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You might as well jump

Sophia Money-Coutts

  • Last Updated: February 23. 2009 9:30AM UAE / February 23. 2009 5:30AM GMT

Steve Smuts, 21, Ali Rashid, 18, and Tariq Williams, 23, from left to right, practising parkour on the Corniche. Lauren Lancaster / The National

Type the word “parkour” into YouTube and the fruits of your search will run into the thousands. You will be greeted with videos of energetic figures jumping across buildings as if they have springs in their soles and scrambling up walls like spiders. The technical definition of the exercise is the art of moving from point A to point B as swiftly as possible using only the human body, but it is known alternately by its practitioners as a sport, a type of martial art and even a philosophy.

Also dubbed free-running, it’s an activity that is blossoming in the UAE. Twenty-two members of a British parkour group called Urban Freeflow have been invited here to take part in a display at this week’s IDEX event in Abu Dhabi – the Middle East’s largest defence exhibition and conference. With 330,000 members, Urban Freeflow has the largest online community of parkour devotees, or “traceurs”, in the world, and last year they organised the sport’s first-ever competitive event in London, the World Freerun Championships.

“We started out as a group of guys training together six years ago,” says the group’s leader, EZ. “But then interest spread and we started being hired to do live performances, commercials and film work. From there it just went nuts.” They have since been involved in advertising campaigns for companies such as Sony, Nokia, Toyota and Adidas, in films such as Casino Royale and 28 Weeks Later and in numerous documentaries.

It’s a sports craze that has been taken up worldwide, but with Casino Royale muscled men leap from building to crane without glancing at the six-metre drop below them. James Bond clings on to rooftops by his little finger before swinging his legs up and bouncing on to the next building like a human-cat hybrid. As I wait on Abu Dhabi’s Corniche for my lesson with the UAE parkour group, I peer at the railings and sturdy walls around me, try feebly to flex my arm muscles and frown. I’m not convinced it’s going to be the activity for me.

“You’re definitely going to lose those nails,” says the group’s 21-year-old founder, Steve Smuts, looking at my hands as he arrives to talk through parkour basics. I tell him I have read articles by traceurs that talk of blistered and bleeding hands.

“Is that true?”

Smuts and his fellow traceurs, Ali Rashid and Tariq Williams, laugh. “If you don’t do it right, the skin on your hand can be pulled off,” Smuts says. “Some people wear gloves, but most don’t. I personally prefer to feel my way,” he says, turning his hands over and showing me his callouses.

I suspect such bravado helps explain why parkour remains such a male-dominated activity. Approximately 90 per cent of those who practise it are men, as are the 10 to 15 regular members of the UAE parkour group. “We do have two girls who want to join in,” Smuts says, “but they’re in Dubai so can’t come down here to practise very easily.”

Parkour was developed as a macho drill by the Frenchman George Herbert, who came up with the idea after a tour of duty with the French army in Africa at the turn of the 19th century. Impressed by the agility and athletic prowess he saw there, he returned to France and wrote a training manual based on the 10 basic movements he had witnessed: varying jumps, shimmies, vaults and rolls. Named the Methode Naturelle, it was subsequently used as the standard training manual for the French military, who developed obstacle courses called “parcours du combattant” to practise on. One of those trained in the art, Raymond Belle, then passed on what he learnt to his son David.

David Belle is credited with creating the activity known as parkour today. Now 33, he started playing around with the moves in the 1990s in his French hometown of Lisses, where he developed it with a friend, Sébastien Foucan. Together with several others, they formed a group called Yamakasi, which provided the title for a subsequent film on parkour that helped spread the activity worldwide.

I eye the unfriendly, hard surfaces surrounding me on the Corniche. “Do you practise without mats?” I ask Smuts.

“We tend to practise flips on the grass but we do all the parkour here on the concrete,” he replies, nonchalantly.

