Behind the scenes as cheerleading works to prove it should be an Olympic sport

ORLANDO — LeRoy McCullough had his phone out, shooting photo and video of this raucous parade of athletes from around the world, when everyone slowed. McCullough watched as the members of Team USA, here for the opening ceremony of the World Cheerleading Championships, quieted and turned their eyes to the giant screen across the field house. He is the national team’s coach, his latest stop in a sport he discovered as a student at South Carolina in the ’90s. He couldn’t have imagined this back then as he spent hours practicing, standing so his teammates could hold onto tree limbs as he held them in the air, working to perfect his grip.

McCullough turns his phone and begins to make a video of the video featuring Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, welcoming cheerleading to the Olympic family. The audience is rapt.

Cheerleading was elevated on the international scene in December, when the IOC granted it provisional status and putting it on the path for possible inclusion in the 2024 Olympics. The announcement had felt surreal but impersonal for McCullough when the news broke. Seeing Bach’s face on the giant screens on this late-April night at the HP Field House — surrounded by the best cheerleaders from all over the world, there for the biggest celebration of their craft at Walt Disney World — made it real for McCullough.

He will have little free time over the next three days as he prepares for the USA coed squad to defend the title it has only ever lost once. But in his spare moments he calls the video up, watching again and again.

As exhilarating as Bach’s message is, it also brings new pressure: Cheerleading now has to prove it is Olympic-ready. These world championships need to show that cheerleading, a sport born on the sidelines of football games, is now big — and internationally diverse — enough to be included in the most important international competition.

McCullough’s team is the heavy…

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