Finn Berggren lives and breathes Gerlev, which might be meaningless if I don’t pause my introduction and attempt to explain Gerlev. Bear with me, I’m going to attempt three sketches. One, Gerlev is a school but that word falls far short. Gerlev has been described as a sport’s academy, which also misses the mark. It’s even been called the Folk High School, which yet again misses the mark because we English speakers are unsure what to make of the adjective ” folk”. There is, of course, a Danish word for what Gerlev is.
Two, can you imagine a place where students meet many different types of sports and movement in an environment that cultivates exploration, inclusivity and personal responsibility, a place where the aim is to present the students with the formative aspects of sports while building an understanding of life that extends beyond a sport’s framework? This place you’re imagining was originally a uniquely Danish idea, which has since spread well beyond Denmark. Three, in Gerlev’s own words, “We believe that sports contain a lot of exciting and developmental qualities.” When it all comes together, it contains the fight, the play, the dance and the contemplation, as does life and that is why we at Gerlev use sports as a fantastic formative subject, which allows the possibility of development, maturation, challenges, adventures and experiences. Playing is important as the basis of experiences with the creative parts of life. Fighting contains the option of experiencing through resistance, how your physical and mental abilities can be put to the test. Dancing is, on one hand, the dream of unhindered movement, the flawless timing and getting lost in the rhythms. On the other hand, it is the creation of the aesthetic expression that allows interpretation of meaning and intention. Contemplation means tranquility, concentration and willingness, all of which are required to gain insight into existence, which brings me back to, hello, I’m Craig Constantine and this is-
This recording is Parkour, They Said. Finn Berggren lives and breathes Gerlev. He has been a student and a teacher and now he is the principal of the Academy. He is here, there and everywhere. He is a pioneer and the primary spokesperson of Gerlev and the wonderful possibilities within the world of sport, not only in Denmark but well beyond her borders. Welcome Finn.
Thank you very much.
In the parkour world, Gerlev is best known for hosting its annual international gathering. Parkour’s presence and level of integration at Gerlev is unique. What I want to know is, what did you see in Parkour in Denmark’s Parkour organization street movement? What did you see in Parkour that caught your attention and sparked your interest in bringing Parkour to Gerlev?
Okay, that’s a good question because it changed my life and it changed the strategy for Gerlev Sports Academy. It all happened, well 9, 10 years ago. I was watching a television program and in this television program, it was a national program where a lot of young people were what demonstrating different kind of skills. Then they should select the best skill, so that kind of program in the television. I was just accidentally, I was watching the program and there I saw four young men, or young boys. They were in the 18, 19s. Then they were doing something they called free running and Parkour. I was looking at the guys and they were doing all that kind of challenging each other to jump easily from A to B and to put it together as a show, as a presentation.
Then you have to understand, I’m a former gymnast. My life has been gymnastic. I was educated as a gymnastic teacher here at Gerlev, and when I was watching those guys I said, “This is for me, the new happiness of doing gymnastic movements in a way which has not been destroyed by some strictly rules about how the skills had to be done.” So I went, in fact those four guys they won that program.
Then I got in touch with those four guys and then I said, “Well, I’m the principal here at Gerlev. You may know about Gerlev. I would like to hire all four of you to be teachers here at Gerlev,” and they said yes because they were young and they had never been in touch with the sports Academy in that way, and now suddenly some crazy person [crosstalk 00:05:10]-
An advocate, right.
Find the situation where he wanted to them to visit this please and teach our students their way of moving, and it was absolutely funny. Those four young boys, they had not so much teaching experience, and then this Gerlev is in fact an [own 00:05:36] educational institution. We are founded in 1938. Those guys, they were climbing on the walls and on the-
On the buildings, right.
On the buildings and [crosstalk 00:05:49]-
“What did I do?”
Yeah, yeah. No, this is absolutely, this is not good. Then I need to find out if this has something value. Then after one year, we were talking and I said, “I love to continue this but we have some problem with the buildings. How can we do this?”
We need something for you to work on.
Yeah, and then one of the young boys, and I had to mention his name because-
-because that guy is exactly the one who is in charge of this program you are visiting, Craig, here today, is Martin [inaudible 00:06:24]. He was one of those young guys and I asked him, or he suggested if we do some kind of drawings about some of the best spots we know from Europe and put it together in a very concentrated field here in Gerlev and then we built a pedagogical park where all this concrete and rails, and so on-
Yeah, yeah. The ideal example of each thing.
Exactly, so what happened, and this is in fact a scientific fact, it is that at that time when I said, “Yes, let’s do that,” even it was pretty expensive at that time but I believed them, so we built the first Parkour park in the world because it was a park designed to teach for pedagogical reasons and not just for doing, but also to learn how to do it and, at the same time, understand the philosophy behind Parkour. They are places where they have been practicing Parkour in Europe or maybe even in the states before, but it’s the first time that we created a park strictly for that reason.
