What the IOC's recognition of cheerleading means for the sport and its athletes
By Madison Peyser
Special to FOX Sports
As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics wind down, many athletes are already looking ahead to 2024. For the competitors in one sport, that's particularly true.
On July 20, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted in favor of granting full recognition to the International Cheer Union (ICU) and cheerleading, making one of America's oldest examples of teamwork eligible to apply to be included on the Olympics program.
Of course, Olympic recognition is significant for any sport and for the athletes that compete all around the world. But for cheerleading in particular, which has long battled negative stereotypes and questions about its validity, this recognition feels like a stamp of approval.
"Cheerleading is one of the most diverse activities and one of the most inclusive sports out there," Lauri Harris, Executive Director at USA Cheer told me when asked just how meaningful the IOC's decision was. Harris has been in the cheer industry for more than 30 years and has seen the sport's evolution firsthand. "We have an open door for athletes at all levels, all shapes and sizes, ethnicities, boys and girls," she continued, "at any level, there is an entry level that is attainable."
It is that commitment to diversity and inclusion that has helped pave the way for cheerleading to rise to this level – but the path has been anything but easy. And while the past 15 years have seen massive strides for the sport and its athletes, to understand how cheerleading reached this stage, you really have to go back more than 150 years.
How did we get here?
Some might question whether or not cheerleading should be considered a sport – let alone an Olympic event. To understand how cheer got to this point, you must look at its multifaceted (and persistent) origin story; as Harris said, "Cheerleading is way broader than the typical stereotype."
Cheerleading’s roots date back to 1869, when the first college football game with cheerleaders was played between Princeton and Rutgers. A little over a decade later, the Tigers formed an all-male pep club in 1880. By 1898, the first "Rah, Rah" cheer came to life at the University of Minnesota, and 25 years later, women were finally allowed to get in on the action.
In the 40s, an influx of women started joining these clubs as more and more young men were leaving to fight in World War II. It was during this time that cheerleaders first added flashy tumbling passes and acrobatics to their routines – like the "Herkie" jump – followed by spirit sticks and pom-poms, which are a classic and beloved part of the sport today.
By the 60s, cheerleaders were sprouting up all across the country. The first cheerleading company, the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) – which is still going strong to this day – was formed in 1961 by Southern Methodist University cheerleader Lawrence Herkimer (remember the "Herkie" jump?).
Now, there are more than 250 colleges that offer cheerleading programs, with opportunities at the NCAA Division I, Division II, and Division III levels. There are also competitive NAIA and junior college programs.
Even within the same level, there are many different experiences when it comes to collegiate cheerleading, and teams have the choice to compete in their niche at either UCA competitions or NCA competitions – which highlights cheerleading's complex history over the past 50 years.
Businessman Jeff Webb founded Varsity Spirit and the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA) – currently the sport's world governing body – in 1974 before buying NCA from a retiring Herkimer. UCA was a new branch that taught higher-level skills, literally catapulting cheerleading to new heights.
UCA is the athletic combination of high-energy entertainment and school leadership that is loved by so many. Their routines are heavily focused on stunts and actual cheering. The UCA College Cheerleading National Championship is the most prestigious college cheerleading championship in the country. The championship is held at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, and nationally televised on ESPN.
The NCA, on the other hand, is built upon the foundations of spirit, tradition, and excellence. NCA routines focus on dance, stunts, and tumbling – similar to All Star Cheer, which we'll get to in just a moment.
One of the most prominent NCA events is the College National Championships, held in Daytona Beach, Florida on the Band Shell and televised nationally every April.
The United States All Star Federation (USASF), another governing body of cheer, presides over the aforementioned All Star Cheer, and those affiliated clubs and competitions. This elite-level cheer focuses on intense athletic training and more advanced skills, and involves performing a 2 ½ minute routine composed of tumbling, stunting, pyramids, dance, and cheer segments.
All-Star cheer teams are most often organized and based out of a club and have teams that are open to all athletes. Teams are formed based on tiers for every ability level, from beginner to elite. And these teams range from Tiny Novice Level 1 up to adults at Level 7.
