How Gymnastics Is Trying To Take Over Parkour And Make It An Olympic Sport
This fight isn't merely about parkour. It's about who controls the new youth-centric sports that are the Olympics' future.
Foto: Flickr user THOR // CC BY 2.0
In the last several months, proponents of parkour, the obstacle course discipline of French origin, have been involved in a fight both with external foes and within their own community that might well shape the future of the sport.
But this fight isn't merely about parkour. It's about who controls the new youth-centric sports that are the Olympics' future. It's about whether legacy sports federations, amidst declining participation rates and popularity, can muscle their way to governing these new sports, even if the people who actually play them don't want that.
Parkour's fight, like many turf wars, is less an honest dispute than an invasion. In this case, it's between people who actually practice the discipline and the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), which has enlisted the help of two of parkour's founders to help them take over the sport.
If FIG's involvement sounds odd to you, you're not alone. Parkour is not gymnastics. The two sports have completely different histories, cultures, and purposes. Any overlap is superficial. Yet, this hasn't stopped FIG from going full speed ahead on subsuming parkour for its own gain.
Leading the fight against this takeover is Eugene Minogue, president of Parkour UK, which is recognized by UK Sport as the the National Governing Body for Parkour the UK. Minogue has issued several open letters to FIG and officially petitioned the IOC in an effort to have FIG cease and desist what he calls its "encroachment and misappropriation" of parkour.
"You lose all of that culture, that heritage, the authenticity, the very fabric that makes the sport and the community what it is and what makes it so different to other traditional sports," Minogue said in an interview.
Many other parkour organizations from around the world have signed letters supporting Parkour UK and calling for FIG to back off, including organizations from France, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Poland, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Sweden, Denmark, Argentina, and Italy. In a recent Inside The Games poll, 75 percent of respondents voted against the FIG's attempt to take over the sport.
Parkour's fight essentially began with Agenda 2020, the IOC's long-term roadmap for the future of the Olympics. Published in 2014, it called for the IOC to be more youth-centric: "We want to engage with them [the youth] wherever they are," wrote IOC president Thomas Bach. But, incorporating youth-centric action sports into the Olympic program presents a culture clash the IOC is still navigating today. There's a distinctive Manifest Destiny-like tone to Agenda 2020, an implicit assumption that action sports are for the Olympics' taking.
Fundamentally, parkour's fight is not about whether they want to be an Olympic sport, but about who gets to decide. There is a tremendous amount at stake for parkour. The future of the sport will be determined by who governs it. And if recent history is any guide, the outlook for parkour isn't good.
The IOC first required all Olympic sports to be governed by a recognized international body in 1920. Since then, existing federations have had tremendous control over organized sport. Whenever a new, popular sport came along, it was much easier and quicker for an existing federation to claim ownership rather than letting a new federation organically form.
Generally, this transition is done under the guise of helping the new sport's development, creating an elite level, which in turn promises to grow the grassroots. But sports historian David Goldblatt, author of The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, says, "the argument is always the elite layer somehow nurtures, encourages, and develops a broader grassroots. And it's not true. it's just not true."
When the aim of the burgeoning sport is expressly to become an Olympic sport, this acquisition process is more or less fine, like a startup getting bought out by a major corporation. The problem is when the new sport's culture and aims may not align with the IOC's, who nevertheless sees dollar signs in absorbing it. This is precisely the case with many action sports.
The IOC, a highly bureaucratic organization, has little in common with youth-centric, non-hierarchical action sports that prize experimentation while minimizing rules and boundaries. In many ways, the "Olympic Movement" and action sports practitioners could hardly be more different. Yet, IOC has pegged its future to these action sports.
The best way to explain what's at stake for parkour is to look at the history of action sports getting absorbed into Olympic programs. Perhaps the first prominent instance of this clash came in the early 1990s with snowboarding, about a decade after snowboarding competitions were first held. In 1998, the IOC included snowboarding for the first time in the Winter Olympics, but under the International Ski Federation's (FIS) umbrella, rather than ushering in the burgeoning International Snowboard Federation (ISF). In effect, snowboarding became a sub-discipline of skiing.
This went down with snowboarders about as well as you'd expect. Terje Haakonsen, one of the most influential snowboarders ever and the best in the world at the time, boycotted the Olympics in protest. "The thing is you have guys directing the sport who don't actually do the sport—people who are just in it for the commercial interest," Haakonsen told Snowboard Magazine in 2013. "You don't have the athletes involved who actually know about the sport that can make better progress in the sport, that can experiment with the sport, and make their snowboarding life a lot better. It's all about sports politics and commercial interest."
Haakonsen accused organized skiing of using its leverage to prevent the ISF from getting lucrative television contracts. This stunted the ISF's growth, according to Haakonsen, which made it easier for FIS to absorb snowboarding. The ISF shut down in 2002. Haakonsen described the whole process as "like stealing candy away from a kid."
