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The sun is shining brightly and there’s a cooling
breeze coming in off the sea. An athletic figure
dressed in black is standing on top of a wall
at the entrance to the beautifully landscaped
underpass on the Corniche opposite
the Abu Dhabi skatepark.
Adjusting the volume on his arm-mounted iPod, he takes a deep breath and starts to run. Moving gracefully along the top of the wall, he reaches the end and launches himself effortlessly over a two-metre gap, the sole of his shoe resting fleetingly on the top of a spout of water shooting from the fountain beneath him. Landing softly he continues to run and somersaults off the end of another wall. Over a short walkway, it looks like there’s nowhere left to go – until with feline grace, he vaults a waist-high wall and jumps to grab hold of a ledge above his head. Pulling himself up quickly, he stands and turns to survey his surroundings, a small smile breaking out on his calm face.
His name is Mohammed Hesham and he is one of the core members of the UAE Parkour team.
Developed in France in the late 80s by David Belle, Parkour is an extreme sport that focuses on moving through an urban environment in the quickest, most rational way possible by vaulting, rolling, running, climbing and jumping over any obstacles in the way.
Coming to prominence in the BBC documentary Jump London and,
more recently, in films like Casino Royale and Prince of Persia,
Parkour practioners (or traceurs) train to be able to identify and
utilise alternative, more efficient paths of getting from point A to
point B using only their bodies. The chief aim is never to move
backwards but instead overcome obstacles fluidly, with strength,
originality and speed.
“It’s a philosophy,” says Hesham, who has been practicing the sport f
or five years. “Parkour is all about getting from one point to another as
quickly as possible. Really what we do is a combination of Parkour and
free running – so we mix vaults, monkeys and running with flipping and
more acrobatic stuff to create our own styles.”
“Freedom of movement is definitely what it’s all about,” agrees Zach Gillroy, Hesham’s young Australian friend and fellow core member of the UAE Parkour team. “Just doing whatever you want, getting over obstacles as easily as possible and expressing yourself.”
“It allows you to be creative and it’s not like any other sport,” continues Hesham. “In gymnastics, for example, if you don’t land perfectly and move a step forward or backward, then you’re going to get marked down. But Parkour is free, it’s not restricted, you can just do your own thing.
“Secondly, it’s also great mental and physical training – I’d say it’s 60 percent mental and
40 percent physical. You have to deal with your fear, ask yourself ‘can I do this?’”
“You know you have the physical ability to do something but sometimes your mind just
holds you back,” adds Zach. “You just have to have the strength to overcome any doubts
you may have.”
Hesham and Zach have now been joined by a group of seven or eight enthusiastic young traceurs. We take a seat on a nearby plantbed and watch as they go through some stretching exercises before starting to run in tandem along walls, swinging over rails, jumping gaps and climbing on ledges.
The cameraderie among the group is tangible and contagious. Hesham and Zach impart advice and encouragement to the less experienced members of the group. Whenever someone pulls off a particularly hard flip or precise jump, there is applause and whoops of joy from the other guys.
Quite a crowd has gathered to watch the training session. A group of bemused Indian workers enjoying their day off sit on the edge of one of the water features, dangling their feet in the water as they take photos. Runners, cyclists and pedestrians pause as they pass by to see what all the commotion is about.
“The Corniche is the perfect place for Parkour,” says Hesham. “There’s lots of different shaped walls and obstacles we can use. We don’t put a limit on where we can go, Parkour is all about adapting to the environment – any environment – and using what is around you. It doesn’t matter if it’s an urban environment like here, or in the middle of forest or even in a big open space, there’s always something we can use.”
"It's the art of movement, I don't think of it as a sport," says Hesham Kamel, as he balances his body weight on his hands for a few seconds, before propelling himself over a metre-high wall on Abu Dhabi's Corniche.
Video: Flips, jumps and stunts with UAE Parkour
Video Video: Flips, jumps and stunts with UAE Parkour
"The movement is my passion. We don't do anything extreme or dangerous, it's about being free to move any way you want, using the landscape around you. There are no restrictions."
The 24-year-old Egyptian is part of a growing parkour scene in Abu Dhabi which, in the past few years, has increased in popularity more than tenfold, with hundreds of youngsters showing up to the Corniche every weekend.
Parkour, which was given an official name in France in the 1980s, literally means getting from one place to another by incorporating any obstacles into the journey, rather than avoiding them.
