Cheering for themselves


Pompoms. Tiny uniforms. Wildly exaggerated makeup and hair teased and tied with a glittery bow. In Australia, this is the common perception of cheerleading. Cheerleaders are seen as merely commercialised sex symbols employed to cheer on men, the ‘real’ athletes. The idea that such a degrading activity still exists in Australia is regarded as an outdated reminder of a less feminist, more Americanised era.

However, on 20 July 2021, an announcement was made at the 138th session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which 60,000 Australians hope will change that. The IOC granted full recognition to the sport of cheerleading. This means the International Cheer Union (ICU) can now apply to have the sport included on the Olympic program. In a media statement, ICU President Jeff Webb described the announcement as a “monumental milestone for cheerleading,” and said the industry was “truly honored to receive this recognition”.

However, while in America this news was met with a sense of pride and gratification, many Australians didn’t responded so positively.

Competitive cheerleading (termed ‘All-Star’) is a widespread phenomenon in the US, having evolved from a sideline activity to an athletic and competitive sport. But while this iteration of cheerleading is now the fastest growing sport in Australia, it is still very much an insular community with little mainstream recognition down under.

Owner and Director of the Australian All-Star Cheerleading Federation, Rosemary Sims-James, was a part of the ICU team working to achieve this Olympic goal, and she says it has been a “long and arduous task to get Australians on board with this relatively new sport called Cheerleading”. Rosemary and her team have been working for over 15 years to gain respect for cheerleaders as athletes and competitors, and it has been no easy feat. The understanding of cheerleading here is “quite restrained to outdated stereotypes,” she says.

In the time Rosemary has been working on increasing awareness of the competitive version of cheerleading, she has seen sideline cheerleading in Australia quickly go out of style. In 2017, the Canberra Raiders followed the South Sydney Rabbitohs to become the second team to replace their cheerleaders with marching bands and other “desexualised” half time entertainment. Management said the cheerleaders “made fans uncomfortable”. The Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos followed suit in 2019, with the Parramatta Eels the latest to remove cheerleaders for the 2021 season.

The Cronulla Sutherland Sharks cheerleaders in March 2015. AAP Image/Dean Lewins.

While the attitude that cheerleading serves no real purpose now that girls participation in ‘real’ sport in not only allowed, but encouraged, might have been fair some 15 years ago before competitive cheerleading had fully migrated to Australia, cheerleaders have now become athletes in their own right. “They aren’t cheering for anyone else, they’re cheering to win,” Rosemary says.

However, the argument that cheerleading is now redundant and reminiscent of a misogynistic past still exists with an intense ferocity in Australia. Fox Sports recently questioned whether there is a still a place for cheerleaders in modern Australian sport and seemed to conclude that, while the decision should ultimately be up to participants, the use of women as a “game day marketing ploy” was inherently wrong. Sport columnist Nancy Armour echoed this sentiment in her piece on cheerleading, arguing that, although cheerleading’s credibility has improved with the growing ‘All-Star’ scene, “the underlying premise of cheerleaders is still degrading.”

In the USA, cheerleaders are considered athletes.

It’s hard to say why the competitive reiteration of cheerleading hasn’t garnered the same respect in Australia as it has in other countries, particularly the USA. Natalie Adams and Pamela Bettis, who have extensively researched cheerleading’s evolution and perception in America, attribute its positive image today to the American cheerleader’s status as a national icon representing “ideal femininity”. While this used to entail “being pretty, possessing appealing figures, playing a secondary role to males,” in the twenty-first century sociocultural expectations for girls have changed. Adams & Bettis argue that girls today are allowed to be “beautiful…intelligent, physically fit, self-disciplined, confident and tough,” and that as a result, cheerleading has evolved to “accommodate these new ideals, [seen in] the emphasis on competitive cheerleading…and the movement to classify cheerleading as a sport”.

Today, competitive cheerleading in America has been reclaimed by participants and feminists alike. The industry is run by women, for women and this more athletic side to cheerleading is seen as a victory for female athletes, who participate in competitive cheerleading in huge numbers.

And while a similar community exists in Australia, it’s never seemed to reach the same status as it enjoys in the USA and many of the other 166 ICU member countries, including the UK, Canada, Mexico, Japan and Spain among others.

Shana Foxman (right) competing as a ‘base’, lifting another girl into the air.

Shana Foxman, who grew up participating in competitive cheerleading in Australia before travelling to America to compete in 2016, says that while the standard in Australia is rapidly advancing and is now not very far behind the US, the biggest difference she noticed between the two countries was the respect and admiration elite cheerleaders received in America. “Cheerleading is seen completely as a sport over there and cheerleaders are treated as elite athletes,” she says.

A testament to how seriously competitive cheerleading is taken in America is the opportunities afforded to the country’s best cheerleaders, including the chance to attend university because of a place on a college team or even full scholarships to train and study. Shana says that after having devoted so many years of her life to the sport she “would love to see Australian cheerleaders given this kind of recognition and these sorts of opportunities”.

And while she understands why cheerleading has such a negative perception here, “more awareness and representation of competitive cheerleading could change this and cheerleaders could be seen as real athletes,” she says.

Rosemary Sims-James is hopeful that Olympic recognition may help achieve this change in perception. “What I believe this means for our country is the opportunity for cheerleading athletes to feel proud of their chosen sport,” Rosemary says. She believes this decision affords Australian cheerleaders more legitimacy in their pursuits. While in reality, Rosemary acknowledges “cheerleading in the Olympics will only really provide opportunity for very few [athletes] only every 4 years,” the importance of the announcement is that it “allows all athletes the chance to dream,” she says.

The ‘Lady Vixens’ from Sydney’s Northern Beaches representing Australia at the Cheerleading World Championships in 2019.

ICU President Jeff Webb said the IOC’s decision will “greatly assist [the ICU] as we strive to create opportunities for healthy participation and competition for millions of Cheer athletes worldwide”. But many Australian cheerleaders are hoping it will also create a change in how cheerleading is perceived. “It will give [Australian cheerleaders] bragging rights and very long term goals,” Rosemary says. Shana Foxman is similarly very excited to see cheerleading on the biggest sporting stage in the world. “I’m looking forward to be able to watch the sport I love at the highest level on national television here in Australia,” she says.

While the fight to get cheerleading respected and recognised as an athletic, competitive sport is now all but won, the real fight is only just beginning for 60,000 Australian cheerleaders who can now begin the climb towards Olympic glory.