Two weeks ago, at the annual Cheerleading Worlds—the Super Bowl of spirit competitions—spectators held their breath when the squad from China's Nanning Middle School No. 26 took the mat. In its first international competition last year, the team performed a bizarre routine, waving Chinese flags and streamers. The judges were stupefied, and Nanning didn't advance beyond the preliminary round. "It was not really cheerleading per se," says Karl Olson of the U.S. All Star Federation (USASF), which hosts the tournament. "It was more of a cultural performance." This time around, though, the Chinese put on a dazzling show, full of high-flying acrobatics and exhilarating tumbling passes. The crowd in Orlando oohed and aahed, and gave the team a standing ovation. "It was night and day," said Olson.
China is getting serious about cheer. And it has plenty of company. When the Worlds first opened the competition to foreign teams two years ago, three showed up: two from Colombia and one from New Zealand. This year, 38 foreign teams came from 15 countries. By Olson's estimate, there are now more than 100,000 cheerleaders abroad (compared with 1.5 million in America). The global interest has mushroomed so much that last year the USASF created an International All Star Federation with connections to groups in 52 countries. Kids from New Zealand to the Netherlands are flocking to the most quintessential of American sports.
Why now? Globalization, of course. ESPN International has been broadcasting American spirit competitions around the world since 1997. Add movies that feature cheerleaders—like "Bring It On," an international hit—and NFL teams' bringing along cheerleaders when they play exhibition games overseas, and you get a wave of kids attracted to modern cheerleading's athleticism and élan.
The sport hasn't developed uniformly overseas. Because of their proximity to the United States, Canada and Mexico have been producing topnotch teams for years. In other countries, like Australia, the sport has grown largely because of the efforts of a few relentless boosters. In France, on the other hand, cheer is just getting started. The country sent a team, Condors St. Etienne, to the Worlds for the first time this year, but the crowd cringed at its rudimentary routine.
China, as usual, is the most aggressive of the up-and-comers. The country's leaders hope the sport will help reverse declines in children's health that have accompanied modernization. They also hope cheer's camaraderie will fight the isolation many of China's studious children feel. As a result, Beijing is promoting cheer in schools, inviting American coaches to run clinics and creating cheer majors and scholarships at sports universities. "When China wants to catch up on something, they can do it quick," says Shawn Chen, president of Sias International University in Zhengzhou, who traveled to Orlando to watch his school's team compete.
For his squad and others, the experience of international competition is invaluable. At the Worlds, foreign teams often study the elite Americans' routines, drawing ideas and inspiration. "Right now, [international cheerleading] is a seed," says Jeff Webb, CEO of Varsity Brands, which dominates the U.S. cheer industry. "We have to nurture that and bring it to fruition."
One sign the effort may be paying off: Nanning Middle School No. 26. The squad finished fifth in the finals this year, behind four American teams but ahead of a team from New Zealand. Said coach Wu Guo Ling with a smile, "Come back to see us next year." It's on.