Parkour has a sense of community spirit that sets it apart from many other sports. “There’s no competition at all; nobody makes fun of you because you can’t do something,” says one enthusiast.
A young man named Ferret sprints toward a staircase railing in the playground behind a condominium/shopping complex in downtown Toronto. He vaults over the railing onto a landing about eight feet below, landing as lightly as a cat. Then he leans over the next railing, and, in one breathtaking move, leans forward and flips over onto the concrete another eight feet below. Without pausing for breath, he tears away as if pursued by rabid dogs.
A skinny guy with a shaved head, Ferret is a 23-year-old computer network administrator whose real name is Ben Wastle, and he’s a diehard practitioner of parkour. To the sport’s devotees, known as traceurs, cities are giant obstacle courses. The goal is to connect acrobatic moves in fluid, unbroken strings while running as if your life depends on it. Railings, ramps, fences and rooftops are part of the playing field. This show of urban athletics and its close cousin, free running (a more flexible style with less emphasis on forward movement) are taking over the streets and alleys of cities around the world.
Parkour is a seriously intense workout. It’s also a hands-on, down ’n’ dirty way to see the urban landscape in a way that most people never will. Ask any traceur and he (most are guys, usually in their late teens and early 20s) will tell you parkour has changed his relationship with the city he lives in. Dan “Danno” Iaboni, 23, one of Ferret’s parkour buddies, has developed an appreciation for the city’s hard edges. “Parkour has opened most people’s eyes to the vast array of creative architecture and buildings we have in Toronto. We can actually call this our home because we’ve explored the whole thing.” More than anything, parkour is an expression of freedom—the ability to move freely in an environment that constantly sets up barriers. Danno grins like a kid on Christmas morning. “I can go anywhere.”
And while parkour may be dangerous, it isn’t reckless or random—every situation is carefully assessed, each move executed with precision and an awareness of the laws of physics. It isn’t about being flashy. It’s about curiosity and seeing possibilities—looking at a lamppost or bus shelter as an extension of the sidewalk. To hear these guys explain it, anyone can do parkour. “You can be out of shape and non-athletic, but that’s OK because the basics of parkour are so simple,” says Danno. “Running, jumping, rolling, balancing. You just limit yourself at the beginning to smaller obstacles. As long as you keep moving, that’s all that matters.”
Ferret, who claims to be afraid of only “women and heights,” has been parkouring for more than two years, but only recently found Danno and other like-minded friends through pkTO, Toronto’s parkour network with about 75 active members.
I meet Ferret, Danno and six other guys from pkTO, aged 17 to 23, near the University of Toronto’s downtown campus. I try to keep up as they defy gravity—and common sense—by scampering over recycling bins, doing Matrix-style wall runs, scaling sculptures and vaulting over railings with Olympic finesse. They’ll repeat some moves many times to perfect their techniques, making each action as sharp and clean as possible. As I watch, I can’t help but think of the words of Bruce Lee: “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.”
Like martial arts, parkour has been called a discipline—a means to self-discovery and self-improvement. Aesthetics isTK as important as agility. It’s not enough to pull off a move—traceurs try to do it with grace, originality and style. “It’s all about confidence and conquering fears,” says Alex “Wolfbeta” Tsiboulski, 19. (The Internet played a major role in the spread of parkour and, in a nod to the Net, traceurs use their online handles even on the street.)
Parkour also inspires the kind of devotion that martial arts does. Those who like parkour like it a lot. Many traceurs consider parkour a lifestyle, a way of thinking. When not climbing walls and crossing gaps, they have lively discussions on parkour message boards, swap amateur parkour videos and network with groups in other cities. Three weeks after we met, Danno, regarded as one of pkTO’s leaders, went to New York for a parkour summit.
Parkour is catching on quickly worldwide. Crews have already formed in Japan, Sweden, Germany, Croatia, Portugal, Italy, Spain, South Africa and the United Kingdom, a testament to the reach and disseminating power of the Internet. Eric “Amoniak” Wijnvoord, 20, from Amersfoort in the Netherlands, is one of countless traceurs who discovered parkour while Web-surfing. Now he’s in contact with more than 1,000 traceurs worldwide through online forums, and he recently founded the Dutch Parkour Community with friends from Gouda and Leiden.
