THE WORLD IS YOUR PLAYGROUND
Parkour athletes jump, flip and launch themselves over urban obstacles in a wild flow of high-speed acrobatics. In the process, they’re redefining the very limits of functional fitness>
Mid-sentence Brodie Pawson turns, bends his knees and suddenly uncoils to leap onto a waist-high railing. He lands precisely on the balls of his feet, balancing stock-still in a crouch. The lack of movement in this final position is critical. That’s because this metal railing, in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, protects people from a 25-metre drop on the other side. Should Pawson’s weight shift forward even a centimetre then he’ll tumble to a very messy end.
More striking than his contempt for danger, however, is Pawson’s fluidity of motion. He can propel his body through the air with a feline ease that belies the driving power beneath. Watching him calmly nail a backflip or spring over a two-metre wall is both awe-inspiring and slightly depressing – his effortless mobility makes you feel cumbersome and arthritic in comparison. “Your body is capable of so much more than you think,” Pawson insists. “Physically you can achieve so much more.”
“Functional fitness” may be an overused buzz-phrase these days, but few people demonstrate it like parkour athletes. Anyone who caught Brodie or his twin brother Dylan blitz the obstacle course on Australian Ninja Warrior last year would’ve got a crash course in parkour’s benefits – namely gymnastic agility, plyometric zip and withering disdain for the laws of gravity.
Recognition of parkour’s extreme athleticism is now growing. While it originated in France – “parcours” is the French word for route – last year, the UK became the first country to recognise it as an official sport, defining it as the discipline of moving “freely over and through any terrain using only the abilities of the body”.
But parkour’s real launch pad into public consciousness came from Bond (James Bond), namely 2006’s Casino Royale. At the start of the film Sebastien Foucan, one of the pioneers of parkour, made a scenestealing cameo bouncing off cranes and girders at dizzying heights. There’s an argument that the entire tone for Daniel Craig’s edgier, more visceral Bond was set by this opening sequence.
Pawson, 23, became aware of the sport around this time. “My twin brother and I used to watch a lot of Jackie Chan movies and we were inspired by the way that he moved,” he explains. When the pair stumbled across some parkour videos on Youtube they began experimenting at home and practised jumping between walls and ledges. “It was all about landing on a ledge cleanly with a dead stop on the balls of your feet and trying your best to stick it.”
Ten years on and that practice has paid off. Pawson is now a full-time parkour athlete and trains accordingly. Broad-shouldered and athletic with the lean build of a tennis player, he hits the gym on a regular basis where he focuses on weighted chin-ups and dips for upper-body strength and endless sets of squats, deadlifts and box jumps. “In parkour you use your legs the most,” he says. “It’s all about power, moving explosively for 15-second bursts.”
Pawson has managed to turn his passion into his profession due to the fact that brands are increasingly in thrall to parkour’s heady mix of youth, danger and rebellion (practitioners are constantly having to dodge security guards as they jump off rooftops and violate every health and safety regulation known to man).
Britain’s elite parkour team Storror, for example, travels the globe doing eyepopping stunts and working with everyone from Hyundai to Pepsi. It’s still early days for Pawson, but he’s already making a living mainly through performing at brand events. Men’s Health first encounters Pawson in Shanghai where he’s banging out backflips at the centenary event of the Swiss watch brand Mido, whose slogan is “Inspired by Architecture”. “Parkour is dynamic and has a link to architecture,” says Mido president Franz Linder by means of explanation. “We believe the product and the sport coalesce.”
Part of the reason that parkour works so well for brands is that the action is short and sharp, rarely lasting longer than 30 seconds tops. That format is tailor-made for modern attention spans and, more importantly, social media. Pawson has quickly amassed almost 300,000 Instagram followers to make him an even more marketable proposition.
In fact, social media plays a key role in parkour’s growth and daily operation. Back in his hometown of Brisbane, Pawson posts weekly details on Facebook of the whereabouts of the next “social jam” – where 20-30 parkour enthusiasts congregate to test out new moves.
This community spirit extends internationally, too. On a recent trip to Europe, Pawson travelled through Britain, France, Spain and Germany never once paying for accommodation. “Every place we sent a message on Facebook to the parkour community and in every single place, someone said, ‘Yeah, come and stay at ours’.”
“Instagram, Facebook and Youtube make it so easy to connect with other people and practise,” Pawson continues. “That’s why the exposure of parkour has blown up so much.”
Yet these social mediums also have a darker side. The relentless battle to win “likes” and subscribers from an increasingly jaded public can also lead to escalating levels of danger.
