When Abby Misbin, varsity captain of the cheerleading team at Wissahickon High School in the Philadelphia suburbs, and her teammates learned that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had granted provisional status to cheerleading as an Olympic sport, they threw a party to celebrate.
These young women, like so many cheerleaders around the country and around the world, have been waiting for a sport regulatory body like the IOC to make such a move — one that, Misbin says, recognizes cheerleading as a sport like any other for the strength, stamina, and endurance that it demands.
“The IOC has really recognized the true athleticism of young people that participate in this sport — whether that’s in a competition, leading crowds at games, or because of the many stunts that cheerleaders perform,” Jeff Webb, president of the International Cheer Union, tells Yahoo Beauty. “This is a very important move for cheerleading.”
But even as the IOC’s recognition of cheerleading may give it greater legitimacy in the world of sport, there’s no guarantee that cheer will actually be added to the Olympic roster. The provisional status lasts for three years, at the end of which cheerleading can formally apply to be included.
Perception is also a big problem for cheerleading becoming an official Olympic sport: Although cheerleaders like Misbin and her teammates train hard and can perform all manner of difficult acrobatic feats and stunts that are physically arduous, many people don’t consider cheerleading to be a sport, because their only exposure to it is on the sidelines of other sports.
“We encounter cheerleading in this venue far more readily than in cheer competitions that showcase the prowess of these athletes en masse, and this is a significant impediment for the refashioning of cheerleading,” Leisha Jones, assistant professor of English and Girls Studies Scholar at Penn State University, tells Yahoo Beauty. “Many people view it as an addendum to a sport, a supplementary spectacle of spunkiness engineered to engage and arouse, rather than a separate sport on its own. And even if cheerleading becomes an ‘official’ sport, I suspect the tiny skirt will continue to get in the way of legitimizing girls and women as athletes.”
Misbin and her teammates are well aware of what they wear, and “we think a lot about sexualization,” she says. But they are athletes, she says, and their focus is purely on being strong and fit and being able to perform their routines at a top level.
Cheerleading is also changing, and many teams across the U.S. are now coed. Last year, Misbin’s team had one young man on it.
By recognizing cheerleading, the IOC is helping to broaden the definition of sport, Webb says, and this should help cheerleading gain a stronger foothold in the 110 countries around the world that have a national cheerleading federation by enabling teams to secure much needed funding from governments and other institutions.
The IOC said its decision to grant the provisional Olympic status was based on young people’s keen interest in cheer. For that same reason, the IOC also granted a provisional Olympic status to Muay Thai boxing.
“I have noticed that more and more young people, girls especially, are coming in to train where I do,” says Ruqsana Begum, the current British and European Muay Thai and kickboxing champion. “I meet girls from ethnic minorities, girls from refugee camps, and many others who tell me they’re inspired by me, that they want to get stronger, and so I’m so happy that the IOC has recognized Muay Thai because this is a great platform that allows women to feel empowered.”
Both cheerleading and Muay Thai will now receive $25,000 in IOC funding per year. They will benefit from other development programs and have access to the IOC’s digital Olympic Channel.