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Cheerleaders could become the main event

US - The high-kicking, baton-twirling athletes may get the chance to leave the sidelines and join a league of their own

US - The high-kicking, baton-twirling athletes may get the chance to leave the sidelines and join a league of their own

In 1898, a student at Minnesota University, watching his college football team headed for defeat, led the crowd in a chant of support.

As "Rah, rah, rah! Sku-u-mar, hoo-rah! Hoo-rah! Varsity! Varsity! Varsity, Minn-e-so-ta!" spread through the stands, Johnny Campbell became the first cheerleader and an American institution was born.

Before long, teams of girls twirling batons, waving pom-poms and high kicking were a presence at every student football game. But despite being the focus of fierce competition between generations of teenage girls jockeying for status and a place on the team, by sporting standards cheerleading was the sideshow, not the main event.

Now, however, America's National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is considering making cheerleading a national sport, granting it the same status as baseball, hockey and soccer.

It's not such a strange proposition. Since the 1980s, a competitive offshoot of traditional cheerleading has grown in popularity and sophistication. Teams of athletes perform impressive gymnastic stunts, jumps, tumbles, human pyramids and co-ordinated routines set to music. They compete at dedicated events, independent of the football and basketball games that traditional cheerleading exists to support.

Competitive cheerleading has already been recognised as a sport by a handful of states, among them New Mexico, which made the change last year.

Public schools are required by law to provide equal sporting opportunities for boys and girls. Offering competitive cheerleading as a sport helps New Mexico's schools to achieve that. Which invites the question, is cheerleading a soft option being elevated to the status of sport simply to fill quotas?

Kristin Derr, assistant director of New Mexico's Activities Association, which helped bring in the change, defends the charge.

Making cheerleading a sport gives female athletes a welcome psychological boost, raising them to the same level as other athletes in their schools, she says.

Just as importantly, cheerleading clubs now receive equivalent funding to more established, male-dominated sports. Every one of New Mexico's larger public schools now has a competitive cheerleading team.

"This is only the first year, so it's hard to gauge the effect it's having," Ms Derr says. "But the girls find it really exciting to be part of this athletic event."

Derr is hopeful that more girls will be encouraged to take up sport at school, ultimately boosting the number of women who go on to become professional athletes.

If the NCAA decides to award cheerleading national sporting status, it will have to choose between two competition formats. USA Cheer and the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association have both been lobbying for the change.

Bill Seely, executive director of USA Cheer, has also been lobbying international bodies SportAccord and the International Olympic Committee. If he has his way, human pyramids and stunt routines could soon be finding their way into events in schools and colleges, not just across the United States, but also around the world.

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