Than Reps: Why It’s So Hard to Be an Adaptive Games Athlete  

This season the adaptive world of CrossFit learned an important lesson: the classification system is extremely rigorous. The case of Morgan Johnson exemplifies this. Johnson won the neuromuscular division this year at the Games, and her eligibility was questioned throughout her season. Let’s break down how difficult it can be at times to be eligible to compete as an adaptive athlete in the sport of CrossFit and the hostility that may exist among athletes in the adaptive community.

Johnson was permitted to compete in the neuromuscular division by CrossFit before the start of the 2022 Open. Her eligibility was based on her claim to have ataxia (a condition that impairs balance and coordination due to damage to the brain). A source cited that Johnson was never allowed to compete due to her Tourette’s (a common misconception surrounding her story). The Adaptive Athlete Policy specifically states that an “ineligible impairment” is “tics and mannerisms.” This directly disqualifies Tourette syndrome. So, Johnson’s case is based purely on the argument that she has ataxia.

Johnson claimed ataxia because she believed her Tourette syndrome constituted such. Tourette Syndrome causes “tics” (i.e., uncontrollable movements) that can hinder a person’s ability to physically perform. Johnson has two tics that are seen while she is physically active (gagging and flexing the neck horizontally). Also, Tourette’s is caused by atypical functioning of the cerebellum (the area of the brain primarily involved in controlling movement and balance).

This information is important because it can seem to overlap with ataxia. Ataxia is also related to the cerebellum, although medically this relationship is due to damage (i.e., stroke, traumatic brain injury). So, while Johnson was claiming ataxia due to her tics; this is not true. The underlying neural mechanisms of ataxia and tics are distinct. While ataxia is caused by damage, tics are believed to be caused by neurotransmitter imbalances. In this way, tics and ataxia may behaviorally appear similar, but at their neuronal level are distinct from each other.

Of importance, Johnson reported that while one doctor diagnosed her with ataxia due to her tics (an inaccurate diagnosis based on neuroscience), two other doctors diagnosed her with ataxia for reasons unrelated to her Tourette’s. No further information was provided on these diagnoses, but Johnson did cite that she is seeking a specialist to better help her understand her diagnosis.

The Adaptive Athlete Policy

The Adaptive Athlete Policy cites under section 2.1 that to be eligible for ataxia, the athlete’s condition must meet the following requirements:

1. Have a diagnosis that includes ataxia as determined by a medical professional through testing or analysis and that can be supported with qualifying evidence, and

2. The ataxia can be clearly observed or detected during a classification assessment or in the performance of movements used in CrossFit competitions.

Johnson did provide evidence from medical professionals to substantiate her ataxia. However, during the semifinal video review, it was cited that her ataxia was not clearly observed (as stated in the requirements above). So, while at first glance it may appear that Johnson should compete in the neuromuscular division, she doesn’t meet the qualifications laid out by CrossFit despite the evidence she provided. Johnson spoke on this saying that she felt CrossFit “discounted” her medical doctors. The biggest argument against Johnson’s medical evidence is that her ataxia is not clearly observed during competition (which is what caused CrossFit to reevaluate her eligibility). Johnson also shared that CrossFit conducted a classification assessment at the Games. The results of this assessment are confidential, but they will likely be used in determining eligibility for the next season.

Not only is it extremely difficult to meet all eligibility necessary to be an adaptive athlete at the CrossFit Games, but Johnson also cited that during the 2022 competitive season she was bullied for the first time for her Tourette’s. Her situation also led many to decide if Johnson was “disabled enough” based on her appearance. A major issue for adaptive athletes.

This highlights another difficulty of being an adaptive CrossFit athlete: the hostility a newly-qualified adaptive athlete may face. This isn’t just the case for Johnson, but many adaptive athletes have referenced feeling outed by their division if they were perceived by their fellow competitors as “not disabled enough.” Johnson also referenced this, saying that she was bullied on social media and by other athletes at the Games for not “looking the part.”
Given how difficult the qualification process is to compete in adaptive CrossFit, many of the top athletes can remain unchallenged. Not only is it difficult to meet these athletes’ fitness levels, but it might be considered just as hard (or even harder) to have a qualifying diagnosis in some divisions. With this in mind, rookie athletes often face scrutiny for the severity of their diagnosis and functional level.

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Johnson discussed how athletes at the Games and on social media scrutinized her qualification. She cited that even at the Games one athlete in particular was so hostile that CrossFit issued a misconduct warning to the athlete. (To the author’s best knowledge, this is the first ever official misconduct warning to occur at the CrossFit Games.) Johnson also shared that there were some bright spots, such as her fellow competitor, Alyssa Kobela. Even after sustaining an injury that forced her to withdraw from competition, Alyssa returned to the stands to cheer on Johnson as she competed.

The sport of adaptive CrossFit is still young, but there will hopefully be a shift in culture as athletes better understand the classification system and comprehend the strict standards that CrossFit is attempting to uphold for fair competition. With this progress, hopefully, athletes may be able to create a better culture to compete in and feel less need to self-govern their adaptive divisions.

Janette attended the University of Virginia for her Master’s degree in Kinesiology for Individuals with Disabilities. Afterwards, Janette moved to Indiana to pursue a dual Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Human Performance at Indiana University (Bloomington). Janette’s research interest is: identifying exercise interventions for individuals with motor and cognitive disabilities regarding behavior, physical health, and cognitive function.

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