PARKOUR ON THE UP
See how the French running and jumping pursuit has become a global phenomenon.
So what exactly is parkour? Is it a sport? Or is it art? After 20 years of mainstream exposure, it feels like parkour is still hard to pin down. What is certain is that it has become one of France’s biggest cultural exports, with millions of devotees addicted to its offbeat ethos that straddles not only physical excellence and endeavour, but spiritual and ethical dimensions that take it beyond the reach of traditional sport.
For the uninitiated, the easiest way to describe parkour is as a body-focused training discipline that relies on movement, strength, agility and timing for its effect. Parkour participants run, climb, swing, jump and roll their way around what are mostly, though not exclusively, urban areas. There is no specific equipment. You use what is to hand to move around in a way that brings the human body into harmony with the man-made environment in which it finds itself. Steps and railings, walls and buildings are all tools to be used. Perhaps the easiest way to think of parkour is as a martial art without an opponent and without combat.
The name derives from parcours du combattant, the French term for obstacle course, and its origins lie in the theories of a French naval officer, Georges Hébert. On his travels in the early part of the 20th century, he noticed that indigenous tribes in Africa had naturally developed superb athletic skills perfectly adapted to their environment. Working as a physical education tutor in Reims, Hébert began working on what he termed ‘ la méthode naturelle’, which he allied to a specially designed parcours du combattant that went on to become standard equipment in military fitness training.
His ideas were taken up by Raymond Belle, who was born in 1939 in Vietnam – then a colony of France – to a French doctor and a Vietnamese mother. Raymond’s father died during the First Indochina War (1945-1954); he was separated from his mother and ended up in a military orphanage at the age of seven.