Especially with that mindset. There are places where people have built Parkour places, but they’re set up for challenge. They’re set up for, “These are the kinds of technique things that we want to do,” and when you get to the one year at Gerlev, you realize, “This is a teaching space.” It’s like coming into a gymnasium, only it’s obviously outdoors. It’s a very interesting space.
The funny part was that when they made the drawings and we put a lot of concrete and all the neighbors, they were saying, “When are you going to finish that building?”
It’s a three-story [hulk 00:08:20]. There’s a husk, there’s windows, there’s columns of walls. People who do Parkour see it and we immediately recognize the potential, but it looks like you quit halfway.
Exactly, but we did that and I made one decision. You have to understand that this institution, Gerlev Sports Academy, or Gerlev Idrætshøjskole, is in fact very much strongly based on gymnastics, but I was on a crossway. Even gymnastic has been my field. I was educated here. I was a young student here, returned back in the [inaudible 00:08:56] system teaching gymnastics. I returned for eight years to be teacher teaching gymnastics here at this spot. I went to the University teaching gymnastics for 20 years and then I became headmaster. Then after two years, I decided to quit gymnastics at Gerlev, and instead of gymnastics I wanted to bring Parkour, the full potential to be the main subject together with street dance. I find that the street dance, which became part of the Gerlev curriculum at the same time as I changed the philosophy about, “Well, I’m not fighting for getting gymnast. Now I’m fighting to get Parkour-interested young people,” and we have been doing that since, now for 10 years.
One of my impressions when I first got here was I looked at the facilities and I thought I knew where I was, and then when I started to move around in the space and they took us for a tour, and I realized that the institution has this long history of there’s pictures on the wall of all the different classes. You can just see that this isn’t simply a school. There’s a lot more going on here that somehow the administration and the teachers and the students work together and live together. You read this place cultivates an individual responsibility, but then when you talk to the students who are here, you can just see that in them, so the English would say, “The proof is in the pudding,” and it’s just patently obvious that Gerlev is accomplishing its goals.
Thank you. May I-
It explains a little bit about because it’s even difficult to explain to the Danish politician what this kind of school is, so I fully understand if you have problem to try to grab it and to explain to young American, so it’s really … I fully understand because we are fighting really to have the politicians-
Get the Danish to understand.
You see, before 20 years ago, a lot of the politicians in the parliament, they would have been students themselves at similar schools, but now the politicians in the parliament is very, very few of them, so they really don’t understand the personal developing which is happening in a place like this, and how we are trying to create the feeling of how to reflect about your life, how to reflect about your society, how to reflect about how your sport is part of this society, and how we are influencing, and what good we are doing. We are, absolutely we are struggling to give the politicians this understanding, but they are nervous if they are making too much-
Too much of a radical change.
Yeah. Then they are afraid of their voting and so on. My point is, I just changed a little bit because I’m traveling the world. I’m traveling, I’ve been doing this my whole life. In fact, I’ve been traveling the whole world doing gymnastics. I have been performing and I have been coaching all over the world. When I’m visiting universities trying to explain the students about what Gerlev, really I’m facing this again and again and again, but I have one sentence and I would like to share that sentence with you-
-because in that moment I know I crack the students, and I’m saying, could you imagine that you are starting at an educational institution and we have no examinations? Then all the students thinking about the next examination, the next examination and, “I lost two and I got only this mark,” and so on, and then you are here, you have an institution where the students are staying up to 10 months, from 4 up to 10 months, they decide, but we have no examinations. On the other hand, I tell them, “We may have a much stronger examination because if you don’t show that you want to be here, if you don’t show that you want to develop yourself, then you are … There’s no reason for you to be here.” Then we say, “It’s maybe a better idea that you are leaving,” so that’s our way of having an examination.
So Finn, do you see any potential hazards or problems that Parkour might face uniquely in the future?
Well, you have to understand that this is of course looking from my point of view. It may be not the right point of view. All the views may be just as good and may be even better, but I’m just giving you my personal point of view on this. The reason why I’m in love with Parkour and try to be a center for Parkour in Denmark is that it has been unstructured. It has been free will. It has been the innovative feeling. It has been explore the possibilities without rules. Now I know and I can see that we have reached the level with Parkour that the sportification will take over.
With sportification, just to give you my way of using the word, it is that when an activity suddenly become so popular that sports organization, all the sports organizations that they realize, “Ah, here happened to be a potential to get new members.” Then suddenly the activity becomes something more interesting, not for all those values I have just been mentioning, but because it’s a possibility to increase the members of the sport’s organization, and at the same time when you are into a sport organization in the world generally, Denmark is very confusing to explain about organizations, but in the world in general, then they will come into a sport’s organization which are running competitive programs, who is the national champion, the European champion. The optimal goal of those organization, and for some people in the field of Parkour, is also, “Oh, can this be an Olympic …”
Can we get it to that point where it’s recognized like running.
