Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Reflections | Sports

July 30, 2007

Growing Up (and Old) With Parkour

What does it mean to take up a sport as it enters its adolescence?

Alex Tilney

Not too long ago, in a playground near my house, I stood 10 yards away from a three-foot-high metal fence. I was preparing to do my first kong vault outside a tumbling gym. I had done this almost a hundred times on the padded mats, but now I stalled. I made an attempt to run at the fence and stopped.

To do a kong vault, you run up to an obstacle, spring forward, set your hands on top of the obstacle just outside shoulder width, and tuck your legs to your chest. As your feet start to come between your hands, you push off over the obstacle and land on the other side. I was comfortable doing vaults that sent my legs to the side—I had been hopping fences like that ever since I was a kid. But here is the terrifying question about the kong vault: What if you don't tuck your legs enough and you clip your toes on the top of the obstacle? With all your momentum going forward and your arms by your sides, it would be like getting pushed off the fourth rung of a step-ladder with your hands in your pockets.

But there was grass on the other side of the fence, so I told myself that even if I took the worst fall imaginable I still couldn't injure myself too badly. I ran up, I sprang, I planted my hands, I let go, and there I was on the other side, running forward and still in one piece. I had just done one of the most basic, risk-free moves in parkour, but I raised my arms in triumph. I went back and did 30 more kong vaults exactly the same way, two little girls on the playground next to me screaming and laughing as I did every one.

The author executes a kong vault. Photo by Anna Demidova.
"Despite parkour's public image, it is an activity of extreme patience, body control, concentration, and discipline."

The author executes a kong vault. Photo by Anna Demidova.

About a year ago, a friend sent me a YouTube video called "Russian Climbing." In it, a group of Latvian guys run and climb through a landscape of Soviet-era ruins using something called parkour, and they look like white actors who didn't make the final cut for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But they don't have the airy lift of the ropes that were so well-hidden in that movie, and that's what makes "Russian Climbing" so tremendous: There's a palpable sense of gravity on these guys, a certainty that they don't exist in a parallel kung-fu world. While the rest of us trudge to work, they take two running steps up a wall, cling onto the smallest brick outcropping, then haul themselves through a hole in the wall with the ease of hopping a tennis-court net.

'Russian Climbing.' Please observe the humble kong vault at minute 3:11, 4:04, 4:36, etc.

When I saw this video for the first time, I got a weird light panic in my chest. This is the same feeling I had when I saw Bloodsport for the first time, or Top Gun, or the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings. I really wanted to do parkour. But instead I went back to the email I was writing for work, went home and made dinner, went to sleep at a decent hour, and stayed firmly mortal.

Several months later I went to see Casino Royale, the most recent James Bond movie, and saw the show-stealing chase scene through a construction site. That was it. I went home and started following as best I could the extremely difficult workouts posted on americanparkour.com. I found out about parkour workshops in a Brooklyn gym, I conquered my first kong vault in the park near my house, and then, most recently, I went to a meet-up of other traceurs (people who do parkour) and ran around outside doing the very few things I know how to do.

But, here's where it gets complicated. My most reliable indicator that something has gone mainstream is that I have discovered it, and with the release of Casino Royale, parkour had officially reached Minute Five in its alloted 15 minutes. Time and the New Yorker have done feature articles on parkour. It appeared prominently in Madonna's ridiculous 2006 music video Jump. Shoes, cameras, phone services, energy drinks, and dozens of other products have used parkour in advertisements. As of this writing there are 12 video games devoted to or including elements of parkour.

The discipline was born when a French soldier came home from Vietnam after going through training on obstacle courses. This soldier, Raymond Belle, played with his son David, and little by little David and his friends in Lisses, a suburb of Paris, developed more and more techniques of moving through their environment as quickly and efficiently as possible. A friend of David Belle named this thing "parkour" as an adaptation of the French military term for the obstacle course, parcours du combatant. Others learned from this first Lisses group, a few British traceurs started a website devoted to parkour, and more people around Europe started learning. A 2002 BBC commercial showing David Belle crossing the rooftops of London started to raise parkour's public profile. Then came the 2003 documentary Jump London, in which the charismatic traceur Sébastian Foucan comes to England to train and perform on some of Britain's most renowned landmarks. Jump London and its sequel Jump Britain made parkour's popularity explode around the world, and the 2004 feature film starring David Belle, Banlieue 13, cemented parkour's place on the public stage. And then, in 2006, "Russian Climbing" reached me, and parkour officially left the underground.

