A couple of weeks ago, parkour was formally recognised as a sport for the first time in the UK. The question most people will ask on hearing this news is: what on earth is parkour? Parkour, which is also known as free running, is the discipline of getting from point A to point A as fluidly and efficiently as possible.
The practitioners, who for the most part are young men, jump, climb, slide and roll their way over and across obstacles with a cat-like agility.
While the popularity of parkour has exploded in recent years its origins stretch back to the start of the last century when Georges Hébert, a French physical education tutor, devised a system known as the Natural Method that combined 10 fundamental movements (walking, running, jumping, crawling, climbing, balancing, throwing, lifting, defending and swimming). This system was the inspiration for the military obstacle course or “parcours du combattant” in his native tongue.
However, it was only when a small group of teenagers from the southern suburbs of Paris, known as the Yamakasi, created a more formal structure that parkour developed a distinct identity and began to capture the public’s imagination. In the late ’90s, the group’s profile grew significantly when they were featured on a number of television programmes and films, cumulating in 2006 in the opening scene of Casino Royale which starred one of the group’s founding members, Sébastien Foucan.
Brian Kavanagh (29), from Rush in Co Dublin, is one of the most established practitioners on the Irish parkour scene with over 13 years’ experience. As a teenager Kavanagh had little interest in conventional sports. “I first encountered parkour in a BBC ad which I thought was really cool, but it was a few years later, after watching a Channel 4 documentary called Jump London, that I found out there was a name for it, it wasn’t just people running around like lunatics.”
Kavanagh is a founding member of Displacement Parkour, a group that was formed after a performance at the 2008 Dublin Fringe Festival. As well as performances and demonstrations they have been running parkour classes since 2009. “At the time there was nowhere to learn parkour so we decided to set up a class to teach people the safe way to go about it. Our goal is to instil a love of movement and to show people that exercising doesn’t have to be boring.”
There are in the region of 35,000 free runners in the UK. Obviously the Irish scene is much smaller, but it is difficult to accurately estimate the number. “There are a lot of small groups who train regularly, but occasionally there is a large meet up where the community comes together. Two years ago there was a jam where 800 people showed up, so there’s probably a lot more going on than we realise.”
Earlier this month, parkour hit the headlines when a British teenager died in an accident on the Paris metro. It is unclear what exactly the 17-year-old, who was an avid parkour fan, was doing when the tragic accident took place. However, his friends were at pains to point out that he was not practising parkour when the accident happened. Nevertheless, the headlines didn’t do anything for the reputation of the sport.
Kavanagh feels the negative coverage of parkour in the press is wide of the mark. “Urban exploration, crane climbing, train surfing couldn’t be any further from what parkour actually is and as far as I’m concerned the majority of it is just reckless. While being confident in yourself and your skills at height is important, parkour can be done in much safer ways.”
Statistically, parkour is actually a very safe sport. A 2013 study measured the injury rate at 5.5 injuries per 1000 hours of training which compares well with sports like rugby and running which have rates of 30 and 11 injuries per 1000 hours respectively.
With social media awash with parkour videos, inevitably the ones that attract the most attention are those that feature the riskiest moves. So it’s not surprising that in most people’s minds parkour is associated with risk taking. “Parkour is all about handling the risk rather than just doing something dangerous and getting away with it,” Kavanagh explains.
A few days after talking to Kavanagh I meet up with Adam Kilbride, another member of the Displacement Parkour team. Kilbride (21), from Beaumont, Dublin, agreed to show me around some of his favourite training spots in the city centre and talk me through a few basic moves.
In transition year, Kilbride took up gymnastics and began experimenting with some of the movements he had learnt in an outdoor setting. It was only later, after stumbling across parkour on the internet, that he realised that what he had been doing was parkour. A short time later he met Kavanagh. “When I started training with him I realised immediately that this was what I wanted to do.”
The first stop on our tour around the city’s parkour spots is Store Street Garda Station.
In front of the station are a number of giant concrete balls. After warming up he demonstrates a sequence of jumps from ball to ball and a variety of slides and rolls across the raised platforms. He encourages me to attempt some of the more basic moves, and after a number of stuttering, graceless attempts, I quickly realise that the moves that Kilbride made look effortless and easy are anything but.
As we walk across the city he points out obstacles everywhere. “It’s all about playing and using everything around you as a playground,” he says. Outside an office block on Earlsfort Terrace, Kilbride explains the basic moves that serve as the building blocks of parkour: vaulting, jumping and rolls. Once these basics are mastered then the variations can be attempted with the ultimate goal of linking lots of difficulty moves into a flowing sequence.
He also fills me in on the philosophical basis that underpins the discipline. “It’s about getting out and having fun, seeing what you can do. You practise so that you can last longer, train longer, and ultimately have a healthy lifestyle,” he explains.
“Parkour is for anyone of any age or ability, at any time. All you need are a pair of shoes and a bit of imagination and the world opens up.”