Frazer Meek jumps down from a wooden platform and jogs across the floor of the Fluidity Freerun Academy, a 7,000 sq ft warehouse in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Cardiff. It is a wintry Thursday evening and there are only a few hardy souls practising their leaps and swings on the purpose-built equipment, designed to mimic the bollards, railings and concrete building blocks of the great urban outdoors.
“It’s funny that recognition has come just after we opened,” he says. “We’ve always been the underdogs because we’re not a recognised sport, but now that should change.”
Last week, the UK became the first country in the world to recognise parkour as a sport. Defined as the discipline of moving “freely over and through any terrain using only the abilities of the body”, parkour is notable for its participants’ ability to leap to improbable heights while almost always seeming to land, cat-like, on their feet.
Also known as free running and art du déplacement, the newly minted sport already attracts thousands of mainly young, mainly male participants across the country, their interest propelled by the sport’s high profile on YouTube and in popular culture, from the opening sequence of James Bond’s Casino Royale to advertising and music videos.
“A lot of people from the pedestrian world don’t understand parkour,” says Meek. “It’s not just about technique, it’s about the attitude. It’s about exploring boundaries sensibly, seeing danger and calculating risk.”
Meek, 24, who set up Fluidity Freerun with fellow parkour enthusiast Craig Robinson and a £50,000 loan, is almost an archetypal follower of the sport.
“I started when I was 12,” he says. “I really hated conventional sports, I was a nervous kid who liked video games. Then I started to come across it on internet forums, and it seemed to be just a bunch of long-haired nerds, a lot of people who didn’t fit in with more conventional stuff, shy people. That’s what appealed to me about it.”
Nine years ago, he got together with some like-minded spirits and rented a gym to practise parkour. Within weeks hundreds of kids were turning up.
Fluidity Freerun, which opened last October, is one of a handful of purpose-built parkour centres in the UK, offering a daily timetable ranging from “Little Ninjas” for ages two to four, to adult drop-in sessions. It reflects the coming of age of a sport that started in the late 1980s as little more than some friends playing around after school in a Paris suburb. One of those children, Sebastien Foucan, is now president of Parkour UK, the sport’s governing body.
“It took many years to get to this point,” he says. “It’s a journey, an evolution. You have to tick many boxes but the core of it is still the same.”
Foucan was an early ambassador for parkour in the UK, appearing in Jump London, the C4 documentary that introduced the activity to a wider public in 2003 as he and two friends leapt across the capital’s rooftops. He also played Mollaka, the bomb-maker chased by Daniel Craig’s Bond in the memorable sequence at the start of Casino Royale in 2006.
“I love my country but the UK opened the door to us,” he says, when asked why Britain has beaten France to recognise parkour. “They embraced it straight away when we did Jump London. I met with the minister of sport at the Élysée [Palace] but nothing happened. Here I met the sport minister and she is amazing. They’re more inclined to embrace the subculture here, there’s more openness to exploring possibilities.”
That spirit of openness has led some to decry the apparent risks associated with free running, although Parkour UK insists that the injury rate is lower than in other sports. Nevertheless, parkour has been dogged by accusations of recklessness, not least when 17-year-old Nye Newman died in an accident on the Paris Métro on New Year’s Day. Both his family and the parkour group he was with have denied suggestions he was free running when he died.
Film-maker and anthropologist Julie Angel has chronicled the rise of parkour, even completing a PhD on the sport as she attempts to decode its appeal. “Parkour opens up the possibilities of a generally mundane urban environment,” she says. “When you walk through a playground rather than a general living environment it really changes your worldview. You return to this sense of wonderment about the world. It becomes a metaphor for overcoming obstacles in life, and that’s where it becomes a transformative process.”
Participants point to the lack of equipment as one of parkour’s advantages, arguing that with recognition the sport will be able to extend its work in schools.
“We’ve been in schools for 12 years,” says Parkour UK chief executive Eugene Minogue. “Given the lack of outdoor space and the funding challenges, the great thing about parkour is that all you need is a pair of trainers. It goes back to the core of what PE is about.”
Charlotte Blake is the chair of Free Your Instinct, a charity that brings parkour to the field of mental health. It has, she says, been an effective tool in helping people with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder to build resilience and overcome the obstacles in their lives. “Parkour helps you to move naturally within your environment and to develop a new dialogue with your environment, to play with it and to open up a world of opportunity,” says Blake.
Back in Cardiff, Meek has more bodily concerns. “Who knows,” he says, “if funding becomes more accessible we might even get some heating in here.”
ON THE RISE
■ Originally called art du déplacement, parkour was started in the 1980s in the Paris suburb of Lisses by nine schoolfriends. An extension of their games involving running and jumping over street furniture, it developed a discipline and philosophy based on fitness, agility, control and spatial awareness.
■ Dubbed parkour in 1998, after the French word for route or course, the name was a reference to military obstacle course training.
■ The term free running was coined in 2003 for the making of C4 documentary Jump London, which introduced the activity to a mass British audience.
■ Parkour UK was set up in 2009 as the national governing body. Last week parkour was recognised as a sport by the five UK sports councils.
■ Parkour has featured in films, advertising, music videos and is more popular on YouTube than skateboarding, BMX biking and cycling combined.
■ Parkour UK runs a language programme, Parlez Vous Parkour, for British participants wanting to fully integrate with its French roots.
■ Parkour moves include the cat to cat, the tic tac, the crane and the thief vault.