In the beginning, it was just a lot of yelling. But cheerleading has evolved since students in raccoon coats first started the worldwide sensation. Sideline leaps and chants have become part of genuine competitions showcasing serious athleticism. And those contests have expanded from the United States to the rest of the world.
Now comes news that cheerleading has received provisional recognition by the International Olympic Committee, a pinnacle in a history that dates to the 1800s. Here is a look back, and ahead, at the world of cheerleading.
1869: A Reason to Cheer
What is considered the very first college football game, between Rutgers and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), takes place in New Brunswick, N.J. Historians say students on the sidelines sang school songs and hollered cheers. It was not exactly cheerleading as we know it, but the seeds were sown.
1898: Rah, Rah, Rah!
A Minnesota student, Johnny Campbell, urges his fellow fans to shout for the Gophers. Today, he is generally credited as the first true cheerleader. The cheer was “Rah, rah, rah! Ski-u-mah! Hoo-rah! Hoo-rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!”
1948: Cheering Gets Technical
Lawrence R. Herkimer is the first person to get rich from cheerleading. After cheering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he founded a cheerleading camp, patented the pompom and invented the Herkie jump. (“To execute it, swing the right arm upward to begin your leap, and as you depart the ground, your left hand clutches your hip while the left leg is propelled out parallel to the ground and the right leg is drawn back.”) He was known as the grandfather of cheerleading.
1940s and ’50s: Women Take Over
Cheerleading undergoes a gradual transition from being male-dominated to being female-dominated. The factors included a shortage of men on campus during World War II and a sharp increase in female college students after the war.
About 89 percent of cheerleaders now are female. Among the well-known women who were cheerleaders: Katie Couric (Virginia), Halle Berry (Bedford High School, Cleveland), Meryl Streep (Bernards High School, N.J.) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (James Madison High School, Brooklyn). But some men were still cheering as well, including Samuel L. Jackson at Morehouse College.
1963: Commander in Cheer
Perhaps the most famous practitioner of all, George W. Bush, is the colorful head cheerleader at Andover. He also cheered at Yale. Among the other presidents who have led cheers: Franklin D. Roosevelt at Harvard, Dwight D. Eisenhower at Army and Ronald Reagan at Eureka College.
1977: The Ultimate Cheerleaders
Originally a coed squad, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders became an all-female outfit in 1970 and gradually shifted away from high school students and toward older and more provocatively dressed women. They explode into a national phenomenon with the publication of calendar shots. Bert Convy, Jane Seymour and, for some reason, Bucky Dent later appeared in “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders,” a TV movie, in 1979.
1983: Cheering Gets Competitive
ESPN begins the first significant nationwide exposure to competitive cheerleading with showings of the National High School Cheerleading Championship. Competitions abound in the United States today, with high schoolers and collegians performing routines set to music with cheers, tumbling and jumps.
At the top are the all-star teams, which are unaffiliated with schools and perform high-skill routines that are generally cheer-free. ESPN still broadcasts cheerleading competitions.
2000: Bring It On
The film “Bring It On” raises cheerleading’s profile even more. Kirsten Dunst and Eliza Dushku star as cheerleaders wrestling with life, love and stolen cheer routines.
2004: World Championships
The International Cheer Union, the world governing body of cheerleading, is formed, and the first world cheerleading championships are held. There are currently 107 federations in the group, including unlikely locales like Burundi, Kyrgyzstan and the Isle of Man. There are official divisions for clubs, universities and high schools, pompom, jazz and hip-hop. All-female and coed competitions, but not all-male ones, are recognized.
2010: Ruled Not Athletes
Cheering is dealt a setback when a judge rules that Quinnipiac University’s cheerleaders cannot be counted as female athletes for purposes of Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity in education.
2015: Working for Peanuts
2016: Cheering Before the Court
Cheerleading makes its way to the Supreme Court as the justices consider whether cheerleaders’ uniforms are subject to copyright protection. A ruling is expected in the spring.
December 2016: An Olympic Leap?
The International Olympic Committee grants cheerleading its long-awaited recognition. “It’s the culmination of my life’s work,” said Jeff Webb, president of cheerleading’s newly recognized world governing body.
Cheerleading is not yet in the Olympics and hopefully will be. But with the Olympic committee looking for sports popular with younger viewers — it added skateboarding for 2020 — it certainly seems possible that in the near future, we will see the sport we love on the world’s biggest stage.
— What did you learn about the history of cheerleading, from the article? What did you learn about present-day cheerleading?
— Over the years, cheerleading and cheerleaders, have been subjected to many stereotypes. What are some of them? Has cheerleading evolved into a true competitive sport, and are cheerleaders athletes worthy of respect?
— Do you agree with the International Olympic Committee’s decision to give cheerleading provisional recognition and add it to a list for possible inclusion in the next Olympic Games?
— If, as the article says, the Olympic committee is looking for sports popular with younger viewers, what other sports do you think should be added? Why?