One giant leap for mankind

An awesome spectacle of breakdancing, gymnastics and death-defying leaps, 'parkour' has inspired thousands of teens to give up their Gameboys and jump. Kate Burt tries to catch up with the Urban Freeflow Krew

It's a balmy evening, and the South Bank Centre in London is swarming with groups of tourists, post-work drinkers, strolling couples and freshly pressed theatre-goers. The summer air is thick and muggy, and the banks of the Thames are dotted with people aimlessly watching the world go by. Away from the crowd, however, amid the expanse of concrete angles that lies in front of the Shell building, things are a lot less leisurely.

It's a balmy evening, and the South Bank Centre in London is swarming with groups of tourists, post-work drinkers, strolling couples and freshly pressed theatre-goers. The summer air is thick and muggy, and the banks of the Thames are dotted with people aimlessly watching the world go by. Away from the crowd, however, amid the expanse of concrete angles that lies in front of the Shell building, things are a lot less leisurely.

Here, a small group of young men are systematically hurling themselves, with remarkable elegance, over a 15ft wall. Several others are expertly walking on top of the railings that follow the South Bank's many walkways. Soon, the young men will sprint along a narrow ledge to leap across an eight-foot drop, in a heart-stopping aerial display worthy of Spiderman himself. This is "parkour", or free-running. And it's going to be huge.

Parkour, a dazzling athletic choreography that takes its influences from skateboarding, breakdancing, martial arts and military training, began life about 15 years ago in a Paris suburb as a way for teenagers to escape their boredom. Today, the pursuit is inspiring thousands of British youths to get off their sofas and do something.

Spearheading its popularity here is a shaven-headed figure in combats and vest, who has just ignored a flight of conveniently positioned steps to vault abruptly over a wall by way of introduction. This is Paul Corkery, aka "ez", Britain's most prominent free-runner and the man behind the website www.urbanfreeflow.com, the country's biggest parkour site.

Until about two years ago, parkour - the word comes from the French parcours, meaning "circuit" - remained tightly ensconced in its Gallic birthplace. It probably first caught this country's attention when it formed the basis of a BBC campaign featuring a man leaping over the capital's rooftops in a bid to beat the rush-hour traffic. But it was the television documentary Jump London, in which the French originators somersaulted, vaulted and tumbled their way around the city, using its famous landmarks as stepping stones, that saw the sport - literally - take off.

"My background was in boxing, but I never felt I'd totally fallen in love with it, never felt it was 100 per cent me," says Corkery, 30. Then, in December 2002, he discovered parkour. "I was lying in bed with my wife watching an extreme-sports show when a piece about parkour came on. It looked amazing. Suddenly, I said to her: 'This is exactly what I've been looking for - forever.'" Corkery tracked down the French website, parkour.com, and met up with some like-minded Londoners. A UK message board was born, and soon after www.urbanfreeflow.com followed. Now, two years later, the site gets about 14,000 hits a day from all over the world.

Corkery's ambitions for the sport do not end there. His most ambitious plans include forming an international federation, under which parkour would be taught by certified coaches. He has also been closely involved with the development of structured indoor training sessions at the Europa Gym in Erith, east London. The centre, run by the Olympic gymnastics coach Len Arnold, provides a place where young beginners can learn the all-important basics safely.

There are also commercial opportunities to exploit. Everyone wants a slice of the brand of urban cool associated with parkour, and Corkery has assembled "the Krew" - a crack team of core UK traceurs ("route-masters") to deal with the demand. They have already been hired by Siemens and O2 and appeared in music videos. Corkery imagines that it won't be long before parkour officially becomes an extreme sport. "Once the Americans wake up to it, they're going to want to get it in the X-Games," he says. The practitioners who gather at the South Bank have also been asked to star in a follow-up to Jump London, which starts filming next month.

Corkery originally got into boxing at the encouragement of his father, who hoped it would help him to stay out of trouble on the council estate where he grew up. "It taught me about discipline and about myself - I think a lot of kids need something to do to give them a sense of meaning. Kids absolutely love parkour because it has that 'cool' tag. But it also gives them a real sense of being. All you need is a pair of trainers. And it's free, so it's accessible to everybody no matter what their background. Cavemen probably did it to catch animals. And the rewards it gives you are unparalleled."

Not only could parkour save thousands of youngsters from this country's looming obesity epidemic, but it can also stem the alarming rise in depression among young men. "PsychicMonkey", one of the thousands of members who regularly post messages at urbanfreeflow.com, writes: "I've never been a big fan of sport - more a computer geek. I liked the idea of basketball and hockey at school, but I could never be bothered. If I hadn't discovered this, I'd be upstairs now, playing on the PlayStation... [besides] it's useful for escaping if you are attacked in the street. Not many people can get over a 15ft wall."

Another enthusiast is "D-man". Aged 16, he's the youngest team member and, along with most of the others, is here at the South Bank. He got into parkour through graffiti, developing his own methods of scaling buildings to leave his tag in eye-catching sites. Like the rest, he's disarmingly confident. "Parkour has completely changed me," he says earnestly. "I used to be quite angry, always swearing and getting into trouble, and I'd get stressed and frustrated."

