A champion spectacle: Free running in the UK

Trafalgar Square sees demonstrations of a different kind as urban acrobats compete for a world title. Andrew Johnson reports

They came from all corners of the world to enthral 8,000 spectators with their kong vaults, palm spins and diving rolls. Yesterday, for the first time, Trafalgar Square hosted the free-running, or parkour, world championships – the sport based on leaping over and across buildings and urban obstacles.

The high-profile venue marks another step in the sport's increasing popularity, although not everyone is happy.

Dan Edwardes of Parkour UK, the governing body for the sport, described the event as "taboo" within the community. "It goes against all the principles of parkour," he said. "We are not competitive and the stunts they do are dangerous. It is not the image of the sport we want to convey."

Britain became aware of free-running seven years ago when the BBC used images of youths leaping the gaps between rooftops for one of its "idents". Now it is taught in schools and used in training by the Royal Marines.

Trafalgar Square was filled with wooden blocks and scaffolding to allow the 27 contestants from as far afield as Mexico and Australia to show off their skills.

"We're bringing the sport up to the next level, cranking it up by about 20 times," said Paul Corkery, known as EZ, who last year helped organise the first championships, held in the Roundhouse in Camden, north London. "The great thing about it is that it is accessible to everyone. It's about how you tackle obstacles, and you can go out and do it anywhere."

The sport was developed by French enthusiasts 20 years ago, on rundown estates in Paris. However, its roots are said to be in 19th-century France, as well as in the "natural human movements" of African tribes.

As seen in the movies

Luc Besson's Taxi (1998) features the first on-screen appearance of free running.

In 2004 the director used extensive sequences of the sport in District 13.

Daniel Craig's James Bond chases a bad guy around a building site – and up a crane – in one of the most famous uses of free running on film in 2006's Casino Royale.

Live free or Die Hard (2007), Bruce Willis's fourth Die Hard movie, sees a martial arts expert using free-running movements.

In You Don't Mess with the Zohan, Adam Sandler's 2008 flop, Team Tempest perform free-running back flips

In the 2009 comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop, criminals used free running as a way of moving quickly through a shopping mall.