Running wild: London prepares for 'free-running' championships

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The world's best 'free-runners' are converging on London. Rob Sharp tries to learn some of their milder moves

Sticky is an international free running competitor and instructor. He's in his early twenties, sports designer stubble and can back-flip off a concrete bollard, side-flip off a subway wall, or – as happened to him recently – hop in style from roof to roof with police helicopters in pursuit. Then there's me. My joints bend halfway, then threaten to snap; I can't grow a full beard, and have recently "bust" my ankle. This means, I am told, that I cannot have the free-running name "The Coolinator", as I would wish; it has to be something earthier. I suggest "Smelly", but Sticky ignores me. He's too busy downgrading by an order of 10 the difficulty of the free running stunts we have arranged to perform together.

As an employee of free running's official UK organising body, Urban Freeflow, Sticky has taught soldiers, businessmen, cops and robbers about how to hot-foot it around the cityscape. The sport has come a long way since it was cooked up in the Paris suburbs by its founding grandaddies, Sébastien Foucan and David Belle, in the early 1990s; since then, free runners have boinged and bounced through any number of ads and music videos, polished off spins, turns and flips in Anthony Minghella's romantic thriller Breaking and Entering and Bond flick Casino Royale (both in 2006), and even developed their own world championship. The first such event was held last year at Camden's Roundhouse, attracting 2,000 people; this year's literal knees-up will take place this Saturday in a special set-up of frames and arenas to be assembled at London's Trafalgar Square; no doubt the public space's notoriously street-wise pigeons and fourth-plinth-spectators will take it in their stride.

"It is an amazing opportunity to take all that we achieved last year and take it to the next level," says Urban Freeflow co-founder EZ. "We expect at least 8,000 people and as such our production values have gone through the roof. I can't wait to get stuck in."

Sticky takes me through a few of the basics. He shows me how to jump on to, then over, a low wall (maybe useful if you're being chased by a security guard from WH Smith); as well as how to crawl along a raised partition. The latter movement is apparently best pursued while lowering your centre of gravity and shuffling along, Spider-man style. Unfortunately, I am petrified by the 6ft drop and at one point hug my chest against the wall and clamp my eyes shut, much to the disappointment both of Sticky and of our battle-hardened photographer. It's a bit like Graham Norton cat-burgling.

But this, of course, is as nothing compared with what Saturday's competitors will have to go through. The likes of the American Gabriel "Jaywalker" Nunez, last year's world champion, will pit himself against British competitors such as Paul "Blue Devil" Joseph, George "G-Force" Mayfield and Tim "Livewire" Shieff, runners-up to Nunez last year. The athletes will be rated on attributes such as technical ability, execution, creativity and fluidity. It is, apparently, all about co-opting the street space – which means that engaging with your surroundings in a novelty manner wins you a crucial leg-up.

They will do all this on a variety of specially-built devices, such as vertical pipes, angled kicker walls and scaffolding to allow for a "multitude of techniques" to be showcased. Crucially, this year there will be no matting to cushion the inevitable falls. Apparently these interfere with the athletes' grip and "stifle their flow".

Not everyone sees such events as a great excuse for a free-running love jamboree; dissenting voices in the free-running community – which has some 4,000 followers in Britain and around 20,000 worldwide – have noted the move into the world of commercialism with trepidation (both years' tournaments have been sponsored by Barclaycard). One free-running blogger, Zorak, writes: "If this is all true about the competition, then it really sucks; it is really sad how money destroys everything." EZ isn't happy about this. "The people who are saying this are the ones who don't have any sponsorship," he says.

Urban Freeflow are no strangers to controversy. They have got into trouble with some veteran free-runners for claiming to be the sport's "official" worldwide "network" – although most of them don't seem too bothered. For now, however, they're just focused on sprinting towards the weekend. "There are going to be a few surprises up people's sleeves," says EZ. "To our detractors, I would say: we are providing a selection of talented, already high-profile athletes the opportunity to showcase their abilities on a significant stage. It is a great mixed bag of competitors and can only help the sport at large. There will be a lot of people stepping up and trying out some moves that we have never seen before."

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