LONDON (Reuters) - Yusuf Yirtici is a proud young father who extols the virtues of discipline, hard work and a responsible attitude to risk.
But as he does so, he is balancing in a handstand on a concrete ledge above a subway on one of the busiest road traffic islands in central London.
Yirtici is in training for the first global freerun championships, due to be held in London on September 3.
“Freerun is about risk, and risk is all about calculating,” the 25-year-old told Reuters as he limbered up with three fellow competitors, shinning up lamp-posts and leaping over stairways in one of their favorite training sites by the river Thames.
“You make a calculation with your body. If you see a jump or a move that you feel you can do, then you should do it, even if you are scared. If you are afraid, and you don’t make the move, then you are letting fear beat you. You have to overcome fear, and be successful.”
These seem grand ambitions for an urban pastime whose roots lie in the sprawling concrete suburbs of Paris in the 1990s.
But freerun, or parkour as it also known, is fast growing into a recognized and respected international sport-cum-art able to attract big-brand sponsorship, blockbuster movie appearances and pop megastars like Madonna.
In theory, the basics of parkour are straightforward — to get from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible, using only your body and letting no obstacle stand in your way.
Freerun has the same core principles, but its practitioners place greater emphasis on individual expression, creative flow and artistic merit.
Urban Freeflow (UF), the sport’s main representative body in Britain and the United States, gives detailed tutorials on its Web site of the fundamental techniques — including such moves as a “crane moonstep,” and “double kong vault” and a “360 wallhop.”
When things get high — or super-high, like the leaps from sky-scraping cranes and buildings that feature in the James Bond movie “Casino Royale” and Madonna’s “Jump” video — it is hard not to see freerun athletes as regulars at hospital emergency departments.
But according to Franck Nelle, a 28-year-old French national who will represent his country at the world championships under the stage name Cali, those who think freerunners are just wild adrenaline junkies have got it wrong.
“People think we are daredevils who would go for everything or anything. But we have fears like everyone else. Our fears keep us alive,” he told Reuters.
“Discipline is so important. We train on ground level again and again and again until it’s perfect, and only then do we take things up high.”
This serious attitude — coupled with the breathtaking leaps and super-cool image — has impressed some unusual supporters and caught the eye of corporations.
London’s Metropolitan Police, as well as the elite Royal Marine Commandos, have sought tips from the UF team on maneuvering through urban jungles.
Barclaycard is the main sponsor of the World Freerun Championships — which will feature athletes from at least 17 countries from Brazil to South Africa — with Adidas and Sony Ericsson acting as associate sponsors.
But Yirtici — who will represent Turkey next week under the stage name Asid — sees most value coming from freerun at a local street level.
Already teaching the practice in schools and community youth clubs around London, he believes it has the potential to re-educate and liberate a generation of children who are cocooned in an overprotective society and stripped of the vital life skill of assessing risk.
“Our three routes to success are dedication, determination and discipline — and if you are lacking one of these elements then you’re not going to get very far,” he said.
In his workshops — where participants range from 10 to over 50 years old — the emphasis is on reminding people of the physical skills they can use when something appears to be blocking their way.
“I teach people how to crawl first, because that’s something we often forget as humans — how to walk using our hands and feet together.
“Then we move onto jumping, landing and rolling.
“We have a saying: start low and start slow. It’s very important because if you start big, or start wild, or start crazy, then you’ll get hurt and you’ll be put of the game.”
Pip Andersen, a 17-year-old from Taunton, southern England, who will freerun for Great Britain in the championships, thinks his story is evidence of freerun’s social potential.
“I used to be one of the kids who’d vandalize things and get into trouble with the police,” he said, having dropped like a wild cat from the top of 4-metre sign post.
“This has turned my life around, because now I am not putting energy into getting attention from other people any more, I’m putting energy into improving myself and getting something beautiful out of my body’s movement.” (www.urbanfreeflow.com)
Editing by Sara Ledwith