When people like me start taking up parkour, it means that it's going through its adolescence, and experiencing all of the growing pains that go along with it. Sébastian Foucan and David Belle remain the two leading figures in this world, but there has been friction between them over the growth of parkour. Belle is not mentioned at all in Jump London or Jump Britain, and the narrator in the first movie states that Foucan started parkour. Foucan has also asserted himself as the founder and leader of "freerunning." The term was originally suggested in the movie as a direct English translation of the French term parkour, and although the two words started out synonymous, Foucan started to be associated with freerunning as a distinct practice, which has been described as more "expressive" and "aesthetic" with performative moves that aren't strictly necessary for efficient movement. Think of the difference between a Shaker chair and a Fabergé Egg. In "Russian Climbing," for example, there are lots of flips and twists, and that might be characterized as freerunning.

Although Belle has been shown enthusiastically performing flips and other elements of gymnastics in videos and TV spots, he has made the distinction between the fun frivolous stuff and the pure art of parkour, and suggested at times that a "prostitution of the art" was taking place. Foucan and Belle split over the validity of each pursuit, and Foucan emerged as the more self-promotional of the two, with his own website, clothing designs, and a somewhat fame-hungry image. Belle, although he supports himself by appearing in ads and movies and recently started a website that hardly works, seems shy and uneasy in the public eye.

Despite his lack of effort, Belle's reputation and profile among traceurs is dominant—everyone I've trained with speaks of him with untempered awe; the definition of the right technique is the way Belle does it. People refer to Foucan often in the same breath, but he often appears as slightly secondary, the Paul to Belle's Jesus.

Although this could be the stuff of classic rivalry—Yankees v. Red Sox, Superman v. Luthor—each Belle and Foucan seem to have downplayed their differences. In Casino Royale, Foucan runs through the set with almost no unnecessary movements, and the production doesn't scream "look at this tricky, stunty thing called freerunning that we're featuring in our movie" (the way skiing was depicted in For Your Eyes Only, for example). This seems to me a step removed from self-aggrandizement. At one point, Foucan executes a move called an underbar, jumping through a slot at the top of a wall by grabbing a pipe to propel himself forward (Bond then just breaks through the wall itself, rawr). This has to be an homage to the almost identical move that David Belle made famous in Banlieue 13. In recent interviews (including the one that appears in this magazine), Foucan has seemed to downplay his deference to the "expressive" parts of freerunning. Moreover, the difference between parkour and freerunning may have been overemphasized after Jump London. One of the featured traceurs in the movie talks about how jumping off the highest thing around isn't good enough, that freerunning also has to look good. The English translation seems to imply that the aesthetics are an end in themselves, but the French practitioner could have meant that beauty be used as a tuning fork for the quality and naturalness of a movement. Designers talk about the beauty of a ship's propeller in the same way. Parkour and freerunning may be distinct, but they don’t have to be at odds.

One reason many people shy away from freerunning may be its association with stunting. On a spectrum, most traceurs would probably put parkour at the stripped-down end, freerunning somewhere in the middle, and stunting or tricking—which is pretty much just flipping and jumping off high stuff for the hell of it—all the way at the other end. And there is nothing more reviled among traceurs than the idea that parkour is just a stunt. Traceurs take elaborate pains to emphasize that parkour is not an "extreme sport," that it is not about thrill-seeking guys throwing themselves off their rooftops like WWE wrestler wannabes, that it's neither flashy nor narcissistic. When Time published the article emphasizing the danger of parkour to sell magazines, message boards filled up with traceurs' anger at another portrayal of them as stuntmen who braved whatever risks they could to score the biggest, baddest move possible. One traceur recently wrote a long essay on the importance of progressing slowly and developing one's own natural progress without having to catch up to other traceurs tackling bigger, higher moves. A lot of them worry that as parkour gets more and more mainstream, its image will be fixed as "that thing with the really high jumps," or, even worse, "skateboarding without the skateboard."