It can mean propelling oneself over a wall, clambering under a handrail, jumping across a flower bed, or even scaling a seven-foot wall before leaping over the other side.
Practically any obstacle attached to the ground can be part of an urban gymnast's playground. Traditionally it was a non-competitive exercise, but as its popularity increased, there came more opportunities for sponsors and athletes to make money.
Red Bull, the energy drinks company, now holds an annual Art of Motion championship in a different country each year.
"Personally I am against the championship as a competitive sport," Hesham says. "It's not what it's about.
"Every athlete has his own way of doing it. How can someone judge someone else's way of doing it when there isn't a right or a wrong way?"
Hesham, an accountant, was also a competitive gymnast before he moved to the UAE.
"In gymnastics I hated being told to do it the perfect way or get marked down. In parkour you are free to do whatever you imagine or think. You can't let someone judge what you do."
Parkour athletes - known as a traceur or traceuse depending on their sex - are mostly self-taught, learning how to do it by watching videos on YouTube.
But recently, Hesham has become something of a teacher as well as an enthusiast. He has taken it upon himself to teach many of the youngsters, who are mainly boys, the basics of parkour so they can practise safely.
Mohammed Adouchan, 15, is one of the proteges well on his way to becoming an advanced traceur. The Rawafed Private School pupil began training on the Corniche in 2011 and now spends at least four evenings a week there.
"It's much better for me than sitting at home. If I didn't come here most nights, I would either be a huge nerd or a bad person getting into trouble," he laughs.
"All my friends play football, that's the only sport in Abu Dhabi, so if you don't like football there isn't a lot to do. Until I found this. I think you can express yourself much more in this than any other sport."
It is widely accepted that parkour as we know it now was founded by a Frenchman, David Belle, in 1988. The name originates from the French word parcours (which means route in English) and was the term used by Belle's father, Raymond, to describe his son's activities.
There is no official list of moves in parkour; the techniques use basic gymnastic moves that have been adapted to incorporate the obstacles. A successful move involves using one's body weight to travel from place to place in one single movement.
"Staying calm is the main thing," Mohammed says. "And focusing on the thing that you're going to do, block everything else out. You have a millisecond to think of the trick you're going to do, or the way you want to land, and where you want to go. If you pause, that's when you can get hurt."
Mohammed is now just one of hundreds of young people who congregate on the Corniche each week to practise their skills, make new friends and get fit. When the scene first emerged around five years ago there was just a handful of enthusiasts, and fewer obstacles for them to enjoy.
"More and more young people are finding out about it," Hesham says. "The problem is there isn't a lot for them to do. There aren't a lot of outdoor spaces but it is getting better.
"Now the problem is we don't have a gym to practice safely. We need proper gym equipment but we only rely on ourselves at the moment.
"It won't work for beginners or the parkour scene in the UAE unless we have a proper gym. In other places in the world they have built proper facilities, but in the Arab world in general they don't really invest in anything other than football."
Given the popularity of parkour across the country, and also the high rates of childhood obesity, it would be a real shame if these pleas were ignored.
A 2012 study from UAE University revealed that 18 per cent of Emirati children aged between 12 and 18 and eight per cent of expatriate children of the same age are obese. A further 22 per cent of Emirati children and 20 per cent of expatriate children are overweight.
The figures for Emirati boys is most worrying, with 45 per cent either obese or overweight. Mohammed Ghanem, who grew up in the UAE but is from Lebanon, admits that his bi-weekly sessions on the Corniche have likely saved him from a fairly bleak future.
The 17-year-old was overweight and uninterested in most other sports until he discovered Hesham and his teammates by the beach.
"I was very fat, small and fat," laughs the Al Manhal International School pupil, who is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "If you're afraid to fall, you'll fall because you're afraid" on the back.
"When I saw these guys training I chatted to one of them and they said I could come train with them. Now I love it.
"Most kids don't know about any other games or sports apart from football so if they don't like it, they don't do anything. But I know anyone can do this if they learn and practise. It has been great for me."
According to Ali Rashid, an Emirati, encouraging his younger compatriots to take up any sort of physical activity should be a key priority for his country's government.
But a lack of outdoor and indoor facilities don't make it easy.
"The kids don't know about any sport other than football," says the 22-year-old from Abu Dhabi. "Things like this are a great way of getting them involved. Every week we have hundreds who turn up, they want to do things but they don't know about it, and they don't have safe places to do it.
"We should be doing much more, otherwise the kids will never do anything."
Mitya Underwood is a senior features writer for The National.