Parkour practitioners fly without wingsFor most people, a typical Sunday afternoon in a park usually means a leisurely walk or jog, but for the members of Yamakasi Korea, it means climbing any structure in sight and then jumping off it.
On a recent weekend in Hosu Park in Bucheon, about an hour’s drive from Seoul, a group of young Koreans were climbing a two-and-a-half-meter (7.5 foot) high set of monkey bars. One after the other, the young men scaled the side of the structure and then jumped off, landing with circular tumbles on the grass.
Sighs of relief from adults and exuberant smiles from awed children greeted the athletes as they rose unscathed from their landing spot.
The athletes were practicing parkour, a sport that originated in France in the 1980s in which participants attempt to clear obstacles through gymnast-style moves. Parkour groups exist in Europe, America, Australia and Singapore.
The founders of parkour, also known as “free running,” started out in a group named Yamakasi, meaning “strong spirit, strong body, strong man” in a language spoken in Congo. The sport was internationally introduced in 2001 through the movie “Yamakasi ―Les Samourais des Temps Modernes” (“Yamakasi ― The Samurai of Modern Times”), which was written and produced by French film director Luc Besson.
Koreans have adopted the original name of Yamakasi for their own national club, as the movie helped propel the sport to more mainstream popularity here.
“This movie motivates my life,” says Choi Jae-ok, a 21-year-old college student and avid member of the Yamakasi club in Korea. “I watch it every day before practice because it gives me the passion and the drive to be just like them.”
Organized in April 2003 after the sport was first introduced on television, over 14,000 people have joined the Korean Yamakasi Internet group. The members of the club vary from teenagers to middle-aged salarymen.
Because of its uniqueness as an urban extreme sport, the group has received significant media attention.
“Every time Yamakasi is aired on television, more than 100 new members join our Internet group in a night,” says Ahn Si-nae, one of few female members of the group.
Of the 14,000 members, about 100 students from their early teens to late 20s meet about twice a month at parks or universities in Seoul and Gyeonggi province; the rest are considered fans or supporters of the new extreme sport.
“Seoul is not like Paris or other cities in Europe,” says Kim Young-min, the president of the group. “There are not many places or buildings to climb or jump from in Seoul. That’s why we’d rather meet in parks and universities.”
Before actually climbing or jumping, the members of the group conduct thorough warm-up exercises and intensive stretching, says Yun Dae-jun, 25, one of the best participants in the group. Injuries range from mere scratches to bruises or fractures. Members say they minimize risks by not doing parkour at night, on rainy and snowy days or under the influence of alcohol. They also stay out of private property.
To develop and maintain a sense of balance and physical strength, indoor rock climbing is recommended as a supplementary exercise. “Because of the differences in physical strength between men and women, it is quite difficult for women,” says Ms. Ahn, who has practiced Yamakasi for one year. “That’s why I train myself with indoor rock climbing.”
Members learn special skills and tips from the Web sites of internationally recognized parkour groups, such as Parkour and Free Running. Among well-known Yamakasi practitioners are David Belle and Sebastien Foucan, both of whom are French and leading figures of the sport, according to Mr. Kim.
Is there any potential for parkour to become an Olympic sport? “Since there are no rules on how many structures you should climb in a set time, the prospect of parkour becoming a sport with a point system is not likely,” Mr. Kim says.
Some of the experienced and trained members are skilled enough to do fantastic jumps between buildings, as seen in a commercial for Kyochon Chicken, a local fast food chain, in which two members of the group perform as stunt men for the Korean singer Rain. However, in their regular meetings, the members practice with lower structures and learn basic skills, such as landing and stretching.
Yamakasi is also the term for team parkour, in which a leader takes a group of mentally charged, physically fit players through an exciting urban maze. The leader decides the route and the structures to pass, and the members run along the path with no pauses or breaks.
One by one, each member clears obstacles on the route ―be it monkey bars, fences, walls, stone pillars or staircases ― to the point of no return, while each of them creates his own free style of jumping and landing.
The concept is young, modern and cool, but to serious Yamakasi players the situation is real, and the challenge purely physical.
At the Bucheon park, even though the height of the obstacles is considerably lower than is the case with buildings, the members of Yamakasi Korea are more than happy with the adrenaline rush they get during a brief airborne moment before landing.
“The adrenaline [rush] I experience in mid-air, seeing the space between where I am at the top of the world and looking down a moment before I land ―these are all things that keep me coming back for more,” says Mr. Yun, whose quick tumble leads to just another high jump from ubiquitous challenges laid out in front of him. “It’s indescribable.”
by Sun Soo-hee, Kim Soe-jung
For more information about the sport and regular meetings, visit Yamakasi Korea’s Web site at cafe.daum.net/yamakasikorea.