The subject raises the question of safety, perhaps the most controversial aspect of parkour. Many of YouTube’s parkour videos show stunts that go wrong, causing serious injury and, on occasion, death. Urban Freeflow’s EZ had called the idea of parkour being all about rooftops and big jumps “a fallacy”, but videos and testaments from some traceurs underline the point that there is a clear thrill-seeking element to the sport.

“People have died from this,” Smuts admits. “But if you know what you’re capable of and what you aren’t capable of, it should never happen. We do push ourselves, but it’s slow and progressive.”

“Have you ever broken anything?” I ask.

“No,” he says, but he then pulls up his trousers to show a large mark on each shin where he once missed a jump and slammed his legs into a wall. “I couldn’t walk for two days,” he says, laughing.

Having been assured that my own shins would remain intact because beginners take it so slowly, I began to warm up – a crucial part of any parkour session because all that leapfrogging, wall-scaling and landing puts the body, especially the joints, through such hard knocks.

From there, Smuts explained my first basic move: a precision jump, or jumping from one spot to another directly opposite in a bunny-hop manoeuvre while keeping both feet together and using your arms for propulsion. I thought about how gracefully and quietly cats land after a jump, tried it for myself and came thundering down like Dumbo. “Really think about your explosive power,” said Smuts as I tried for a second, third, fourth and fifth time. I was inching closer to the goal point, approximately one and a half metres away, but my legs were already beginning to shake.

We tried another move, a vault that the ex-gymnast of the group, Rashid, demonstrated. After a short run, he sprung over a waist-high wall, swinging his legs sideways using just his arms to balance and propel himself off with. He sauntered back towards me casually, brushing off his hands. I took a run-up and stopped dead at the wall, like a horse refusing to jump. After several goes, I could jump up and over, but my thigh kept sweeping the wall and my entire body was shaking. Smuts told me that being tall, as I am, is an advantage because you can reach higher, but it was extraordinary to see how quickly a basic couple of moves had exhausted me. The boys gamely then tried to teach me to scale a three-metre wall, but this relied on upper body strength and my weedy biceps failed me.

“How often would I need to practise to master it?” I ask while recovering my breath. Smuts says a few hours a day every week might do it, which is what he aims for now.

Given that it’s such an intensely physical activity, I wonder whether he has to undertake any other kind of exercise to support his training.

“We go running on the Corniche, but not as often as I’d like to,” he says. “You do have to be fit, but not that cardiovascular fit because you’re not jogging around the whole time. It’s more interval-based, really. You see an obstacle in front of you, plan ahead and then sprint through it as fast as possible. It’s about overcoming mental obstacles as much as physical ones.”

Smuts has trained 12-year-olds in his group, and Urban Freeflow has supervised children as young as eight. It’s an activity that’s often seen as relatively childlike, as if you’re back in the playground or climbing trees again. Alternatively, traceurs say that it marks a return to the hunter-gatherer ways of old, a more natural, roaming form of exercise that utilises all the body muscles and can burn between 800 and 1,000 calories per hour of activity.

I can testify to its strenuous effects. For three days after my beginner’s session, as Smuts had predicted, every single joint and muscle in my body ached. I walked robotically like the Tin Man and winced when standing up or sitting down. I also developed an enormous purple bruise along my thigh where it had struck the wall. It is a demanding form of exercise, but being out in the air and free from the confines of a gym makes it enormously liberating, too.

In the UK, Urban Freeflow has taught parkour skills to schools, the police and armed forces and EZ said that he is currently in talks about bringing the world championships to the UAE because there is enough interest to develop it along similar lines. “Everybody that has seen it here loves it, but at some point the commercial interest will dry up,” he says. “We don’t want it to be like breakdancing in the Eighties, which died down, so we’re trying to sustain the momentum.” With young, devoted traceurs such as Smuts encouraging more and more people to try it out, the sport’s future here does look bright. I, on the other hand, might need more practise before taking on the Abu Dhabi skyline.

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