When Laila Houston, a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Atlanta, tells her classmates she is a competitive cheerleader, she’s often met with a similar response — mostly from boys, she said.

“That’s not a sport,” they’ll say.

Her retort?

“It’s definitely a sport,” she tells them.

“You have to have mental and physical strength [to cheer],” Houston recently told The Lily. “You can tell we put in as much work, or more, as any other athlete in their sport.”

Houston’s detractors are not alone: Neither the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the organization that governs athletics at U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities, nor Title IX guidelines, the federal law prohibiting gender-based discrimination in schools and sports, formally recognize cheerleading as a sport.

But Houston expects to have an easier time making her case to classmates after last week, when the International Olympic Committee granted full recognition to the International Cheer Union, the sport’s worldwide governing body — a decision that opens up the door for cheerleading to one day be included in the Olympic Games.

The list of sports slated to be included at the 2024 Paris Olympics — which will include 50 percent female athletes, a first for the Games — has already been approved, meaning that the 2028 Los Angeles Games are the earliest that cheerleading could make its Olympic debut, according to Jeff Webb, president of the ICU, which represents national cheerleading federations in 114 countries.

“We’re hoping that [the IOC and the Olympic organizing committee] will recognize this as a new, modern sport that they’ll want to add to the Olympics,” Webb said. “It’ll be up to us to make our case that our inclusion will be good for everybody.”

Cheerleading’s inclusion in a future Olympic Games would require a majority vote of the IOC’s 102 international members, according to the Olympic Charter. Prospective events are judged for inclusion based on factors including international participation, popularity and “value added to the Olympic Movement.” Members meet annually, and they must finalize the sports slated to be included in the Games no later than three years in advance of the Games, the Charter notes.

At the Tokyo Games, five new sports made their Olympic debuts: baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, climbing and surfing.

When asked about the prospect of cheerleading at the Olympics and whether competition would be gender-inclusive, a spokesperson for the IOC said in an email that they “​​can’t speculate on the future programmes of the Olympic Games.”

After the Tokyo Games wrap up next month, ICU representatives plan to follow up with the IOC to get a better sense of what the approval timeline would look like and what the organization would need to do to receive a vote, according to ICU secretary general Karl Olson.

The IOC first granted the ICU provisional recognition — the first step in the full recognition process — in 2016. Since then, the ICU had to adopt and implement the World Anti-Doping Code, among other IOC policies, according to Webb.

The possibility of cheerleading’s inclusion in a future Olympic Games is “huge,” according to Natalie Adams, a professor at the University of Alabama who has researched the history of cheerleading in the United States. It could also help “legitimize” cheerleading and develop its growth in more countries, she added — and chip away at long-held gendered stereotypes about the sport.

‘It’s an endurance sport’

For Houston and other cheerleaders — roughly 85 percent of whom identify as girls or women internationally, according to the ICU — the news comes as a form of long-awaited validation that cheerleading is worthy of recognition on the international stage, even as some still dismiss it as a sport.

“When I’m out in public and people see me, you can tell I’m an athlete, but when I say, ‘I’m a cheerleader,’ they’re surprised,” Houston said.

Laila Houston at the USASF Cheer Worlds. (Action Moments Photography)
Laila Houston at the USASF Cheer Worlds. (Action Moments Photography)

To Houston and others, that surprise probably stems, in part, from the lack of understanding of the distinction between traditional school cheerleading, which typically unfolds on the sidelines of other sports’ games, and All Star cheer, a form of competitive cheer organized by clubs and governed by the U.S. All Star Federation, an organization founded in 2003.

All Star athletes, ranging in age from 5 to 18, compete with two-and-a-half-minute routines composed of tumbling, stunting, pyramids, dance and cheer segments, according to the USASF. Routines have become more physically demanding and elaborate over the past two decades, according to Jazmine Brown, a former cheerleader and current All Star coach based in Pittsburgh.

“The stunts get harder and harder every year,” said Brown, 33.

As a coach, Brown teaches stunts that she never learned before she stopped cheering at 24 — proving how much the sport has evolved over the years, she said. One example is a double up, a stunt where cheerleaders catapult another athlete into the air to spin twice before landing.

