Raf Diallo meets Irish Parkour and Freerunning practitioner Glenn McPickles
If you happened to be beside a TV back in September 2003 and switched on Channel 4, there’s a good chance that you would have been acquainted with the disciplines of Parkour and Freerunning.
That month the UK channel first broadcast Jump London, a programme which showed Freerunners running, jumping, climbing and rolling around the man-made and often iconic urban obstacles that the city of London can provide. It was soon followed by a sequel Jump Britain.
Parkour has French roots and began to develop from the buildings blocks of previous disciplines in the town of Lisses near Paris through pioneers and practitioners known as Yamakasi like David Belle and Sebastien Foucan (the later who was involved in both Jump London and Jump Britain and also chatted to Newstalk.com) in the 1980s.
And it would go on to form the foundations for other related disciplines like Freerunning.
It’s a fascinating cavalcade of human movement and physical boundary pushing. But it also goes back to what kids do naturally as they test their limits (and their parents’ patience) by running, jumping and climbing.
But as disciplines, both Parkour and Freerunning have spread far beyond France, with practitioners to be found across the globe.
Ireland is no different and recently I sat down with Dubliner Glenn McPickles who has been undertaking the disciplines since his secondary school days with his mates from the age of about 12.
“We used to hang out by some rails after school and we ended up jumping over them just for the craic. We were 12 and in first year and then one of the lads looked up ‘Rail Jump Tutorial’ and we found Parkour and a website called Parkour TV. We started looking at the videos and then we saw Jump Britain,” McPickles recalls.
Glenn McPickles in action:
“And then over time, there were different groups of mates doing it and then we found the Parkour Ireland website and then through that we found a community. We would have been about 13, going on 14 when we found the community and met other people training who were the same age and also adults teaching us loads and kids absorb information.”
The community aspect of both Parkour and Freerunning is something that is key in Ireland and in other countries. That can manifest itself in “jams” which bring different practitioners together to train and practice. But more on that a little later.
The physical nature of Parkour, which McPickles practices more often than Freerunning or Tricking, means you would assume a level of core fitness must be expected.
“The beauty of Parkour is you don’t need any fitness. It’s not competitive. There are some competitions these days but originally it wasn’t meant to be competitive,” he says.
There are misconceptions about Parkour as well especially when it comes it being condensed down to stereotypes of jumping off rooftops for example. Essentially in its purest form, by definition, it’s about getting from Point A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible on any terrain.
“You can do Parkour on rooftops, you can do Freerunning on rooftops. But it’s not required to do it on a rooftop. A lot of people would associate it with rooftops but you can train Freerunning for years and years and years without ever setting foot on a roof. Same for Parkour,” says McPickles.
“Rooftops only come into it when you’re really experienced in it.
“But then you get kids seeing the videos with rooftops and they might think ‘Parkour, Freerunning… you climb roofs and jump off buildings!’ But it’s really far from that.”
He adds that from his point of view: “The media love to make Parkour look like it’s a daredevil, crazy sport because that’s the way it’s portrayed in films and stuff. It looks spectacular up high on rooftops but it’s very far from that when you actually learn about it.”
On the community and social aspect, like in many other domains, social media has proven to be important in bringing people together in the post-website and post-forum days.
“It’s interesting because this seemed to happen in most of the countries back before Facebook came into it, each country would have a Boards Parkour section within their own Parkour website where people would get in touch,” says McPickles of the situation here.
“But then as Facebook started to come into it, the Parkour Ireland website started to die and there was no need for it when the Facebook groups came in and it all just moved to Facebook. The Dublin scene at the moment, they have a Facebook group and it’s good to try and find people to get in contact with.”
Scenes from a Parkour park in London, part of an initiative organised by Sport England called Sportivate (part of a series of experimental images taken and processed on the iPhone by winner of the 2013 Terry O'Neill mobile award)
And that is important as Parkour might seem to be an individual pursuit by the nature of the different aspects of it. But the growth of jams and the international nature of it, means it’s often practiced in groups.
“If there are experienced people there [at jams], they can show beginners what to do or give them ideas or if they have questions, answer them,” says McPickles.
“I went to an event in Holland, in Den Haag, and it was a huge event with people from all over the world. It’s really far from what it was at the beginning.
“With the competitions nowadays, there’s big beef over them because it was originally meant for self improvement and not to be better than anybody else, but just be as good as you can be. That was the beauty of it at the start and then some people made competitions. If people want to compete, that’s fair enough but a lot of people were not satisfied with that because it’s taken away from why they fell in love with it in the first place. It’s totally changing nowadays and it’s an interesting time because it’s really making the transition between discipline or an art form into a sport.”
Indeed, the UK became the first country to officially recognise Parkour as a sport rather than just a discipline or physical art.
But at its basic level as a mostly urban pursuit, the issue around public spaces and trespassing laws is something practitioners have to be mindful of as a community and as individuals. Ireland is no different.
“In some places,with the Parkour community, we’ve established really strong connections with the people, the security guards,” McPickles explains.
“There’s a lovely spot where I’ve been training since 2008 called Seapoint near Dun Laoghaire and Monkstown. It’s amazing for Parkour. It’s right by the sea so when the tide is out you’ve got all these lovely rocks to jump on. And when the tide comes in, you can make it more interesting because the rocks are sticking out at the top of the water. And there are all these interesting wall formations. And the way it’s all laid out, there are rails everywhere, walls everywhere and a lot of details in the place.
Leading French parkour exponents, Thomas Couetdic, left, and Francois 'Forrest' Mahoup in Waterloo today where a record attempt for the largest ever global free-running jam in one day was taking place as part of the One Giant Leap campaign, led by climate change group Sandbag. Picture by Fiona Hanson PA Archive/PA Images
“But the swimmers there, they didn’t really like us at first because they didn’t really understand what was happening because it looks kind of odd - all these people coming and jumping all around the place. It’s a bit scary to watch sometimes if you’re not used to it.
“But in recent times, we really started to speak to the locals there and get to know them and they know us now and we’ve really explained to them what it is and they’re happy to have us training there because we know each other now.”
Like almost every sports and physical activity, there is a risk of injury, although a “sensible approach” can reduce the chances of that happening according to McPickles.
“The three main reasons people get injured, I think, are they’re doing something they’re not ready for or don’t have the skill level to do what they’re about to try; if your body is already fatigued and you’re tired; and if you’re showing off and not focused on what you’re doing.”
In McPickles case, the worst injury he’s suffered is dislocating and fracturing a toe.
But further afield in Russia particularly, news reports occasionally filter out regarding deaths attributed to Parkour. Last November, a former chess champion died after falling from the 12th floor of his apartment block, with it being described as a “Parkour accident”.
In another case also from Russia, a woman was killed after falling 17 storeys during what was reported as being her first introduction to Parkour.
“In Russia, it’s totally different over there. There’s a big crane climbing culture,” says McPickles.
“In Russia, if you get big over there, there’s a possibility to get out and make a good career out of it and so a lot of people go hard and try to do it. And especially over there, they’ve got a lot of gymnasts in the country.”
McPickles has also met some of the original pioneers of the Parkour, known as the Yamakasi, in its French birthplace of Lisses.
“It was a good experience to train with those guys because they were around for a really long time doing it. They’re a lot older and well conditioned - they’re beasts! And they train in a very different kind of a way to us. Every country you go to will have different things or training methods, so it’s good to take what’s useful and add it to your own.”