Exactly, exactly. Here, I had to say that this is just my view I’m giving to you because I have definitely no problem in enjoying an activity who happened to be part of the Olympic family. It creates so much awareness now, some entertainment feeling this, but from my personal and from my Academy’s point of view, then I prefer that this has nothing to do … You see, I have learned from other sports activities, and in fact my way of doing gymnastic, that when you start getting into this sportification, then to be able to compare, you need the rules to be more and more and more strict.
Strict and [crosstalk 00:17:02]-
Suddenly, you are sitting in a very, very narrow field and you had to do it like this, and you have to do it by time, you have to do it … So all those aspects, people may like to look at it, but the [inaudible 00:17:18], the free will, the value of challenging yourself in a different way, that will be gone in my opinion. That’s what I see as the main problem.
The main problem. Do you think that the way to protect against that problem is to self-organize so that we can control the part of it that becomes a sport, that becomes sportified, that we can say, “That’s fine. It can go be structured,” but then we can preserve the nature of Parkour if we have control of it ourselves, or do you think we should continue on the same path of just having no organizational structure at all?
I believe that if … I know this has been discussed a lot, and my point of view may be totally different but as soon as we begin organizing, then we are creating the basis for sportification because then suddenly you have an organization saying, “We are the real Parkour organization,” and another one saying, “No, no. We happened to be the real Parkour organization.” I’m working all over the world in the field of sport for all, and I can tell you that until now, I have 15, 20 world organizations catering to the same people saying, “We are the organization which you have to belong to.”
“We represent you.”
Yes. It’s popping up and it’s still popping up so in my opinion, then I feel that if you go into a strong structured organization as a way to avoid the other one, then I believe you just create the best background to do it. So I feel that the network, that’s different, the network of groups in all the countries, that the network and use the word network instead of organizations because when you use organizations, then you run strictly into the typical sport structure in the world.
Pyramid structure, right.
So Finn, is there a story that you would like to share with us?
Well, I think I have many stories. Really I could continue for hours, but let me give you one which happened. In fact, I have been writing this story in the newspaper. I was trying to explain in the newspaper what is Parkour, and then I gave them this special experience I had many years ago. At that time, I had just built the Gerlev Parkour Park, so it was about 2006. I went to the city, the nearby city here. It’s a small city compared to the states, but it’s a small city. Anyway, I was waiting outside the local cinema and I was waiting for my wife. Then while I was sitting in the car, I looked out and then I saw three young boys. They were being 10, 11, 12 years old, and they were just in front of my car. There was three stones, half meter high. It was put there to avoid the cars parked.
Right, keep the cars out.
Yeah, yeah. So it was three stones, and then after the stone there was a sign, a pole with a sign saying, “This is the street,” and this and this. Those three young kids, they were jumping from stone to stone and then grabbed the pole, the sign, and swing around. Even my wife, she came but I said, “You had to wait,” I said “for half an hour enjoying how those three kids, they didn’t need anything else, that those three stones and a sign pole, and then they had fun and fun and fun.” That’s my story.
Of course, the final question. Three words to describe your practice.
Well, I have tried Parkour. Well, the first word and the most fundamental word for me about Parkour, and maybe about sport in general, it is located in the word “fundamental”. It is if you have fun. If you don’t have fun, then you don’t enjoy what you … A few [reason 00:22:13], then you don’t enjoy what you are doing. You need to have fun to continue enjoying being physical active. When we are all over the world trying to get people to be more physical active, fighting the sickness of inactivity, then we need to understand that fun is the best weapon against that. Here, once again about politicians, they are nervous about the word fun. It don’t give them voters, but it is the most used and the most strongest weapon so fun is absolutely number one.
Second is the challenge, and in some ways is related to fun. You have to challenge yourself. You have to challenge your way of thinking. You have to challenge your … “They are doing this. How can I … When do I know that this is the limits of what I dare to do and all I want to do,” and that’s the perfect situation, that you challenge yourself but aware, “When do I have to stop?” Then the last one is, for me, reflection. You have fun, you challenge, but you also have to understand that what you are doing is part of a bigger picture. It can be something which is very, very, very needful and helpful related to avoid diseases or to create health promotion. It can be a social part, so you have to think about or reflect about, “What is my sport, my activity, doing in this field in our society?” So fun, challenge and reflection.
Thank you very much, Finn. It’s been a pleasure.
Pleasure is mine. Thank you very much, Craig.
Of course, there’s a website. Visit parkour.theysaid.world. For this episode’s notes and transcript, the site also has writing from people around the world and everything is available in a dozen languages.