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A World of Cheer!

Kids abroad are flocking to the most all-American of sports. The next powerhouse? China, of course.

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By Arian Campo-Flores
Newsweek

May 14, 2007 issue - 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.

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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.