Where others see walls, they see possibilities. Where others see obstacles, they see opportunities. Where others look where their feet are taking them, they gaze up and absorb all that’s around. In these guys’ eyes, every built up area has the makings of a playground. In their minds, the concrete landscape is a puzzle that only needs solving – and solving in style.
Photo via: Web Urbanist
Balanced on tower block railings, vaulting and flipping over gaps between building, or running along vertical wall faces, participants in parkour and free running are human equivalents of cats – real life spider-men whose daredevil escapades have seen a new generation of movie stuntman emerge.
Photo: sujatha fan
Still, there is much more to these forms of urban acrobatics than white knuckle thrills and cullions of steel. Calling on just their imagination and their athleticism, parkour practitioners – or traceurs – and free runners move through the built environment using not only a range of distinctive techniques but a new way of seeing the world.
Photo: Rita Quinn
Some might call parkour and free running extreme sports, but most experts consider them to be closer in nature to martial arts. Unlike most sports, there is no rulebook, and while there are some recognised jumps and moves, these vary according to the features of the obstacle the individual is facing as well as their physical and mental approach.
Photo: Apex Media
The two disciplines themselves have different attitudes, despite their apparent similarities. Whereas free running places the accent on aesthetic style, parkour, or l’art du déplacement (“the art of displacement”), focuses on speed and efficiency as a person moves from one spot to another – a characteristic tied to its origins in taking the best possible route in an emergency situation.
Photo: Völundur Jónsson
The legacy of French obstacle course training (parcours) set in motion by pre-World War naval officer and PE instructor Georges Hébert, and later picked up by Vietnam soldier and elite fireman Raymond Belle, was then developed by the latter’s son David.
Photo: Josa Jr
David Belle is widely seen as one of the founders of modern parkour. In 1997, he formed the performance group known as the Yamakasi with Sébastien Foucan and other childhood friends of kindred gymnastic flair. This acted as the springboard for l’art du déplacement as we know it today, although the group’s original line-up disbanded within a year.
Photo: ubiquity zh
One of the grounds for the split was disagreement over the definition of l’art du déplacement, which Foucan wanted to take in a more self-expressive direction, emphasising freedom and creativity of movement. The angle was less the most useful way than “following your own way”, with efficiency playing second string to elegance. Free running was born.
Another more contentious distinction between parkour and free running has arisen over the issue of competition. While parkour has always been committed to the ideal of non-rivalry, in free running competitions have taken place, which some say is against the spirit of l’art. Others see no problem and indeed no division between the disciplines.
Photo: sombra e luz
On balance, there is an essential freedom about the actions of anyone taking part in these disciplines. Their movements are not restricted by the narrow confines of sidewalk and street. They see beyond the boundaries prescribed to us about the spaces we inhabit.
Little did the forefathers of l’art du déplacement know that our cities and screens would one day be filled with the potential of their activities without limits.