The USASF hosts The Worlds, an international All-Star event that brings together more than 9000 athletes to compete for world champion titles in senior and international club divisions and categories. The first Cheerleading Worlds was held in 2004.
With each iteration, cheerleading continued to take steps forward as an expression of teamwork and a true competition. Winners were crowned. Losses caused just as much heartbreak as in any other sport. And along the way, cheer moved out from the shadow of its stereotypes. Former Massachusetts cheerleader and UCA Northeast Staff member Sarah O’Duggan explained:
"There is no other sport which requires you to on any level, at any age, in any aspect, to depend on your teammates the way cheerleading does. There is no moment in a cheerleading routine where there is an individual component, you are always working as a unit. … Even on the national level of competition – when you fall, you are trusting that another human will catch you.
"You put your life and safety in the hands of your teammates, physically stand on one another, throw one another – and trust that they will catch you. It takes more than athletic ability, strength, and technique to excel as a cheerleading team. It requires an additional bond, and an unrequited level of trust in your teammates to show up, show out, and do their part to reach the end goal."
Today, cheerleading, both sideline and competitive, has grown into a multi-billion dollar business that spans 114 countries, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down – but along the way, there was a catch. The health risks O'Duggan acknowledged were something cheerleading had to assess before it could take this massive next step.
The sport is commonly associated with concussions and other injuries caused by falling and repeated motion. However, over the past decade, cheerleading has experienced a major reduction in catastrophic injuries and emergency room visits, according to data produced by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research (NCCSIR).
Dr. Jeff Dugas, USA Cheer National Team Medical Director says, "USA Cheer and the worldwide cheerleading community are committed to promoting that participants in our sport have access to the most efficient and highest quality care. We support the ideals of early access to appropriate care and early diagnosis of injury to ensure the best outcomes for our athletes."
With the sport growing around the world, and with the health of the athletes at a paramount consideration, cheerleading was set to take its final step in maturation.
Why is cheerleading becoming an Olympic sport now?
The journey for any sport to be added to the Olympic program is a long and hard road full of uncertainty, but it’s been a real challenge for cheerleading in particular. The sport received its first breakthrough in 2016 in the form of provisional recognition by the IOC, making it eligible to receive funding and special grants.
Harris described this as, "one of the coolest moments. It was like, ‘Oh, OK, they are taking cheer seriously and they’re really going to look at this.’"
In 2018, USA Cheer’s National Coed Premier Team competed in their first overseas competition, where they won gold at the International University Sports Federation (FISU) World University Championship in Poland. The following year, the team brought home another international title at the ICU Pan-American Championships in Costa Rica.
This was a huge milestone for not only the U.S., being that it is the birthplace of cheerleading, but for the entire cheerleading community worldwide. The high-level international competitions demonstrated that there were enough teams and athletes around the globe for cheerleading to rise to the level of the Olympics.
Still, for all of the momentum, full Olympic recognition should help the sport grow even further and open its doors to even more athletes. IOC approval leads to funding for the facilities, coaching and equipment necessary to compete on the Olympic level – funding that is provided by national governments, but that often only comes when a sport rises to the world's highest stage. It's a cycle that those involved at the highest level of cheer hope will play out in their sport around the world, giving millions of young athletes a chance to participate in the Olympics who might not have been able to otherwise.
And for a sport that prides itself on being inclusive, the ability to bring even more people into the tent is just as important as being able to strive for a gold medal.
So … when can we expect to see cheerleading in the Olympic Games?
Webb told "Good Morning America" that although cheerleading won’t be represented at the Tokyo Games, fans of the sport can expect to see it in the near future.
"L.A. has a nice ring to it," he said. (Los Angeles is set to host the 2028 Summer Olympics.)
Cheerleaders who have grown up hoping that one day their sport would see the Olympic stage might just see their dreams become a reality right before their eyes. O’Duggan is one of those cheerleaders.
"We now have something to show future generations of boys and girls who love this sport – that there is more to strive for. I never had an Olympic athlete I was able to truly resonate with, without having to explain the difference between what I do and what they did," she said. "Future cheerleaders will now have that, and that’s more than I could have ever asked for."
FOX Sports' Jordan Dollenger helped contribute to this story.