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New word of the month
by Kerry Maxwell

free running noun [U] /fri rn/
an extreme sport in which runners use gymnastic skills to move at speed across buildings and other fixed obstacles in an urban environment
free runner noun [C]

'Such was the exhilaration packed into, and bursting out of, this dazzling film about free running, you may well have spent this morning eyeing up bollards and calculating the speed and trajectory required to get from the roof of your office to the fire escape of the building opposite.

Free runners recast the city as a playground and challenge other urbanites to look at their home afresh. They race along the skyline - every railing and roof, stairwell and windowsill, bridge, building and even battleship is a stepping stone to higher ground.'
(The Guardian, 10th September 2003)

The extreme sport of free running first emerged in the mid-nineties, but finally came into the public eye in the UK in 2003, when the BBC featured a promotional trailer of free runner David Belle racing across London's rooftops to be home in time for a particular TV programme. A Channel 4 programme entitled Jump London, shown in September 2003, further enhanced the profile of this awe-inspiring activity, and secured the use of the term free running in the terminology of extreme sports. Free runners use gymnastic skills to navigate a city-centre landscape at high speed. They vault over bollards and benches, scale tree trunks, flip over road barriers, climb high buildings and leap between rooftops in a death-defying way.

Free running originated in Lisses, a quiet suburb fifty miles south of Paris. Sebastien Foucan, Johann Vigroux and David Belle founded the sport in a Lisses playground, where, as bored young people fed up with conventional football games, they challenged each other to stunts. They never abandoned these activities as they got older, encouraging each other to be more creative in the way that they moved, and developing a philosophy that viewed conventional obstacles as things that could physically assist them: a rock as a launch pad, a lamppost as a ladder. They even coined a name for this evolving sport, le parkour, a corruption of the French term for 'obstacle racing'. The local administration in Lisses began to erect rooftop fences on some buildings to prevent them from jumping, but the group were undeterred, simply viewing these barriers as a further challenge. The architecture of Lisses rapidly became an outdoor gym as interest in the sport spread.

Enthusiasts developed a set of terms to describe the basic moves of free running, including the precision jump, which involves identifying a small or precise landing target and judging the exact leap necessary, the tic-tac, a move which uses the foot to grip onto a small obstacle which you can then use to propel yourself more easily over the next obstacle, and the cat jump, where the free runner runs towards a wall, places both hands on it and pushes his legs through the middle of the arms, landing on both feet. The term blind jump is used to refer to a precision jump in a situation where it is impossible to see the landing spot.

Free running has since gained international renown as the world's most fashionable, and dangerous, extreme sport. The founders have established a website for aficionados, www.le-parkour.com, which advocates legal and safe practice, particularly in the aftermath of injury and some fatalities amongst young supporters. The group keenly emphasise the need for practice. They advise working in groups, starting with basic moves and not attempting anything more ambitious without plenty of experience, since a single false jump can be fatal.

Displays of physical endurance through running are nothing new, long-distance and cross-country running have long been popular pastimes. However the nineties saw the popularisation of a range of newer endurance sports, among them the precursors to free running, such as mountain running or wilderness running, where people run in inhospitable and arduous terrain. The term fastpacking, a blend of fast and backpacking, is used to refer to the activity of running whilst carrying a heavy backpack and tent. Speedhiking is an alternative term for fastpacking, also known as speedclimbing when mountains are involved.

Since the first commercial operation of bungee jumping some years ago, the concept of extreme sports, essentially a euphemism for dangerous and slightly wacky activities, has become more widely accepted. There are some who will always be in search of a new thrill, constantly seeking ways to keep the adrenaline pumping. Commercial bungee jumping originated in New Zealand in the early eighties, subsequently gaining popularity with thrill-seekers worldwide. In the twenty-first century, New Zealand is also the home of the world's newest extreme sport: Zorbing. Zorbing is the bizarre activity of rolling down a hill or mountainside while strapped inside a giant plastic ball, with no brakes and no steering!

Zorbing was invented as a tourist activity in the mid-nineties by New Zealander Andrew Akers, and has since gained popularity in Europe and more recently in the USA. The term zorb is used to refer to the clear plastic ball, usually about ten feet wide, in which participants are suspended by nylon ropes. The term zorbonaut (by analogy with astronaut, presumably) has been coined to refer to those thrill-seekers who engage in the sport. Zorbonauts can choose between two kinds of experience: there is the standard one, also known as the dry zorb, and the wet zorb, involving being suspended knee-deep in water inside the ball. Those zorbonauts who have found the rolling down a hillside experience too tame have reputedly tried being launched off waterfalls and cliffs. Unlike free running and other kinds of endurance sports, zorbing does not require any level of skill or fitness, only the ability to keep down your food!


For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's Word of the Week articles on the MED Resource Site.