It’s a bright weekday afternoon in Liverpool’s St. John’s Gardens. In one corner of the gardens a group of young men in loose clothing limber up on the grass, their presence eliciting little response from those taking a lunch break in the sunshine. This is Team O.R.B., and when one of the group leaps between two gateposts and over the head of a surprised old man however, heads begin to turn.
As Team O.R.B. then go on to pull off other moves, flipping back in synchronicity, running up walls and twisting in mid-air, passers-by look on with a mixture of shock, surprise and intrigue. Camera phones are brought out.
“What the hell are they doing?” seems to be the question all the onlookers are asking.
Pausing for breath, one of the guys, 21-year-old Aaron (or ‘Graftin’), explains their nonchalance. “A lot of people worry about what other people think of them. When you’re Free Running that just goes.”
The group’s activities, though thought crazy by some, are all in day’s work for Free Running devotees. Coupled with the similar discipline of Parkour, it’s been gathering an underground following across the UK and in the rest of the world for a number of years. Put simply, Parkour is a physical discipline in which the participant (called a traceur) attempts to pass obstacles, be they a fence or an office block, in the fastest and most direct manner possible. They do this by jumping, vaulting, climbing and through a variety of other moves. Free Running is similar to Parkour, but with Free Running total freedom of movement is allowed.
This art of movement first came to the attention of the British public back in 2002, when one of the creators of Parkour, Frenchman David Belle, leapt across the rooftops in the BBC trailer Rush Hour. A year later it reached many more when one of the other originators, and the main exponent of Free Running, Sebastian Foucan, appeared with others in the astounding Mike Christie film Jump London, and its follow-up Jump Britain, displaying some of the more extreme potential of the discipline.
Since then Free Running and Parkour have become a media phenomenon, with appearances in Top Gear and Madonna’s Hung Up music video, while Parkour scenes also feature in next James Bond film Casino Royale.
Beyond the media interest, Parkour and Free Running have also begun to seep into the British underground, prompting the emergence of a whole subculture. The lack of any formal organisations to regulate, govern or promote the disciplines has seen growth come largely through the internet and word of mouth. A cursory search on Google will show participants in Belfast and Jersey, in New York and Angola, of all ages and sexes, eagerly trying to find out how to get involved.
Practising in St. John’s Gardens, Team O.R.B is one of the best groups in Liverpool to explain exactly why so many people are spending their free time jumping off buildings. They sit relaxed on the grass, quietly considered and mainly still, giving no clues as to what they will soon be doing.
Aaron James is the team’s founder. Having left the army in opposition to the Iraq war, he trained as a fitness instructor and is now pursuing further qualifications in the performing arts. Like many, he was first exposed to Free Running by the Mike Christie film. “The way I found out was seeing Jump London on TV, and I just thought ‘this is absolutely amazing. ’But I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do anything like that. Then I was just trawling around on the internet and I saw a video of a bunch of average lads like me doing it and I thought, ‘well if they can do it, then so can I’.”
Team O.R.B currently has four other members, the group having formed after meeting at one of the big ‘jam’ training sessions organised over the internet. Sean Stanhope, 16, is the youngest and perhaps the most enthusiastic. Like Aaron he had no previous athletic experience before joining Team O.R.B. after seeing a team perform on TV. Louie McGee, 17, moved into Free Running after trying to expand his moves in break dancing, while Andy Devlin, 24, and the oldest Team O.R.B. member qualified as an architect and has been involved in gymnastics for years.
Final member, 20-year-old Matt Pickering, recently left the nursing course he was on, again to pursue a career in performing arts. “There was nothing like this around a few years ago. There were just individual people around the country and it was kind of picking up more and more. Like a lot of people I got involved from meeting on the internet.”
Parkour and Free Running have a variety of influences, from break dancing to Jackie Chan movies, though most trace their origins to David Belle and Sebastian Foucan, who began practicing what would become Parkour in the Parisian suburb of Lisses, where they lived. A modernist development of tower blocks, walkways and dividing walls Lisses quickly became their playground.
Over the years Belle and Foucan have honed their skills around Lisses into basic Parkour, reaching the point where building to building jumps and massive drops are possible. Others soon followed. In 2001 Belle and Foucan would split over what Belle called the ‘Prostitution of the art’ arguing that Parkour should always be about the most efficient way of getting from one place to another. In contrast, Foucan believes that style and aesthetics could also play a part, and that total freedom of movement should be allowed. So he developed the Free Running ideas shown in Jump London. Despite the division, both disciplines today retain concepts of ‘escape,’ ‘reach’ and ‘go anywhere’ at their core.
Where does Team O.R.B stand on the break between Free Running and Parkour?
“We’re free runners, but if Parkour traceurs want to train with us, we don’t discriminate,” says Aaron. “We understand both philosophies and the difference, but the best thing to be is open to people’s opinions. Everyone should follow their own path.”
Unlike some of the more ‘extreme’ activities that Free Running is often compared to, there is a lot more going on underneath the surface than pure derring-do. As with the martial arts that they sometimes resemble, there is theory and philosophy behind both disciplines, talk of Yin and Yang, and being ‘fluid like water.’ Foucan compares it to the activities of ancient man: “To run, to chase or to move around they had to practice to Free Run.”
Aaron has his own views as to what Free Running is about.