THE DANGER ZONE
Jump onto Youtube and you’ll soon find an endless stream of kamikaze videos. There are young men (and, truth be told, it is invariably men) leaping between rooftops over 40-storey drops to land on ledges barely the width of a laptop. Kids perform backflips on the edge of skyscrapers; you’ll see onehanded planches executed in visibly high winds on the outstretched arms of cranes. The most demented footage draws the most viewers: one video entitled The Scariest Extreme Parkour Moments Caught On Camera has been watched 20 million times. Needless to say, these stunts are conducted with selfie sticks not support ropes.
Inevitably, accidents happen. Last year, a Chinese man plummeted to his death while being filmed doing chin-ups on the top of a 62-storey building. Closer to home, last December, 18-year-old parkour enthusiast Alexander Vincent died in Tasmania after what police believe was a doomed attempt to jump the five-metre gap across the Blackmans Bay blowhole.
“The expectation levels keep going up,” Pawson admits. “A person on the street will see me doing something really technical and hard, like running off a ledge and landing on a railing. Thirty seconds later they’ll say to me, “Yeah, but can you do it with a backflip?”>
“YOUR BODY IS CAPABLE OF SO MUCH MORE THAN YOU THINK. PHYSICALLY YOU CAN ACHIEVE SO MUCH MORE”
MANAGE YOUR FEAR
On Pawson’s own Instagram feed (@brodiepawson) you’ll find him merrily hurling himself down the walls of multistorey car parks and making the odd deathdefying leap between rooftops. But this, he makes clear, is hardly routine practice - most of the time he trains at low-level height.
What viewers also fail to grasp, he explains, is that none of these stunts is a spur-of-the moment act. “Everything is planned and rehearsed,” he insists. “We’ve done (jumped) roof gaps where we know 100 per cent that we’re going to make it. If it’s just a 90 per cent chance of making it then we just don’t attempt it.”
“Watching parkour you don’t realise that these people have checked everything. They’ve tested the wall or railing they’re going to land on. If it’s wet or if there’s an obstruction then they just don’t do it. They know what they’re doing and what they’re capable of.”
Coming from Pawson, these don’t seem like empty words. Calm and considered, he seems less like a wide-eyed adrenaline junkie and more like an earnest young man utterly focused on his craft (which just happens to involve doing insanely dangerous things).
“Parkour has taught me how to manage fear,” Pawson continues. “Fear is always there, but it’s knowing when to listen to it and when not to. Yes, there’s always the potential to hurt yourself in parkour. But you can let that fear take over, or you can use it to help you judge and assess.”
When working up to a big stunt – like, for example, when he pulled off seven 180° transitions to pinball his way up between two 12m-high walls – Pawson will never set himself a deadline. Instead he’ll assess the external factors: the weather conditions, the strength of wall, the number of people in the vicinity. He’ll also check in with himself and scrutinise how he’s feeling both physically and mentally. (It’s the same mindset a strength coach would recommend in the gym – don’t attempt a new PB lift in the gym if you’re not feeling 100 per cent.)
“You never think today is the day when I have to complete this goal,” Pawson says. “All the stars have to align. I just looked at those walls on that day, I was feeling good and so I thought: ‘Yes, that’s possible.”
“With parkour I’m not seeking to do something just because it will go crazy on social media. I just want to do things that I know are achievable.”
CONQUER ANY OBSTACLE
Pawson’s words are reminiscent of those of the great British mountaineer George Mallory.
Asked to explain his determination to climb Everest, Mallory replied: “Because it’s there.” Speaking to Pawson, parkour seems like the urban expression of the same idea - the instinctive desire among natural-born adventurers to test your limits by conquering physical obstacles.
Parkour’s mounting appeal also makes greater sense in the modern-day nanny state. Most of us now live our lives encased in a thick layer of cotton wool that insulates us from every conceivable danger. Caught between helicopter parents and schools’ fear of litigation, kids are increasingly steered away from physical risk-taking. Last year a primary school in West Australia even banned cartwheels because of the perceived danger. Viewed from this context, parkour seems like a necessary if extreme correction.
Pawson believes snowballing interest in the sport will continue to build. He reckons it’s just a matter of time before parkour is legislated into official competition. “Look at skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing,” he says. “They started off as hobbies, but they all eventually gravitated towards competition.”
For Pawson that would represent a positive evolution. “I want to see how far you can push parkour.” The more there is at stake, he explains, the more competitors will strive to master new tricks and inspire each other to improve and develop their skill.
That’s probably true. But you’d also hope any formalisation of parkour doesn’t shackle its freedom of spirit. Right now, there’s something refreshing about how this urban sport rejects external rules and regulations. Parkour is currently propelled by its DIY energy. Want to give it a go? All you need is a pair of trainers and balls of steel.
“FEAR IS ALWAYS THERE, BUT IT’S KNOWING WHEN TO LISTEN TO IT AND WHEN NOT TO”
Leap of faith: Pawson has turned his passion into a payday.
Not safe harbour: Pawson utilises the urban jungle gym.