One of the most popular parkour sites is run by Urban FreeFlow, a team of traceurs based in London and New York. Its Web site (www.urbanfreeflow.com) features news from around the world and highlights international parkour destinations (next time you’re visiting Tallinn, Estonia, check out the Viru Centre). As of June, there is a U.K.-based parkour magazine, Worldwide Flow, with articles about fitness and nutrition for the serious traceur.
Parkour started as the hobby of a couple of teens in France. When David Belle, widely credited as parkour’s creator, was a kid tearing around the suburbs of Paris in the ’80s, he couldn’t have guessed how popular his pastime would become. A friend named it “parkour” after parcours du combatant, the obstacle courses of the French military (Belle’s father was a soldier and firefighter).
Interest in parkour exploded in 2003 with the release of the British documentary Jump London, which starred Belle’s childhood friend and training partner Sebastian Foucan (a sequel, Jump Britain, was released earlier this year). Now in his early 30s, Foucan likens parkour to children’s games and laments the fact that as we get older, we forget how to play. Although Belle and Foucan’s paths have diverged, France is still a hotbed of parkour activity. Belle, revered by many traceurs as parkour’s patron saint, recently launched PAWA (PArkour World Association) and there is talk of establishing a global network of teachers to spread his philosophy.
Along with the sport’s burgeoning popularity, of course, come corporations looking to cash in on its appeal to youth. Many traceurs consider it inevitable. “I don’t agree with the commercialization of parkour, but it’s already too late,” says Jonathan “Drunkm0nk” Rooney, 26, leader of pk514, a large crew in Montreal. Some believe that if they don’t take advantage of the sport’s marketing potential, somebody else will. Others don’t mind sponsorship, because it gives parkour the recognition they feel it deserves.
Adidas was one of the first brands to get in the game—it sponsors the Urban FreeFlow group. In January, the company launched a parkour shoe in Europe, the Adidas Hyperride (in North America, it’s called the Megaride). The mesh shoe features “the world’s first full-length structured midsole,” and is meant to be “half landing strip and half launching pad” to help traceurs “move faster, cut quicker [and] land smoother.”
Danno, an especially dedicated traceur who trains daily and makes mincemeat of three or four pairs of running shoes a year, doesn’t think much of the $150 shoe. He’s skeptical of the mesh top (“it would just rip apart in time”) and the material used for the sole (“it’s the very gummy kind of grip that wears out really fast”). His verdict: “I’m not going to spend that much on shoes I’m just going to destroy.”
Nevertheless, the Hyperride is a harbinger of a likely onslaught of parkour merchandise—all of it unnecessary, given the nature of the sport (besides shoes, all you need are comfortable clothes and a sense of adventure). But, like skateboarding, parkour has a sellable image and has already been used to promote Toyota, Siemens mobile phones and Merrell shoes in Europe. Comparisons between the two sports are unavoidable.
The media often describe parkour as “skateboarding without a skateboard,” an analogy that disgusts a lot of traceurs. Many of them distance themselves from the flashy flips and grabs that are integral to skateboarding, feeling that they don’t belong in a sport that emphasizes fluidity and forward movement. Traceurs also worry that if parkour is packaged and sold the way skateboarding has been—think Airwalk hoodies, the X Games and Tony Hawk video games—its spirit will be corrupted. (In fact, there already is a parkour-based video game, Free Running, for PlayStation Portable. Players can dress up their characters in Adidas gear, including the Hyperride shoe.)
Skateboarding culture also is notorious for graffitiTK and vandalism, which, so far, don’t have a place in parkour—the sport is about reclaiming urban public spaces, not defacing them. Many traceurs are former skateboarders who found that culture unnecessarily negative. Wolfbeta notes that, “One new guy asked, ‘Are the people as mean as they are in skateboarding?’”
