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Hintergrund: Parkour – an urban sport

  • Hitting the road by skateboard, BMX and scooter. Sport in the city; Rechte: WDR

Ever since people began building modern cities - with their concrete terrain and asphalt streets - young people have come up with new sports which adapt to this brave new world - sports like skateboarding and BMX. Parkour continues this tradition. Parkour is an urban sport. It lives from the city, from its cement constructions, its pedestrian bridges, its walls and fences, its multi-storey car parks, endless rooftops, balconies and stairs. For the people who do parkour, the street is their playing field, their fitness studio and their equipment all in one.

So what exactly is parkour?

  • A traceur takes a jump. There’s no such thing as an obstacle; Rechte: WDR, Jan Knoff

Parkour is simple: It’s all about moving through the city, from point A to point B, as fast and efficiently as possible – using nothing else but your own body. No bike, no bus, no tricks, no gadgets. Just your legs, your arms, your hands - and your brain. No matter what’s in your way, you should be able to get around it, get over it, or get past it, as quickly as possible. In parkour, there is no such thing as an obstacle, there are only challenges. Walls and fences which guide and protect pedestrians from dangers are suddenly opportunities. What’s the fastest way to move down those steps? Is it to jump them in one giant leap? Or to slide down the handrail? Or is it quicker to jump across the steps and climb up the wall to one side, digging your fingers into the gaps between the bricks to pull yourself up? Is the most efficient way to get from the 10th storey of a high-rise building to the ground floor via the stairs? Or is it quicker to jump from balcony to balcony and so reach your destination with surprising speed and precision? These are the physical questions which parkour poses. They are questions which can only be answered by the individual himself. There are no rules in parkour. It’s running, climbing and gymnastics combined. It’s an escape from the normal route. It’s breaking free.

Critical voices

  • Two traceurs jump a parapet. Practice reduces the risk of injury; Rechte: WDR, Jan Knoff

As an underground sport practised by the urban youth – and, on top of that, mainly by young men – parkour has often been criticised for being dangerous, not only for the people doing it, but also for others living in the city. For the parkour community this criticism is unfounded. From their point of view, parkour is not only a relatively safe sport (the more you practise, the fewer injuries you become, because you are more and more aware of your own capabilities), there have also only been very few accidents involving ordinary pedestrians. Another criticism which is often voiced is that parkour results in damage to public property – handrails are not made to be walked on, walls not erected to be climbed over. Paint gets worn away, the cement between bricks crumbles.

But a lot of people also see the positive aspects of parkour. For them any damage to public property is limited, and the benefits to young people are enormous. In practising parkour, many young people are doing something constructive with their lives. Although parkour doesn’t help “keep young people off the streets” (to the contrary, it gets them on the streets), it does give them an activity and perspective which can really help them with their lives.

The birth of parkour

  • One of the first ever traceurs. The father of parkour: David Belle; Rechte: imago, Christiane Kappes

Parkour originally comes from France. It was started in the Paris suburbs by a group of teenagers. The word “parkour” comes from the French for “parcours du combatant”, a typical obstacle course used for military training. People who do parkour are called “traceurs”, also a French word which is slang for “going fast”. One of the most well-known traceurs and founder of parkour is David Belle. The son of a military firefighter who taught him about the benefits of training on an obstacle course, Belle and his friends Sebastian Foucan, Yann Hnautra and Laurent Piemontesi decided to make the city of Paris their very own obstacle course in the late 1980s. This was the birth of parkour.

  • A scene with Foucan from the movie “Casino Royale”. Sebastian Foucan brought parkour into the cinema; Rechte: interfoto, Mary Evans

Since then, parkour has become popular in cities all around the world. In America, it is called “free-running”. Sebastian Foucan made parkour world-famous when he was invited to work on the 2006 James Bond film, “Casino Royale”. The opening sequence, in which 007 chases Foucan by foot through a building site, jumping from crane to crane and climbing through endless scaffolding, was - for many people - their first point of contact with parkour. Many practitioners of parkour regarded Foucan’s involvement with the mainstream Bond film as a betrayal of parkour’s ideas and values: parkour is anything but mainstream. Parkour is not about making money. It is purely about the individual.

Be fast, be fit, be self-aware!

  • A young traceur makes a huge jump – which he is sure to make. Knowing your limits; Rechte: dpa

For traceurs – the practitioners of parkour – it helps to be strong, fast and fit, but probably the most important quality of a traceur is his or her intelligence - or self-awareness. As David Belle once said, parkour isn’t just about getting from A to B – you also have to be able to get back from B to A (though not necessarily with the same movements). As a traceur, you have to know your own limitations. You have to be able to say to yourself: “Yes I can make that jump” or “No, that’s not the best way for me. I have to find another way.” Because parkour is a non-competitive sport, there’s no outside pressure. What you do depends entirely on you. Parkour is neither a race nor a performance nor a competition. There are no spectators watching you, shouting for you to jump higher or further, wanting you to put yourself in danger for their own entertainment. You are alone with yourself and the city.

How to practise parkour

  • A young traceur takes a break while another makes a backward flip. Concentration is essential; Rechte: WDR, Jan Knoff

Parkour involves many different movements - or “passements” as its French founders originally called them. Perhaps the most important movement in parkour is the roll. Jumping is always easy, landing safely is another matter. Landing without injuring yourself is essential to parkour. The roll is used to limit impact after a drop and to carry your momentum forward. The roll after landing is both for protection and speed at the same time. There is no list of moves in parkour. How could there be? Each obstacle is different, each traceur varies in size, strength and physical ability. One person might be able to jump across the walkway without losing balance, another person might realise the jump is too far and would have to find another way to get from A to B. Although there are no “fixed” movements in parkour, all movement should try to continue the momentum – or forward movement – of the traceur. Speed should be unhindered. Interestingly - despite all the dangers that seem to be involved in parkour upon first sight - injuries are very rare. This is because parkour is based on the control of movements. The traceur must know himself or herself and must be able to assess the obstacle they are about to overcome. Both elements can be controlled, thereby lowering the risk of injury. Most traceurs train in a group, but each individual still has to listen to his or her body and know what they are capable of. As a traceur, you block out everything but yourself and the obstacle you want to overcome. Every decision is made rationally; the traceur really is in control.

Sport or philosophy?

Because of this approach - the idea that nothing in one’s path is an obstacle, but rather an opportunity or a challenge - parkour is more than just a sport. Like many Asian martial arts which have greatly influenced it, parkour can be seen as a philosophy in life. If you believe you can get past any obstacle in your way, then the world is open to you. Whatever you want to do, you can do, if you approach it the right way. Then it just becomes a question of choosing what you want to do. And like life itself, parkour will never stagnant. There will always be new obstacles in the city, new challenges to face. And the traceur will always find a way through. A good traceur is unstoppable.