“For some it’s just something to do, for others it’s about the fitness, to others it’s a discipline. Breaking down the fears of these jumps teaches you how to overcome your fears, and with the strength you build up you can use it in other aspects of your life. If you’re afraid to do something in your everyday life you can use the principle you use in free running in everything. It makes you a more confident person over all.”
Many exponents of the art say it has become a way of life.
“Whatever mood you’re in,” Sean continues, “you’ll be walking down the street and you’ll look at a wall and think, ‘I could vault that,’ or ‘I could do some flips there.’ It does become the main thing in your life.”
Aaron enthuses about how the art has transformed his life. “It changes the way you see your city. Before I started I thought it was boring. But now, I go around thinking, ‘I could do a move off that.’ Before I started Free Running, all I did was play computer games and stuff, but now every day I’m looking for ways to make myself stronger or faster.”
For Andy, Free Running gives a sense of freedom. “It’s also like an escape. I’ve got an office job. I work nine till five. But when I get out of work all I want to do is free run and find a way of getting around, a different style; jump up a wall, off a wall, or just find another way of getting around without walking.”
As Matt explains, Andy’s enthusiasm even extends to his commuting. “He has done a few things in a business suit, so people just see this guy with a briefcase pulling off all these flips and stuff.”
Free Running has its dangers, however. Even if you practice all the time, jumping off high walls retains an element of risk. Not that it bothers Aaron. “There are risks, but when you’ve got a passion you don’t see them because that’s part of the sport. I’ve seen people doing BMXing. You know when they do somersaults on their bike? To me that’s crazy because I couldn’t trust myself on a machine. But when I do a flip some people say I’m crazy, but to me it’s not, because I’ve got a passion for it.”
Aaron emphasises the democratic nature of Free Running. “You’d be surprised what the average person could do if they put their mind to it. You don’t actually need to be that flexible, or that strong, to do what we do. Some people have an ability to overcome fears quite easily, but haven’t got the physical strength. Other people have the strength, but need to overcome things mentally. So you just try and develop both.”
This is backed-up by Sean. “When everyone starts, they think, ‘I’ll never be able to do that,’ and within half a year they’re doing exactly what they thought they wouldn’t be able to do.”
But for all the talk of diversity, Team O.R.B. are still five lads from Liverpool. What about the women?
“There’s got to be more girls doing it,” Matt argues carefully. “Because they might think that there’s so many lads doing it and they don’t know how to start. But I’ve seen more girls starting recently, which is good, it’s the way it should be.”
With more connections with music, film and television, Free Running is increasingly penetrating into popular culture. The team have mixed feelings on this, as Sean explains. “The more people who see it, the more will want to start doing it. But it can also be bad as you get random people who know nothing trying flips and landing on their heads and necks.”
So, what advice, would they give then to someone who wanted to be a Free Runner starting from zero?
“You need to condition the body first!” Aaron exclaims. “You just can’t decide one day to go jumping off something six-foot high you need to start small, warm up, stretch properly, and then practice the basics till you’ve got them to an acceptable level. You need to go at your own pace n’all, but don’t try and keep up with you mates.”
Of course not everyone is keen to see people jumping off their roofs.
Matt agrees. “The security tends to dislike us at times. They’re never abusive or hostile; they just don’t want us getting hurt on their property, which is fair enough. So we tend to go to places and see how long we can stay there. There are not many places you can do stuff like this. You can’t go to a gym or set up a building where we could do our vaults or something. It’s just impossible. Some people are nasty and some people are okay. It just depends where you go.”
Andy reflects on the frustration of having to move within boundaries, the opposite of what Free Running is about. “You’re restricted in your ambition. Ideally you want to be on top of a building, going up or down the details, jumping gaps. But no buildings around here are going to let you, so you have to make do with the walls and any little objects you can find. Your ambition’s often going to get the better of you, but you just don’t have the chance to exploit it.”
What then does the future hold for Team O.R.B?
“Basically we aim to train together much more, because at the moment we are sectioned off a bit in Merseyside,” Aaron says. “During the next six months we aim to gel together much more, maybe choreograph some moves and maybe get some shows together; just taking small steps, but making sure we take those steps every day.”
One last thing – What exactly does ‘O.R.B’ stand for?
“It means,” Aaron laughs, “Original Rude Boys. Everyone thinks it’s something serious, but it’s really a bit of fun. People were coming out with things like Team Manchester or Team Liverpool, so I just wanted to do something a bit different.”
Chat over; it’s time for Original Rude Boys to show their stuff. They hop over the wall surrounding the garden. To see the body pushed to the peak of its abilities and the potential for human co-ordination is at times breathtaking and watching the conquering of the constricted urban environment is both fascinating and exhilarating. Louie, doing a handstand on the edge of a precipice asks, “How is this for you?”
After a long session a security guard, inevitably, emerges from a nearby library and tells them to move on. There is a quick debate, but little resentment, just talk of rules and risk assessments, and of fears of compensation claims. There is acceptance that this is the way things are, and time to move on.
The security guard attempts a passing shot, “And don’t try and come back at 3am because there are CCTV cameras on here all the time.”
But Sean betters him, “I don’t suppose we could have the video, could we?” And the Original Rude Boys are gone in an explosion of wall jumping. And laughter.
Words by Kenn Taylor
Photography by Sakura Henderson