A SHIRTLESS man floats through the air, some six or seven stories from the ground. Behind him is the roof of a grubby block of flats. At least five metres (16ft) in front of him and a couple down is another building. Tucked like a diver, he leaps above the abyss, rolls into his landing and sprints away. The man is David Belle (pictured), one of the founders of parkour: a form of street acrobatics whose practitioners vault and flip through the concrete jungle in pursuit of ever more daring stunts. This particular jump features in one of the sport’s earliest and most popular clips on YouTube, and has been watched 12m times since it was posted in 2007. In the ensuing decade, parkour has gone from a niche pursuit to one with a dedicated following. Participation data are scarce, but nearly 100,000 British adults practice it, more than the total for taekwondo, judo, skateboarding or surfing. No other extreme sport can boast of a YouTube video with 100m views-but parkour has three.
Most athletes would be delighted by the news that their rapidly expanding discipline will soon be getting its own world cup. But many traceurs, as the sport’s adherents are known, were dismayed by the announcement by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) on July 31st that it would be holding an inaugural Parkour World Cup Series in China in November. The purists view their exercise not only as a physical activity but also as a philosophy. Like followers of the martial arts, they pride themselves on their resilience and fitness. But the obstacles to overcome are walls and pillars, rather than human opponents. Though the discipline evolved from French military training in the late-20th century, and modern-day traceurs often train in platoon-like groups, the movements themselves are a form of self-expression. Street acrobats worry that scorecard-scribbling officials and brand-bearing courses might crush their sport’s guerrilla spirit.
The activity is both comparatively new and based on a long-standing pursuit. In 1902 Georges Hébert, a French naval officer, witnessed a disastrous volcanic eruption on the Caribbean island of Martinique. He was struck by how efficiently the locals moved across the ruined landscape, while the Europeans struggled through familiar paths. So he developed an obstacle-course training regimen, “la méthode naturelle”, to improve soldiers’ fitness. “Be strong to be useful” was its motto. By the 1950s the French special forces had developed their own version, “le parcours du combattant” (“the path of the warrior”). In the 1980s Raymond Belle, a fireman and former soldier, introduced his teenage son David to the drills. He and his friends formed a group called the Yamakasi, who became famous for their daring stunts, first among an underground coterie and then more broadly thanks to exposure on French television. Sébastien Foucan, one of Mr Belle’s childhood pals and the founder of “freerunning”-a variant of parkour that values tricks over efficiency-appeared as a villain in “Casino Royale” (2006), Daniel Craig’s first James Bond film.
Today there are parkour clubs throughout the world, training in gyms and on streets. Newbies can get to grips with fundamental skills, such as the “Kong vault” (diving over a barricade by pushing off it with your hands), and the “cat to cat” (leaping from one wall to another). The FIG is keen to harness such enthusiasm. Gymnastics is not short of fans: some 4.7m Americans tried it at least once in 2015 according to the Sport and Fitness Industry Association, and more have surely been inspired by the success of Simone Biles at last year’s Olympics. But that still leaves it level with recreational climbing (4.7m), and behind both boxing (5.4m) and martial arts (5.5m). It is barely a tenth of the 43m Americans that flex their biceps with dumbbells. The sport has yet to pull its weight.
In February 2017 the FIG announced that it was “excited to develop a new discipline”, which would be “based on” parkour. The first such display came in May, when Montpellier’s Festival International des Sports Extrêmes (FISE) featured two events along an artificial course of ramps, handrails and barriers: the sprint, in which participants race against the clock, and freestyle, with points awarded for creativity. In June the FIG argued for parkour’s inclusion in the Tokyo 2020 games at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). That plea was unsuccessful, but with the IOC’s increasing willingness to consider “lifestyle” sports-karate, sport climbing, skateboarding and surfing have all been added to the Tokyo schedule-comes hope of a future appearance. The FIG is a seasoned Olympic participant: founded in 1881, it is the oldest international sports federation of all and has been involved in every games. After taking control of trampolining in 1998, it needed only two years to find its way onto the programme. Paris, the host of the games in 2024, would be a fitting place for parkour to make its Olympic bow.
The FIG has stressed its commitment to the sport’s authenticity. Morinari Watanabe, the president, claims that the organisation’s “approach is one of empowerment, and great respect for the history and culture of parkour”. Crucially, it has gained the approval of the discipline’s high priest, Mr Belle, who is the chair of the FIG’s Parkour Committee, which includes Charles Perrière, another of the Yamakasi.
But their support has failed to win over the rest of the street-jumping community. APEX Movement, America’s largest parkour training group, has ended a nascent collaboration with the FIG, after claiming that the body excluded them from discussions about the format of the competition in Montpellier. Two other groups, the World Freerunning Parkour Federation and the Fédération Internationale des Arts Du Déplacement have protested against the FIG’s attempt to “hijack” the sport. A third, Parkour Earth, was founded shortly after the FIG announced the World Cup Series, with the promise to govern “by the community, for the community”. Eugene Minogue, Parkour Earth’s CEO, notes that the discipline has “no connection to nor lineage from gymnastics”, and laments that the IOC often allows older sports federations to take over new events. Parkour’s fight for independence might go the same way as those for snowboarding and BMX riding-both of which have gained admission to the Olympics, but are managed by the bodies for skiing and cycling respectively.
Grassroots (or rather, backstreets) traceurs are equally unimpressed. “We Are Not Gymnastics” has become a popular cri de cœur over social media. When Mr Belle posted a photo on his Facebook page from Montpellier, his fans called him a sell-out. Millions of people are likely to discover the sport through such events, with contestants tumbling across a slick, skatepark-like arena, emblazoned with logos and surrounded by fans. For the aficionados that fell in love with France’s grimy alleyways, there will be little to recognise.