“It’s an endurance sport, you’re doing cardio, you’re doing a lot of things, but you’re also performing,” Brown said. “It’s gymnastics without the bars, without the beams.”

If competitive cheerleading eventually makes it to the Olympic Games, viewers will be able to see just how much strength it requires, she added: “[People] think cheerleading is sidelines and pompoms — when they get to see it at this level … I think that’ll change a lot.”

A deep-seated stigma rooted in sexism

The resistance to recognizing cheerleading as a sport in the United States is largely rooted in sexism, according to Adams, the cheerleading historian.

“Cheerleading history has been so associated with women being on the sidelines, supporting boys and young men as they get to actually compete in a game,” she said.

But it didn’t start that way: Cheerleading was initially dominated by men when it started popping up on male-dominated college campuses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Adams said, adding that it was “very well-respected” and seen as a way to develop leadership.

Women began cheering in 1923, when the University of Minnesota became the first school to allow women to cheer, according to Varsity Spirit, a cheerleading organization founded by Webb, the current ICU president. Over the next two decades, more women became cheerleaders as they began going to college and men left to fight in World War II.

By the time men returned from the war, cheerleading had become “a very feminized activity, especially at the high school level,” according to Adams.

For men who compete today, that stigma persists: When Kerry Morton first told his guy friends he was going to start cheering at his Tennessee high school, they called him “gay” as a slur, he said.

When Morton started cheering, he realized it was more physically demanding than wrestling. He thought wrestling “was the toughest sport in my life until I joined cheerleading,” said Morton, now a 20-year-old competitive cheerleader at King University in Tennessee, where he is one of two men on the team.

The feminization of cheerleading strengthened after the Baltimore Colts formed the NFL’s first cheerleading squad in 1954, prompting other teams to follow — and uniforms to eventually get more revealing, Adams said.

That “hypersexuality” clashed with the second-wave feminist movement in the 1970s, according to Adams: “After Title IX, there were questions of, ‘Why would you want to be a cheerleader when you can now play sports?’”

The post-Title IX feminist spirit gave rise to more competitive cheerleading, as private gyms opened and pioneered All Star cheering throughout the 1980s and ’90s, according to Adams. But even as cheerleading became more competitive, the stigma against it persisted, as television and films like “Grease” and “American Beauty” relied on sexualized portrayals of cheerleaders.

Those films also portrayed cheerleaders as conventionally attractive, blonde and White, underscoring the racial divisions within cheerleading, which date back to its earliest days, Adams said. As the civil rights movement unfolded, Black students staged protests and boycotts in response to the exclusion of Black cheerleaders from teams, the historian added.

“For Black girls and young women to get into cheerleading has been a tremendous struggle,” Adams said.

Sharita Richardson, a 43-year-old instructional coach based in Greensboro, N.C., has witnessed that struggle firsthand. She said that when she brought her three Black daughters to cheerleading camps and competitions, she would speak to other Black parents about how rare it was for their daughter to see other Black cheerleaders. (Neither USA Cheer nor the ICU currently collect data on racial breakdowns of cheerleaders, or on how many cheerleaders are transgender or nonbinary.)

Those conversations led Richardson in 2015 to launch Black Girls Cheer, an online community dedicated to spotlighting cheerleaders of color. On its Instagram page, which has 140,000 followers, the group shares images and videos of Black girls cheering across the United States.

For Houston, a Black Girls Cheer ambassador tasked with spreading the word about the group, it’s “empowering,” she said.

“It helps me know I’m not alone in any sort of situation,” Houston added.

Having cheerleading featured in a future Olympic Games could achieve a similar result for other cheerleaders of color, by giving cheerleaders of all races “a stage to be elevated, to be more visible,” according to Richardson.

Whenever that occurs, Houston hopes to be part of Team USA’s inaugural cheer squad, she said. In the meantime, she is having an easier time shutting down her classmates’ critiques of her sport.

“I feel like I was able to hold my head a little higher because it was officially recognized,” she said. “There really is no sport like cheerleading.”

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