The ancient Greeks undoubtedly would have scoffed at the latest Olympic news. That sound they used to hear during chariot races has evolved into a sport.

It was cheering. Now cheerleading has come so far that critics can envision a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader carrying the U.S. flag into the 2028 Opening Ceremony.

The International Olympic Committee granted cheerleading and Muay Thai (a Thai martial art) provisional status last week. They will have three years to participate in IOC programs, then they can apply to become an Olympic sport.

And to think women were sometimes thrown off a cliff if they were caught trying to watch the original Games. Now they might be back-flipping off human pyramids and getting medals for it.

Last week’s move far from guarantees cheerleading will make the Olympic roster, but it had cheerleaders doing what comes naturally. It also triggered eye-rolling among skeptics who question cheerleading’s Olympic credentials.

“Anyone who does that eye-rolling has never had a daughter or granddaughter or niece involved in it,” Linda Gooch said.

She’s been Central Florida’s coach for 31 years and has seen cheerleading evolve as a sport and explode in popularity. Such famous cheerleaders as Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower would never recognize today’s acrobatic artistry.

According to the authoritative cheerleading website Varsity.com, the whole thing started when students started cheering at the first American football game in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers. That ignores the fact that fans have been cheering since the first athletic competition of any kind.

Cheering – or the lack of it – sometimes decided the fate of gladiators at the Roman Colosseum. Judging is no longer life-or-death, but it is taken quite seriously by about 750,000 high school and 20,000 college cheerleaders in the U.S.

The International Cheer Union has 4.5 million registered participants and federations in 107 countries. Yes, at this very moment a young girl is practicing “Two Bits!” somewhere in Kyrgyzstan.

There are actually three types of cheerleading. Traditional is the rah-rah squads you see at football and basketball games. All-Star, where teams exist strictly to participate in competitions, the biggest of which are usually held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

Then there is STUNT cheerleading, where all-female squads compete head to head. It was created to qualify as a “sport” under Title IX guidelines, though there is no overarching governing body that defines what is a “sport.”

With the IOC, it seems to be whatever will expand its TV audience. That’s why the ancient sport known as “wrestling” was almost kicked off the menu, while skateboarding and climbing will debut in 2020.

Golf became an Olympic sport in 2016, which gets to the crux of this debate. How much athletic ability is required to make something a sport?

Curling participants could win a gold medal with a Marlboro dangling from their lips. You probably won’t see any cheerleaders smoking during or after competition.

At Central Florida, they’re lifting weights at 6 a.m. and practicing four afternoons a week, just like the football team. They get all the support services offered by the athletic department, which is only fitting for a program that’s won two national titles under Gooch and finished runner-up the past three years.

Central Florida’s squad combines the traditional crowd-pumping duties with competitive routines that are a combination of tumbling, gymnastics, dance and death-defying acrobatics.

It’s not exactly the kind of thing the U.S. golf team could pull off.

“There is no question these young people are athletes,” Gooch said.

The question now is whether the IOC will eventually consider cheerleading a full-fledged sport. For now, cheerleaders can at least get excited over the thought of getting tossed in the air at the Olympics.

That sure beats getting tossed off a cliff.


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