Power of the body and mind used to ‘flow’ over urban obstacles

When you see them practicing, it’s like watching acrobats or candidates for Spiderman. For them, every fence is a challenge, every terrace a place to practice and improve their technique. And when they really start showing their stuff, the city becomes a fantasy land where their feet barely touch the ground. Welcome to the world of parkour, a physical discipline inspired by human movement and which involves efficient motion over, under, around and through obstacles. Parkour is still new to Greece, but it has won fans in France, Britain and other countries. It first emerged from the leafy suburbs of Paris 18 years ago, when childhood friends David Belle and Sebastien Foucan decided to try their backyard-tree acrobatics around the neighborhood. The discipline became parkour, from the French «parcours» or «course,» which later inspired Foucan to create free running, with its focus on the aesthetic side. Athletes have to find a way to move though the urban environment by surmounting any obstacles in their way. It is a combination of ground exercises and martial arts, with influences from oriental philosophy. As Foucan (who appeared as a dancer in Madonna’s recent Confessions tour and as a terrorist in the latest James Bond film, «Casino Royale») says: «The art of moving from one place to another allows you to see the environment in a different way. The aim is to become part of the environment in order to develop your mind and body.» Vassilis, 17, and his friend Giorgos, 18, are two of the few Greeks who have taken up the sport. Vassilis, who is a big fan of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee films, has been doing gymnastics and martial arts for many years and got into parkour about 10 months ago. Giorgos, who has also been doing gymnastics for years, wanted to learn about parkour from Vassilis and went to train with him. He was in good shape, a basic requirement. How does one decide to take up such a dangerous sport? Last year, when his gym closed for the holidays, Vassilis decided to give it a try. He went on the Internet and watched endless videos showing the moves. He made acquaintances through blogs, and next year he’s going to California to train with other practitioners of parkour, called traceurs. «I don’t know anyone else in Greece who’s systematically involved in parkour, so I’m on my own,» he says. «My friends are impressed when they see me but they’re afraid to try it out.» So far Vassilis has scored two broken teeth and a scar from stitches in his jaw. «I tried to jump 12 steps on some stairs with a front leap and a somersault, but I was badly hurt. When you’re in such a state you have to decide whether to go on or not, and I wanted to go on,» he says. Parkour is dangerous because there are no safety nets, helmets or anything else to protect you. Athletes need full concentration. They use walls, benches, sidewalks and stairs like trampolines and diving boards. The only instruments are their body and mind. The only equipment needed is a tracksuit and a pair of sneakers. In parkour there are no predetermined movements. Improvisation is the key, and every obstacle can be scaled in many different ways. The thing is to keep going. «You see something high and you think how you can get up it and down it. That can be done by a combination of moves. Another parkour practitioner might use a different combination,» Vassilis says. What is it that attracts him to a sport where a moment’s lack of concentration could lead to serious injury? «I feel great when I turn somersaults in the air and do movements in the air in general. You feel completely free in the air. The feeling of freedom you have when you run and nothing can stop you is what excites me more than anything. It’s like flying,» he says. He also likes the fact that parkour incorporates elements of eastern philosophy. «To ‘flow like water’ but also to see everything as an obstacle is a challenge,» he says. Most people have some reservations about parkour, but some like it and are awestruck. «Once I went to practice at a big supermarket, where skate boarders go, I started doing my exercises to warm up and then I immediately did a routine with somersaults. All the skaters were impressed and came over to ask me how I did it. The guard came up and got rid of everyone except for me, because there was no risk of my damaging anything as I didn’t have a skateboard,» he says. Vassilis and Giorgos keep doing their «acrobatics on cement.» A little further on we see an apartment block and they immediately decide to scale it. As they start climbing, an elderly man appears on the veranda. «Thieves, thieves!» he starts shouting. «Damn kids, get out of here!» (1) This article first appeared in the November 12 issue of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.