Shortly after breaking’s inclusion in the Paris 2024 Olympics sent heads spinning across the globe, Sebastian Coe was asked for his gut reaction. “Hmm,” the former head of London 2012 said. “Yeah, it’s in there.” There was an awkward silence before Coe, now the president of World Athletics and an IOC member, eventually conceded: “You probably have to be a pretty good athlete to be a breakdancer.”
Pretty good? A few seconds watching Britain’s best B-boys and B-girls, including Sunni Brummitt, Roxanne Milliner and Vanessa Marina, perform a dizzying array of spins, flips and freezes to a thudding beat – a sonic fusion of strength, gymnastics and dance – provides a rapid panacea to such sniffy attitudes.
“Perhaps because breaking is an urban art form, people think its a little bit less serious and strenuous,” says the 24-year-old Brummitt, who has competed in breaking’s most prestigious event, the Red Bull BC One World Finals, on four occasions.
“They don’t comprehend what goes into it. I train five days a week, four to six hours every day. I think you could put a top-tier B-boy with a top-tier gymnast and they’d be doing the same training regimes. The difference is we don’t have support or funding; we are doing it without coaches, nutritionists and an infrastructure in place.”
Coe may have sounded curmudgeonly but such attitudes are hardly uncommon. Breaking has come a long way since it emerged in New York in the early 70s as a way for rival street gangs to settle disputes, yet many still roll their eyes at suggestions that it is a sport, let alone one worthy of an Olympic spot.
Brummitt understands why some are sceptical. All he is asking for is one shot at changing people’s minds. “We are right in the middle between an art form and a professional sport.”
Brummitt started learning his skills from his mum, who comes from a circus background. “She’s like the black sheep of the family,” he says with a laugh. “The rest of my relatives are lovely but they are all GPs and doctors.
“However if the critics want a debate, let’s do it after 2024 when we’ve had our chance. Being in Paris will help us. But don’t forget that the IOC wants us there. We are going to make the Olympics a whole lot more interesting for an entirely different demographic.”
This is an arranged marriage – and one that everyone is entering with their eyes wide open. The IOC president, Thomas Bach, craves breaking’s ability to reach new faces and spaces, as part of his plans to make the Games “more gender-balanced, more youthful and more urban”. Breaking wants a rocket-fuelled shot into the mainstream.
Intriguingly it was the World DanceSport Federation, the governing body for amateur ballroom dancing, who pushed hardest to have breaking included. Their motives are not strictly altruistic: they also want their own discipline in a future Olympics.
Milliner, who is known as B-girl Roxy, is hoping that including separate women’s and men’s events in the Olympics will be a gamechanger in what is a male-dominated sport. When she started breaking in 2007, she competed largely against men in head-to-head battles. She beat most of them too.
“Competing at the Olympics sounds like a dream,” says Milliner, who performed at the Beijing Olympics as a teenager. “I was there at the closing ceremony. Do you remember the big red bus that got slated in the papers? I was on it dancing.”
She will be 35 when Paris rolls around and has just had a baby, but is convinced she can still mix it with women half her age. Certainly she has the pedigree. She holds two Guinness World Records for headspins and has represented the UK at numerous international competitions.
“It’s still very heavily male-dominated, but far more women are involved now,” she says. “I love the fact that it is a sport, an art and it’s also completely what you want it to be. It’s so difficult physically but it’s also fun and there are so many different aspects to it, so many different levels.
“There’s top rock, on your feet, which you can teach anyone. There’s footwork on the floor, which takes a different part of your mind. Freezes, when you hold a position, And then there’s the power moves, where you’re spinning and sometimes getting bruises. It’s completely different to anything else.”
Britain are not yet in the elite of the breaking world and did not send any dancers to the Youth Olympics in Argentina in 2018, but Milliner is convinced things will change. “There’s a young B-girl called Terra who blew the whole scene away when she emerged aged six – she was flying, doing better moves than me,” she says. “A lot more kids are getting into it because of seeing someone like her.”
While a majority in the scene have welcomed breaking’s inclusion in the Olympics, there is a fear that it may dilute – or even pollute – what makes it so distinctive. “There is very big debate inside the culture and it would be a lie to say we are all for it,” says Brummitt. “We are underground, we’re hip-hop, and not everyone wants to be mainstream.
“But people also want to make a living. At the moment, not many people in the UK breaking scene can do that. I want things to change for the next generation.”
Marina, another hugely talented B-girl, won the Red Bull UK BC Cypher competition in 2019 to qualify for the BC One World Finals. She still has to supplement her income by “teaching workshops, organising events, and working part-time in a restaurant”. But things are looking up.
“The Olympics will be a huge platform for us. It will show that breaking is not a bad thing, like some people think it is. It’s not about cleaning the floor or dancing with the homeless. It’s something that kids can get involved in and is super positive. I know my worth because of breaking.”
Another unresolved issue is how it will be judged in Paris, with Brummitt explaining there isn’t a universal system. “When it comes to Red Bull BC One, it’s as simple as you have five judges and at the end of the battle, the majority with the votes wins,” he says. “But some Korean events have a judging system that breaks it down into execution, foundation, originality and musicality. So you have to adapt your approach.”
Milliner says: “Art is subjective so it’s always there’s always going to be questions over judging.”
Whatever your view of whether breaking should be in the Olympics, it will surely be one of the most talked about moments of the 2024 Games. And someone in the Paris organising committee clearly has a sense of history, and humour, too. Because breaking – along with 3×3 basketball and sport climbing – will be staged at the Place de la Concorde, where members of the ancien regime, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, were guillotined during the French Revolution.
The symbolism, of the new hacking away at the old, will be almost as breathtaking as the moves on display.