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How Extreme Exercise Regime CrossFit Mirrors American Militarism

The fitness craze reflects the country's ongoing transformation from a culture of sports to a culture of war.

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And sure enough, sports can uphold a standard of justice that we often find lacking in our government and social institutions.  The stopwatch doesn’t care about your race, class, or gender.  The barbell isn’t impressed or daunted that you went to Yale or prison.  “I think all of us are looking for that which does not admit of bullshit,” the novelist Harry Crews once said in an interview, and he found that in sports:

If you tell me you can bench press 450, hell, we’ll load up the bar and put you under it.  Either you can do it or you can’t do it—you can’t bullshit.  Ultimately, sports are just about as close to what one would call the truth as it is possible to get in this world.

The counterview to sports as a beacon of meritocratic equality and unbeclouded truth is that it’s a spillway for our worst public and private selves.  Orwell, as you’d expect, saw sports as “bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”  And Chomsky sees sports as an opiate for the shirtless, face-painted, giant-foam-finger masses: “It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements.  In fact it’s training in irrational jingoism.”  I don’t think you have to choose between sports as Big Brother and sports as American Eagle to agree with a less epistemologically grand version of Crew’s claim: sports can tell us the no-bullshit truth about ourselves, and a new sport might just have some new truth to reveal.

In this case, the sport is CrossFit, “the sport of fitness™.”  You’ve probably heard of it, either from some guy yakking about it at the office or through one of those lifestyle segments on the news where it sporadically pops up.  The typical take is that CrossFit is a cult or that it makes you vomit.  (The yacker will demonstrate his cultish investment in CrossFit by detailing his retch-inducing workout.)  CrossFit invites these views.  Like yoga or golf, it tends to spread from a form of exercise into a way of life.  It’s loosely linked to a particular diet (paleo); it has signature clothes (high socks, a liberal use of athletic tape, a preponderance of booty shorts for women and tattoos for the men) as well as its own terms, often for things that English is already equipped to handle: a gym is a “box,” a workout is a “wod” or “workout of the day,” a recommended standard for a given exercise is the physician’s “Rx.”  And people who do it flood Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites with videos, comments, recipes, advice, and general chitchat.  All of these aspects, along with the fact that CrossFitters tend to love, not just do or like, but love CrossFit, give outsiders the impression that CrossFit is a cult.

That and the vomit.  Every CrossFitter has their favorite story of workout obliteration, often involving a bucket.  And just about every CrossFit workout ends with a group of people writhing on the floor in a slather of their collective sweat.  Witnessing this scene from the outside, you’d be perfectly right in asking why anyone would do it.  My wife and I certainly did.  We were introduced to CrossFit one summer evening about a year ago.  We’d invited colleagues over for dinner.  Robert is an historian of 17th century English theology and a displaced Southerner.  Jill is a Renaissance scholar, who shares Robert’s sense of Southern decorum, but fuses it with the sincerity and openness of her Midwestern upbringing.  They’re both around my age, forty-something, and self-described conservatives, though Robert is quick to make wickedly wry observations that’d make you think he wasn’t the father of two well-raised daughters, and Jill obviously loves it.  In short, they’re our very adult and very admirable friends.  So when we saw the giant scabs running along Robert’s shins, we were concerned.