The above training video might give an idea of what a lot of traceurs would choose as parkour's public image: an activity of extreme patience, body control, concentration, creativity, joy, and discipline. Look at the jumps at -1:14, where Naïm controls his forward momentum so well that he avoids hitting his face on the wall just behind his landing spot. Or at -0:42, where he has enough spatial awareness to jump to a narrow ledge he can't see. Parkour looks cool, and there's a reason why lots of traceurs shoot videos of themselves doing cool stuff, but traceurs want the world to know that there's more to it than jumping from crane to crane in the Bahamas.

If some see the flashy stunt image threatening parkour from the outside, commercialism and competition are the most divisive issues inside the parkour community. It's easy to imagine the upsides to parkour competitions. They would be extremely fun to watch, they would drive the development of the sport as practitioners strive to outdo each other, and they would allow traceurs to make a living by devoting themselves to parkour. At the same time, there's an almost fanatical devotion among many to parkour as a relief from, and antidote to, the divisions in other parts of life. On internet message boards, many posters have an anti-competition logo as a signature. Maybe David Belle and Sébastien Foucan never became public rivals because there’s no World Championship bout in Vegas. Belle speaks about the utilitarian origins of parkour and how his time as a firefighter contributed to the idea of moving through space purposefully. Parkour's unofficial motto is etre et durer, or "to be and to last," and in the same way this idea makes the curlicues of freerunning somehow distasteful, a parkour race course at X-Games seems somehow superficial. Of course, very few people train for parkour with the expectation that they will really be rescuing people from burning buildings or fleeing criminals. Defined in this utilitarian way, then, almost no one will ever really do parkour. But parkour stresses moving on your own terms, overcoming constrictive walls and railings that already exist in a city, and making that pursuit competitive seems like holding a championship to crown the world's best meditator.

This anti-competitive spirit makes the parkour community uncommonly welcoming. Everyone I've met has gone out of their way to be warm, and almost everyone has been more than willing to teach from their own experience. Would this change if competing traceurs wanted to keep an edge on each other? Some of the hostility to competition seems to come from a kind of haughtiness—a will to keep the lofty art of parkour above the scrum of competitive gymnastics, lumberjacking, or street luge. I can't decide where I come down on competition. Part of me does want to lean to the purist side. In any case, I doubt I would ever get even vaguely close to the orbit of competitive-grade parkour, and so it most likely wouldn't change my experience much. For pro and con arguments, click here and here, respectively.

Along with the utilitarian applications of parkour, many traceurs talk about a kind of life philosophy, as well. As one develops in parkour, the thinking goes, the skills of creativity, focus, and courage help to overcome more abstract problems. Instead of avoiding obstacles at work, for example, one can confront them and move easily and calmly in a coherent path. By transforming constraints like stairs, walls, and railings into ways to develop one's skill and ability, any constraint can be so transformed. (In this video, a British traceur named Daniel Ilabaca explores these life-changing effects at length.)

Near the beginning of Jump Britain, a British traceur named John Kerr, aka Kerbie, discusses a period of depression in his life and what happened when he started doing parkour. "There were times when I'd be really really upset, and then I'd go out and find myself doing parkour and forgetting who I am, forgetting every one of my problems, becoming Kerbie, I guess, not being John anymore, not having the weight on my shoulders that John has." Some of this sounds a little teenage mystical or new-agey, but these guys aren't supposed to be theoreticians. In Kerbie's words, I think you can see an authentic transformation that parkour has created, and in the same way rappers take on different names to become invincible (fat, scared Chris Wallace becomes The Notorious B.I.G.), many traceurs take on new names to make the freedom from everyday constraints manifest. It also lets them pretend they're in The Matrix with names like reaktor and wildcard313, but the play and the authentic evolution mix well together.

Along with parkour's intensifying public exposure comes the inflow of money, and competition is one way to bring more money in; performing in movies and ads is another. But parkour itself is fairly simple, and many traceurs are attracted to the stripped-down ethic involved: no fancy equipment, just you and the environment. But this is changing. EZ, a traceur who's featured in Jump Britain, has said, "The fact that no equipment other than a pair of trainers and an open mind are needed makes it all instantly accessible." But EZ is also a member of a group called Urban Freeflow, which started the first parkour website and has been talking about organizing the first parkour competition, possibly at the end of this year. And although the anti-commercial, anti-specialized gear camp is strong, I've seen a prototype for a Reebok shoe designed specifically for parkour (not out yet), and New Balance, Nike, and Adidas all will have parkour-specific shoes. [Editor's note: K-Swiss recently came out with a dedicated shoe endorsed by (of course) Sebastien Foucan. And, weirdly but inevitably, parkour isn't mentioned at all and FREE RUNNING is always spelled in all caps.]

