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Cheerleader's death: It's time to take a serious look at cheerleading

Published on Apr 16, 2014 8:18 PM

It was a sad day for the cheerleading community here when Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Lai Qing Xiang, 18, died after he fell while performing a gymnastic manoeuvre in August last year.

On Tuesday, State Coroner Imran Abdul Hamid gave his verdict on the tragic case. He highlighted the lack of safety measures, such as proper guidance and first aid facilities, for cheerleading which "has evolved dramatically" into a competitive, dangerous sport with complex stunts.

The verdict echoed what some have been calling for: tighter controls and proper accreditation for the activity which has become more popular among students here.

Cheerleading was first introduced to Singapore in the late 1980s, and its popularity peaked in the early 2000s.

Then, individuals who were interested in cheerleading learnt the moves on their own, and formed teams with like-minded peers. Some of them had little or no experience in gymnastics, or even in dance. And whatever they learnt about cheerleading, they got it from movies, and then later, from videos as they watched other established groups overseas perform complex routines that incorporated gymnastics stunts.

It was through such ground-up efforts that Singapore now has a handful of cheerleading teams representing schools, polytechnics, the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and universities.

Some of them frequently attend overseas competitions, helping to raise the profile of the local cheerleading scene.

But it is perhaps because cheerleading grew through such ground-up initiatives that there is currently no formal organisation that oversees the activity, and implements safety regulations and guidelines. It is also yet to be recognised internationally as a sports event.

And this makes it even more important for institutions and organisations offering cheerleading to ensure that the loosely regulated activity is kept safe and fun for participants.

On Tuesday, the State Coroner highlighted lapses in last August's incident which resulted in Singapore's first fatality in cheerleading.

Qing Xiang, who was part of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's cheerleading team Magnum Force, died after attempting to do a "back handspring" at a training session. He landed awkwardly on his back and neck, fell into a coma, and died two weeks later.

The coroner questioned why fellow cheerleaders, who were tasked to support Qing Xiang in completing the move, thought they were not expected to mitigate his fall or perform rescue duties when the need arose.

He also asked why a medical staff was not around during training sessions, when there was often a physician on stand-by during cheerleading competitions. The training session, he noted, was not supervised by a teacher or representative from the polytechnic.

Lessons should be learnt from this tragic incident.

The Education Ministry announced in March that all instructors offering enrichment and co-curricular activities in primary and secondary schools, as well as junior colleges, will have to be registered with the ministry from 2015. The ministry will then evaluate the applicants on criteria such as their area of specialisation, qualifications and experience, and registration with a relevant professional body. They should also be 18 or older.

It may be timely to extend this rule to ITE, polytechnics and universities.

This way, parents and students will have more confidence in cheerleading instructors who have been vetted and assessed by the ministry.

Like what Qing Xiang's father said after the coroner's inquiry: "We cannot turn back the clock but we really don't want this to happen to another student."