A leap of faith: Beiruti free runner prepares for his shot at global stardom
BEIRUT - It’s a stifling summer day in Lebanon, and amid the ruins of a 12th century crusader castle, there is a collective intake of breath from those witnessing gravity being defied.
For the briefest of moments, 22-year-old Ziad Karam’s wiry frame is air bound, his body twisted into a position that seems unfeasible while spinning, upside down, nearly two metres up. Every move is rehearsed down to the minutest detail. Then his feet touch the ancient pillar that acts as a landing pad, and to the sound of muted praise from his crew - they have grown used to it, after all - he bounds off once again.
Gap conquered, no problem.
Then again, when you are dead set on making it as a world-famous free runner - similar to parkour, but with extra flips - these little acts of magic become every day stuff.
Stamping his style
Karam is a leading figure in Lebanon’s free running scene. Whether it is on the mammoth concrete monoliths of the Niemeyer park, an incongruous ode to modernism in the northern city of Tripoli, or dodging security guards while navigating the glistening marble ledges of Beirut’s upmarket shopping district, he has stamped his style on spots across the country.
Middle East Eye caught up with Karam as he and his friends roamed the coastal city of Byblos, a UNESCO heritage site overspilling with ancient history and, rather helpfully, old ledges to leap from. “I’ve always been a natural monkey,” he explained, with the American accent in his English a testament to the imprint left by watching US TV shows as a youngster.
“I asked a teacher about the physics of doing a flip off a wall, so she explained it,” he added, chuckling, “I then went and did a flip on the wall in front of her.”
Having been introduced to the world of Lebanese free running by friends, he quickly became a regular fixture at a now-closed gym in Beirut close to where he lived, obsessively spending hours perfecting the twists, vaults and leaps that characterise the sport.
He has since broken out of that world, rejecting the mats, club membership and monthly fees approach taken by some of his peers in favour of the freedom of the streets; but his regime is no less intense.
Karam’s self-effacing and laid-back demeanour belies a drive that sees him regularly training until three in the morning, in an effort to reach the rarefied heights of the sponsored pro.
“Some other free runners I’ve found aren’t that serious - they’re worrying about injuring themselves, and the fact they have to work in other jobs,” said Karam, who works for his family’s architecture company.
“I don’t care about that. Plan A is for me to become a professional free runner.”
His parents remain skeptical, but the urgency behind every session is growing as the few days that may just help him live his dream creep ever closer.
One chance to shine
In early October, some of the world's most talented free runners gathered on the Greek Island of Santorini for Red Bull’s Art of Motion - one of the sport’s premier events.
The biggest competition of its kind in the world, it is a place where talent is spotted and careers are made among a labyrinth of whitewash and ocean-blue buildings.
“I remember seeing this kid running around jumping and doing crazy things without caring about the famous athletes that were next to him - he wasn’t intimidated and that’s what I liked about him,” Dimitris Kyrsanidis, or DK as he is known to his legion of fans, told MEE.
Kyrsanidis, one of the world’s finest free runners, first saw Karam at the competition in 2013 and the pair quickly became friends.
“He’s not so experienced, but every year I have seen progression," Kyrsanidis added.
"He's so motivated he never stops, and he's someone who can really make it happen."
Karam certainly wants to make it happen. He is already travelling the globe and uploading videos on the internet to make a name for himself, and is no longer heading to Santorini as a newcomer.
As the competition gets tougher each year, it is not just the other free runners who stand in his way.Overcoming hurdles
It was during a rare foray back in the gym earlier this year that Karam shattered a bone in his leg while attempting a flip off of a high ledge.
He took this as a sign that he should be doing his workouts outdoors and not in the confines of a gym.
“The doctor doesn’t know I’m not resting it - I’ll do that after the competition, and just ignore it till then like I do every day.”
There is also the rather more intractable problem of having a Lebanese passport, and all of the slow bureaucratic manoeuvrings and sluggish visa processes that are connected to it, some of which have caused him to miss events abroad. Karam thinks he has got the visa issue sorted out this time.
Though there is only encouragement and no competition among the small group he trains with, it is obvious his death-defying leaps are the skills they aspire to nurture within themselves.
Having been dusted off by Karam and the others following a particular wince-inducing fall after a failed flip off yet another Byblos relic, 16-year-olf Ahmad Omar told MEE:
“Ziad’s on a higher level than the rest of us, it motivates us, makes us want to do better and train more.”
Karam, however, needs little in the way of extra motivation. For him, a love of the sport, and his dream of making it big, are all he needs.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.