In an earlier draft of this essay I wrote that no specialized shoe could offer anything that an existing running or court shoe couldn't, but the Reebok shoe was kind of nice, and I wanted to buy it. It had more cushion than a track flat but wasn't as high and possibly unstable as a running shoe, it had a sole similar to rock-climbing rubber but with nubby treads. It also had a completely useless pump—didn't they realize the pump was ridiculous sometime in the '90s? I think I'll resist buying a specialized shoe, but that ethic of simplicity will definitely be challenged, and many are ambivalent about it. For example, here's a message-board post, this one about a K-Swiss shoe ad: "I think anyone who knows Parkour can see that would not be a great shoe for it. But now the unknowing public thinks they can leap tall buildings with it. Anyway, congrats again to Skynative [the traceur who appears in the ad], and I hope all of you guys who want to can land some paying gigs like this one."

I have to say I'm pretty hopeful about the future of parkour. I don't think poseurs and hangers-on can do too much damage to it. Anyone can buy a CD at Tower Records and pretend they care about a band; anyone can buy a skateboard or surfboard, cover it in stickers, and then get in the way at parks and breaks. But being able to find good places to do parkour basically anywhere in a city means that there's plenty of room for everyone. The barrier of entry to parkour is also extremely high because of the level of training needed to perform even basic movements and to avoid injury, and so not having a lot of poseurs means that experienced traceurs don't have to cultivate the sneering dismissiveness that skaters or music fans adopt. Even if competition changes parkour, there are always going to be devoted non-pros. Parkour is going to come out of its adolescence strong.

*

In his biography of Muhammad Ali, David Remnick writes of the great man in his retirement, "he had the athlete's disdain for exercise," and after playing sports in college (even if I wasn't heavyweight champion of the world), I had the same inability to get excited about going to the gym. But for the last few months I've wanted to get in shape for an actual purpose.

Parkour has come into my life at an interesting time for parkour, but also at an interesting time for me. I'm 29. Ever since I've known about marathons, I've told myself that eventually I would do one, but I never have. Then I saw Casino Royale. I thought to myself, "I will be able to run a marathon at 45 if I train really well, but unless I start doing parkour now, my knees won't be able to handle this." So when I went to the park the next day to do pull-ups, it was the first thing I had ever decided to do because my age made it seem urgent. I'm going to stay with parkour. The other day I did my first kong vault on concrete, and today I got close to vaulting over a picnic table. Yes, I clipped my toe and my toenail is bent and purple. But tomorrow I’ll start again.

Alex Tilney

Alex Tilney lives in Brooklyn and is a student in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.







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Comments

- Reflections
- posted on Aug 05, 07
Tj

Hey i loved this article, you did a really good job depictinting this amazing idea, becasue it is an i dea, basically find your own path. I personally, pratcie, unfortunalty there are no big citys near me so i have a limited amount of skill, i was wondering if you have found a video, or ther group you pratice with could make a video on how to perform each of the neccisary moves, because i have erally noone that is any much more expirenced than i am, so if you could email me, and if you have a instant messenger address could you send me that in an email too? Thanks much

- Reflections
- posted on Aug 06, 07
KD

AT-a thoughtful article that gracefully interweaves the historical and the personal...awesome.

- Reflections
- posted on Mar 21, 08
Chaz

Hi, fantatsic article. Funny, thoughtful, fascinating, personal and inspirational. I'm 34 and have just started to tailor my weight training and workouts towards getting into parkour seriously. Articles like this are what have inspired me in the first place...stick in there and best o' luck ;)

- Reflections
- posted on Aug 14, 08
- Reflections
- posted on Oct 09, 08
- Reflections
- posted on Feb 02, 10
roy

hey this is a good article. its the first thing I've read recently that has more than 20 words, haha. I'm a devoted traceur and I will never stop practicing


Article by Alex Tilney

Alex Tilney lives in Brooklyn and is a student in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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