Each year, the Great Wall of China receives around 10 million visitors. Many of these sightseers will likely be climbing the steps and taking in the ancient surroundings, gazing out at the scenery, and taking lots of photographs. Very few will contemplate – let alone attempt – performing a series of backflips on the majestic landmark. Unless, of course, they happen to be renowned freerunner and martial artist Ryan Doyle.
Doyle travelled to China in 2012 as part of his Red Bull “world wonders tour.” “I have a massive interest in ancient history,” Doyle said in an interview with magazine Low Down. “Basically, I go to these world wonders and meet up with local parkour teams, and we work together and talk about styles and the effect of the environment.”
For anyone unfamiliar with freerunning, it’s similar to parkour but involves more acrobatics. Also, unlike parkour, freerunning doesn’t entail having a particular destination in mind. It’s about executing various moves – and its principle is to have free expression of motion in any given environment, with no limitations. The discipline was created by French actor and freerunning instructor Sébastien Foucan, and its name first came to light in 2003 documentary Jump London.
Doyle started early on his path to becoming a world champion freerunner – and that path hasn’t always been smooth. At the age of three, Doyle broke his arm while attempting a front flip. Still, undeterred, he was landing backflips by the time he was seven. When he was a teenager, Doyle discovered Jackie Chan and started to train in the Korean martial art known as Kuk Sool Won. Doyle mixed the moves he learnt with gymnastics and became the English national tricking champion in 2006, an achievement he repeated in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Tricking is a martial arts form involving a great deal of acrobatic motion.
Next, Doyle got into freerunning, and in 2007 he won the inaugural Red Bull Art of Motion competition in Vienna, Austria, making him the world’s first ever freerunning champion. However, while the competition may have launched Doyle’s international freerunning career, it almost ended it as well. In the finals, Doyle broke his leg while trying to perform a trick involving a 12-foot-high jump. Fortunately, he made a full recovery – with the help of a metal plate, a foot-long bar and 14 screws.
Despite all that metal in his leg, Doyle continued to pioneer the sport of freerunning. In 2007 he also became a founding member of the World Freerunning Parkour Federation (WFPF) and travelled to the U.S. to introduce the sport. In 2011 Doyle finished third in the Red Bull Art of Motion’s heat in London, England and eighth in Yokohama, Japan before emerging victorious in its São Paulo leg. He is now Red Bull’s ambassador for parkour and an adviser for the Art of Motion competition.
As part of the Red Bull “world wonders tour”, Doyle has visited fascinating locations like Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, and Petra in Jordan, as well as the Great Wall of China. History buffs with an interest in China will know that the Great Wall actually started as a series of walls rather than as a single construction. Later, these sections, some of which date back to the 7th century B.C., were joined up with one another to form what we now know as one of the world’s most iconic sights.
As it stands today, most of the Great Wall has been reconstructed, with the majority of this work having taken place during the Ming Dynasty, which stretched from 1368 to 1644. The wall has also been added to and maintained over the years. With its many steps, towers and fortifications, the vast landmark is seemingly a perfect location for parkour and freerunning. Young Pioneer Tours even offered enthusiasts the chance to sign up for a parkour tour of the Great Wall in 2013.
Parkour is popular in China, particularly in big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. Over there, the pursuit is called “pao ku” and integrates martial arts movements. Doyle – who spent time with a Shaolin monk during his visit to the country – says that the standard of parkour is high in China and that freerunning there is booming.
Ultimately, however, Doyle believes that location isn’t the most important element in freerunning. “It’s never about the place with me,” he said in an interview with online magazine Prowlster. “It’s always about the people who I train with at the time. One place is just as good as another if you’ve got the creative eye, but I will only remember these places if I’ve had fun with the people I’ve been with. What you learn with pleasure you never forget.”
Apart from filming the “world wonders tour” in 2012, Doyle also competed in the Red Bull Art of Motion competition in Santorini, Greece, where he placed eighth. On top of that, he has appeared in MTV’s Ultimate Parkour Challenge in 2010, had a minor role in 2011 movie Freerunner, and starred in independent martial arts film Shinobi Code. Doyle has also coached parkour through the Airborne Academy around his home city of Liverpool.
These days, Doyle finds most of his inspiration in the younger generation. “They are doing some crazy and creative moves, they are my inspiration,” he told Prowlster. “I am learning [more] new moves from the younger generation than the older generation… but I still love Jackie Chan.” Fittingly, Doyle’s idol Chan also filmed on the Great Wall of China while shooting 2010 reboot The Karate Kid.