His temperament almost cost him his job. "I'm a dispatch manager at a comic-book shop. Cable [another Urban Freeflow team-member] was working there and told me they weren't up for giving me a job because they thought I was too crazy. Cable told them I'd really changed, though - and it was true. I'm one of their best employees. My thinking was, 'If I don't fix up, look sharp now, later in life I'll be totally destroyed.' And I got that from parkour. You have to look at things, break them down: you have to work out carefully which moves you're going to need in advance. I know if I just rush at a massive drop I'll mess up my back."

For all its adventurism, parkour sounds extremely dangerous. Should young teenagers really be encouraged to take it up? "All sports have the potential to be dangerous," points out Len Arnold at the Europa Gym. "Putting gymnastics in the wrong hands could be disastrous. It's just vital to teach them how to do it safely." Corkery agrees: "A common misconception is that parkour is all about jumping off tall buildings. That's a tiny part of it - it's mainly low-level work. Heights are only something we'd encourage once someone is extremely experienced."

D-Man looks up at the two walls either side of the stone steps linking the bridge to the river-level walkways, between which some of the rest of the Krew are jumping. The consistently steady landings as each hits the narrow wall-top make you catch your breath. There's about an eight-foot gap, and maybe a 15-foot drop at its highest. D-Man smiles: "There's another one on the other side of the bridge," he says, "but the drop is 40 feet. It makes you think: if I can do it on this side, I have the guarantee that I can do it on the other side. All parkour does is play tricks with your mind, because your body is physically capable of so much. Knowing that is something I love. It means I can stand out a bit. And I never used to."

"Kerbie", a 17-year-old from Carshalton, south-west London, is equally evangelical. "I live on a suburban council estate, and there's nothing for people my age to do. It all started when I was about 10 and a mate dared me to jump off a balcony. I was like, 'No way!' But this kid, who was younger than me, did it. So I did one higher.

"I began climbing up high buildings, hanging off gutters with one hand; stupid things that I look back on and think, 'God, I'd never do that now!' Now, I really take care. Instead of just seeing a high wall and going for it, I stop and look at it and really think about what I'm going to do. I can either rush at it and do it badly and hurt myself, or I can do it 100 times and then do it perfectly. It's a nice discipline."

So, how does he feel about the growing popularity of parkour, and its inevitable commercialisation. Won't it lose some of its cool factor? "No, because the main players would still be doing it every week down here, running around and having a laugh. Plus, now when I get caught sneaking around at night, people think I'm a burglar. If it was official, I could just say, 'Actually, no, I'm doing parkour.'"

Some official recognition might also stop the South Bank security guards from giving the Urban Freeflow team such a hard time: they're asked to move on four times in less than an hour when I visit. The antagonism seems strange in the light of the news that the area's famous skateboarders are to be given their own specially-commissioned skateboard-friendly sculptures. "It's because parkour is different and new," D-Man says, "so they think it must be wrong. They should just let us do our sport."

The idea that parkour's image could benefit from commercialisation is something that Mark Adams aims to tap into. Adams is the managing director of Pretty Fly, a free-sports promotional company, which plans a parkour event, with workshops and demonstrations, early next year.

"The idea behind all of our events is that we can use the sponsorship money to make our events free and practical," he says. "My company's main objective is to get more people into sports, and parkour is a perfect medium for that - it puts a really interesting slant on doing exercise. Any [commercial] progress that demystifies something and makes it more accessible has got to be positive, and more likely to inspire the girl or guy on the sofa to get off their butts."

Arnold thinks parkour could be a great motivator. "I find it sad that so many kids are not into sport these days, but I'm not surprised. We are not a sporting nation. I've just come back from teaching at a summer camp at a school in Russia, where they had a 50ft swimming pool, a football pitch with a running track around it and a fully equipped gymnasium to cover virtually every major sport. You just don't get that over here in your average school.

"I think extreme sports as a whole are great because they gave the traditional sports a kick up the arse and - let's be honest - they were getting a bit fuddy-duddy. So to see something new come along that could inspire kids to be active is amazing."

There seems to be no doubt about how inspiring parkour's new young fans are finding it. Back on the Urban Freeflow message board, positive postings abound. "Dobbynging", another 16-year-old, is a prime example: "If I was in the state I was nine months ago, I would be weak, pale and very tubby, with a sleeping disorder from 24/7 gaming and RSI. Parkour has definitely changed me. The weekly jams have boosted my confidence with meeting new people. I've also started to lay off the junk food and eat well to help me train hard and improve. Parkour has become the way I live: I block out all the troubles in life and just look ahead and run." And you can't argue with that.

For more information about parkour workshops, visit the www.urbanfreeflow.com and www.prettyfly.com websites. A documentary about parkour training sessions at the Europa Gym will be shown at 7.30pm on Monday 27 September as part of BBC1's 'Inside Out' strand

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