Parkour incorporates a deeply entrenched sense of community that sets it apart from other sports. “There’s no competition at all; nobody makes fun of you because you can’t do something,” says Ferret. Danno adds, “Everyone wants to see everyone else achieve and get better.” There is a genuine all-for-one ethos among traceurs—they welcome beginners, push each other to new heights (physical and otherwise) and hang out at each others’ homes. They also stop each other from taking stupid chances.
Injuries do happen, of course. A guy in Montreal recently knocked out his front teeth flipping off a picnic table. Wolfbeta wore a thumb splint for two months after a monkey vault (so called because the move makes you look like an ape) gone bad. Many veterans like Danno have tendonitis in their knees. Drunkm0nk once woke up in the hospital after falling 15 feet off a roof and slamming his head against a rock (an accident that was “heard all around the globe”). And, tragically, two people reportedly died after imitating stunts they saw in a movie.
There is a lexicon of basic, ground-level parkour moves, such as rolls, monkey vaults and precision jumps, but much of the media attention, unfortunately, has focused on the big, showy moves—like roof jumps. “Now there are a lot of guys who just want to jump off stuff,” says Wolfbeta. “The first thing we teach people is how to fall, how to roll. If you don’t master the basics, you’ll bail every time.”
With this in mind, I watch nervously as the guys, led by Danno, cross the ledge that runs down the side of Sidney Smith Hall, a University of Toronto building that has all the charm of an army bunker. The ledge is easily 15 feet off the ground. As the traceurs make their way to the back, avoiding the building’s sharp edges, someone inside pounds on a window. Ferret shouts, “Security’s coming any minute!”
Parkour isn’t illegal unless the traceurs are trespassing or damaging property. Surprisingly, pkTO members say that cops and security guards usually leave them alone. In any case, they’re rarely in one spot long enough to attract attention. In Montreal, Drunkm0nk actually approaches cops and explains what he’s up to. “I’m trying to educate the police for the next generation of traceurs, so they don’t judge us as cat burglars.”
Many traceurs make an effort to ensure that parkour’s image stays not only clean, but also true to its roots. Danno and other prominent traceurs recently founded the Canadian Parkour Association to represent the sport in their home country. “Its mission statement will be to spread the message and teaching of David Belle and to uphold the true meaning, definition and philosophy of parkour,” explains Danno. “It’s somewhere they can come when they have doubts, a place that will touch into the deeper side a bit.”
Like other parkour purists around the world, Danno worries that Belle’s creation already is being warped, both by media reports that obsess over its daredevil aspects and by misinformed traceurs who, despite good intentions, misrepresent the sport or are trying to profit from it.
After three hours, the guys are getting tired. Before heading over to Chinatown for a snack, they make another stop, giving Ferret a chance to jump one last hurdle. Eight weeks ago, he broke his foot doing a monkey vault over a walkway behind the university library, dropping six feet and landing hard on a curbstone. He must clear the same jump in order to move on, mentally. His buddies stand around him, alternately offering encouragement and good-natured ribbing. One jokes, “If you get this, I’ll give you 10 bucks.”
Ferret takes several minutes to prepare himself. Then, when he’s ready to go, he has to stop himself a couple of times to make way for people who want to use the walkway to, well, walk. Finally, he flings himself forward. His hands make contact with the top of the wall and he pulls his knees to his chest. His dark form sails up and over the wall, clearing the curb and landing with a thump on the sidewalk. He straightens up and screams “bitch!” at the offending stone while his cronies applaud and I release the breath I’ve been holding for an eternity. “Do it again,” Danno says. Ferret doesn’t argue. He pulls it off again, faster this time. Borrowing from Bruce Lee once more, the goal is to “play, but play seriously.”
Excerpted from This Magazine (May/June 2005), Canada’s leading source for alternative perspectives on social and cultural issues. It truly fulfills its motto: “Because everything is political.” For more information, see www.thismagazine.ca
Urban FreeFlow: www.urbanfreeflow.com
Worldwide Flow: www.jetredmedia.com
Le Parkour: www.le-parkour.com
Sebastian Foucan: www.parkour.com