Last year, cheerleading received provisional recognition as an Olympic sport. As a fierce physical and mental challenge, this was no less than it deserved – and full recognition should follow.
Competitive cheerleading is the most difficult, mentally and physically demanding sport I have ever participated in – and I say that as a keen footballer. It more than deserves the same level of recognition given to other team pursuits, particularly in light of the thinly veiled sexism that has caused it to be looked down upon for so long.
So, the news in December that cheerleading (along with Muay Thai) had been given provisional recognition as Olympic sport was gratifying.
My first exposure to the world of competitive cheerleading was through Kirsten Dunst's 2000 film, Bring it On. Surprisingly for a teen movie of its era, it's pretty progressive and definitely passes the Bechdel test: it has 1. at least two named women in it 2. who talk to each other 3. about something besides a man. And while its racial undertones aren't particularly nuanced, the idea of "cultural appropriation" is touched upon when it's exposed that the black team, the Clovers, are having their routines stolen, and essentially sanitised, by Dunst's predominately white team, the Toros.
Since watching the movie I've gone on to cheer for two university teams and realised just how easy Bring it On makes cheerleading look. I mean, it's definitely a step up from the general depiction of "slutty", high-kicking, American football-cheering blonde girls, but it doesn't quite capture how hard it is to master the trifecta that cheerleading is essentially made up of: gymnastics, acrobatics and dance. Stunting – throwing people high into the air, catching them, and holding them above your head, safely – is no mean feat. Nor is balancing on wobbling hands in the air. Cheerleading is really, really hard and so much more than a sideline entertainment spectacle.
In 2013 it was named the most dangerous sport in America for women. According to the report it accounted for 66% of catastrophic sports injuries for girls, and 37% of the cheerleaders they studied had symptoms of concussion that hadn't been reported. On YouTube you can find tragic videos documenting injuries that have left cheerleaders paralysed, and on my own team it was unusual if we didn't go to a competition without one person on crutches. We suffered broken bones, severe bruising, and multiple concussions. While we were performing a routine in 2014, one of our best gymnasts dislocated her thumb doing a back handspring (she very bravely popped it back in and continued), while I've been left with tendonitis in both knees from the strain of the sport.
Although there is definitely a vapid element to competitive cheerleading – appearance is something that can count towards your overall competition score and if you're a female cheerleader it's standard to be wearing a big, garish bow on the top of your head, a "toothy grin", and, in many cases, a lot of makeup and fake tan – I would argue that cheer has become a weird haven in the UK for people who don't quite fit the mould.
With the cheesy music and the ultra femininity it embodies, alongside the intense levels of practice necessary to bring together a three-minute routine, you need to have a certain outlook on life to really excel at this sport; an intensity of character, perhaps. For men, cheerleading is difficult for a whole other reason: it's seen as being a "women's sport". The guys on my teams in the past have struggled with how they are perceived by others for competing (even though in many ways one of their main jobs on the team is glorified weightlifting – pretty masculine).
The reaction to the Olympic news has been positive within the sport. "The IOC's actions have created a monumental milestone for cheerleading," commented Jeff Webb, President of the International Cheer Union.
"This decision will greatly assist us as we strive to create opportunities for healthy participation and competition for millions of Cheer athletes worldwide."
Tori Rubin is head coach at Unity Allstars, one of the UK's biggest and most successful cheerleading programmes. While naturally remaining cautious, she too is enthusiastic about the sport's future.
"I'm really excited, obviously, if it actually goes ahead," said Rubin. "It's something that everyone hoped and dreamed would happen. But we've obviously been working really hard with Team England for the past few years and we got bronze medals at the ICU Worlds in 2016. I think it really put England on the map as a cheerleading stronghold. The public reception for English cheerleading has really grown, as well as nationally.
"Right now there's so much uncertainty about what the sport of cheerleading is and people aren't very educated. I think it would push it much more into the public eye and people would understand that it is a sport, and not just pom poms on the sidelines, which is such a common misconception."
Of course, our cheerleading is decades behind that of the U.S., but in 2010 it was reported to be the fastest growing sport in UK schools, and since 2011, when I first started attending to competitions, I've personally witnessed the increase in attendance. While we don't have a big turnout of supporters, there are dozens of teams up and down the UK – from university squads like my own, to Unity Blacks, arguably the UK's best "all-star" cheerleading squad. In recent years we've even been able to scrape together an England team and head out to the States for the Cheerleading Worlds, competing among some of the most talented cheer teams on the planet.
Though my own cheerleading days ended when I left university, I'm really looking forward to seeing the sport on my TV screen one day. Here's to hoping it gets the full Olympic recognition it so deserves.