Throughout the Super Bowl, the pom-pom waving of the Patriots and Falcons cheerleaders got plenty of attention. But in less than a decade, cheerleaders could be seen alongside the Olympic rings.
We’re talking competitive Olympic cheerleading. While it sounds like the brainchild of former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, fearless advocate of hot pants for female soccer players, it’s not.
In December, the International Olympic Committee granted competitive cheerleading provisional recognition. That’s the first step on a very long and often arduous path toward Summer Games inclusion. But if cheerleading becomes a medal sport someday, it would be the version packed with high-flying acrobatics, complicated lifts, and coordinated tumbling passes, not the eye-candy entertainment popularized by professional sports in the United States.
Still skeptical that the words “Olympic” and “cheerleading” belong together? Try this: Replace “cheerleading” with “synchronized gymnastics.” Because when you watch the US compete at the annual world championships, that’s a pretty good description of the action in both the all-female and coed divisions. Competitive cheerleading is heavy on synchronicity, teamwork, athleticism, and hair ribbons. And it appears as much an Olympic-worthy sport as synchronized swimming or synchronized diving or rhythmic gymnastics or trampoline.
For supporters of competitive cheerleading, the IOC’s provisional recognition offers an opportunity to reclaim the sport’s image. “We’ve got to get people focused on what we really do. At an NFL game or an NBA game, they’re just entertainment in what they perform and in their attire,” said Jeff Webb, president of the International Cheer Union.
So, while it’s easy to mock or criticize the idea of Olympic cheerleading because of what the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders started in the 1970s, it’s unfair to let the NFL and NBA hijack the sport. Maybe cheerleading will become a beach volleyball-style success story, but not for its sex appeal. At least that’s not what the world of competitive cheerleading wants.
It doesn’t take sex appeal to give the IOC what it desires most these days: younger audiences. That’s why the Games now showcase snowboarding, freestyle skiing, and BMX biking. Since competitive cheerleaders are typically high school and college-age, any Olympic tournament would logically appeal to that demographic and younger aspirants.
Another plus in the eyes of the IOC? Cheerleading is telegenic. That’s true, even with outfits designed for function not provocation, with women in long-sleeved, crew-necked tops and skirts less reveling than leotards, bathing suits, and track bottoms.
Olympic cheerleading would likely follow a competition format similar to what takes place now at international events. All-female and coed divisions with 16 cheerleaders per team. Elements such as choreography, synchronicity, pyramids, and difficulty of stunts judged on a 100-point scale. Maybe eight countries qualify per division. Maybe 12. (There were 70 countries represented at the most recent world championships, but 8-12 qualifiers would be more typical of Olympic tournaments.) Maybe a group stage followed by medal rounds. Maybe, more simply, scores for two performances would be combined to determine medalists.
Whatever the format, routines lasting 2½ minutes could provide a perfect burst of action with ample time for commentary, commercial breaks, and sappy profiles. Finally, think of all the unique camera angles Olympic coverage could employ, taking viewers to the dizzying heights cheerleaders reach when tossed by teammates or inside pyramids or alongside tumblers.
Webb says that competitive cheerleading “is growing exponentially all over the world right now” with interest spanning from China to Japan to South Korea to Germany to Great Britain to Norway to Canada to Chile to Colombia. There are more than 100 national cheerleading federations around the world with nearly 4.5 million registered competitors, according to the International Cheer Union, the sport’s global governing body.
Even though the US, birthplace of competitive cheerleading, currently dominates international events, Webb expects it won’t be that way for long. He’s particularly excited by what he sees in China, where cheerleading has the support of the sports ministry and a December seminar drew 350 coaches who want to start teams.
All of this casts cheerleading in a favorable light with the Olympic powers that be. When adding and dropping sports, the IOC looks at international appeal and participation. In 2005, softball was dropped from the Olympic program because of a perceived lack of global appeal and participation. It didn’t help that the US dominated Olympic competition at the 2004 Athens Games, outscoring opponents, 51-1.
“For us, the recognition of cheerleading is great not just for participation in the Games, but it really does help us legitimize our sport at the international level,” says Webb. “Our mission is to grow the sport and to make it as safe as possible for the athletes who participate. We think this [provisional recognition] is a big step. If and when the Games become a possibility, that’ll be tremendous. But we know that’s down the road.”
Provisional recognition lasts up to three years and comes with at least $25,000 in annual IOC funding to help grow the sport. During those three years, IOC executives can vote to fully recognize cheerleading. From there, cheerleading can petition for Olympic inclusion. While becoming part of the Olympic Games continues to be a lengthy process, rule changes now allow host cities to add sports with national appeal on a one-off basis. That’s how softball will make its return at the 2020 Tokyo Games, joining fellow newcomers skateboarding, karate, surfing, and sport climbing, all one-timers for now.
If Los Angeles hosts the 2024 Summer Games, could cheerleading be added to the program? The odds are far better today than they were a few months ago.
Taking a bigger, broader view of the Olympic movement, it’s admirable that the IOC does what it can to attract younger fans, support a variety of athletes, and stay relevant in a world with rapidly changing sports interests. It’s good news that the IOC granted provisional recognition to a sport that gives young girls around the world more athletic opportunities and potentially more Olympic opportunities. And it’s equally, if not more, important that the IOC’s institutional and financial support will promote female cheerleaders as athletes rather than sex objects.
But that doesn’t mean provisional recognition of cheerleading comes without concerns. Some male sports leaders inside and outside the Olympic movement have long believed women’s sports should accentuate participants’ femininity as much as possible (See: Blatter). Translation: More figure skating. Not so much boxing and wrestling.
Advocacy of cheerleading shouldn’t come at the expense of providing a range of Olympic opportunities to female athletes. Webb agrees and says, “We’re not interested in displacing other sports.” Also, while competitive cheerleading could increase the number of female athletes at the Summer Games, it shouldn’t distract from the fact that women still compete in fewer events than men and lag behind men in overall Olympic participation numbers.
In Rio de Janeiro, the discrepancies between men’s and women’s events were glaring when swimming phenom Katie Ledecky couldn’t compete in the 1,500-meter freestyle. It’s only a men’s event in the Olympics. Women don’t swim longer than 800 meters. Other events, such as the road cycling race, are notably shorter for women, too. In boxing, women fight in three weight classes compared with 10 for men.
So, cheer on competitive cheerleaders. But don’t forget other female athletes could use a good boost, too.
Fair Play is a regular column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.