From a cultural perspective, snowboarding has suffered ever since. Olympization of snowboarding fractured the community as some competitors perfected their skillsets for Olympic-style competition, while others like Haakonsen adhered to previous ideals of creativity and expression. In Haakonsen's opinion, this made the sport worse, and many view the standardization of competitions as detrimental to its founding values of riding whatever the terrain provides.
But the lessons extend far beyond snowboarding's experience. Damien Puddle, a PhD student at the University of Waikato who is writing his thesis on parkour, wrote a blog post outlining what has happened to other action sports. His post serves as a warning for parkour that there are few good outcomes—and mostly bad ones.
Take the three action sports debuting at Tokyo in 2020, the year Agenda 2020 is to be put into practice: BMX, skateboarding, and sport climbing. In BMX's case, the Union Cycliste Internationale—the same federation that governs all other Olympic cycling events—absorbed BMX because, well, they also use bicycles, despite their "independent cultural heritage," as Puddle put it. Now, BMX practitioners have little sway in what funding they receive from their national governing bodies because they're small fish in a big pond.
As for skateboarding, many skaters don't want to be in the Olympics at all. But that didn't stop the IOC from politely asking the International Roller Sports Federation (FIRS) to see about governing skateboarding so it could be included in the Olympics, despite the existence of the International Skate Federation (ISF, and I'm sorry about all the acronyms). FIRS and the ISF eventually agreed to jointly run the Tokyo 2020 Skateboarding Commission, a short-term Band-Aid to what promises to be a protracted legal fight over who owns skateboarding.
Sport climbing probably has it best of the three, since the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) gained official recognition and governs the sport at the Olympic level. But even the IFSC doesn't have total control, as evidenced by the actual sport climbing program. In Tokyo 2020, the sport climbing event will be a "vertical triathlon," which combines bouldering, lead climbing, and sport climbing into an aggregated score and a single medal. From a sporting perspective, this makes little sense, as the three events are very different and few practice all three. It also means climbers who ply their trade mostly on outdoor rock without pre-defined paths will have to practice indoors on standardized routes. But, for various reasons due to the IOC's bureaucracy and requirements, it was one of the few options available.
Nevertheless, the decision was made without IFSC consultation, which will have a trickle-down effect on how the sport is practiced. Fifteen high-profile climbers surveyed by Climbing.com unanimously disapproved of the format, with one climber likening it to middle-distance runners being told to compete in sprinting. Another simply called it "bogus."
Aside from the 2020 sports, Standup Paddleboarding (SUP) has had to postpone its Olympic inclusion while the International Surfing Association and International Canoe Federation battle over who owns it, despite Canoeing having essentially no legitimate claim to SUP. But, Canoeing has been involved in the Olympics since 1924, so the IOC won't tell them to back off.
With all of this precedent, Puddle wonders what possibly could be beneficial for parkour with FIG's attempted takeover. "If this is the experience of all action sports before us, why would anyone do anything but work with their own community?"
Here, Puddle may be indirectly referring to David Belle and Charles Pierreire, two recognized parkour co-founders (nine people have been credited with starting parkour) who are working with FIG and lending their takeover a minimal degree of legitimacy. Belle and Pierreire will chair the "FIG Parkour Committee" and provide some oversight on the sport's future. But, it's unclear how much power or influence they will have.
Belle, Pierreire, and seven others founded parkour in France in the 1980s and played key roles in parkour going mainstream in the 1990s and early 2000s. In its two decades of mainstream existence, parkour has established itself as one of the fastest growing sports in the world.
Although parkour is growing, it has barely had time to organize itself on a national level, much less an international one. This year, Parkour UK was formally recognized by UK Sport, the first such parkour organization to gain national recognition.
But many don't trust the founders now that they've partnered with outsiders. Holly Thorpe, an associate professor at the University of Waikato who studies action sports, told VICE Sports "many in the parkour community feel betrayed" by Belle and Pierreire and others who have aligned with FIG.
When asked for comment regarding their efforts in Parkour, a FIG spokesman sent VICE Sports links to previously published press releases and otherwise declined to comment.
But the debate is just starting. There are obvious reasons for FIG to move as quickly as possible to incorporate parkour. The faster it happens, the less time parkour will have to organize its own international body and challenge for ownership. But, perhaps even more importantly, Paris is all but certain to be hosting one of the next two Summer Olympics, most likely in 2024. Surely, the IOC and FIG would love to capitalize on the Summer Olympics being held in parkour's home country.
These are the types of considerations—hosting televised competitions, Olympic participation, and commercial viability—that parkour enthusiasts generally eschew, which goes back to something Minogue said during our interview. To him, this is about parkour's right to self-determination. Although FIG claims to respect parkour's traditions and understand the philosophy, its own actions belie that message. In trying to absorb parkour, FIG is violating one of parkour's central virtues. No matter what the environment, each person determines their own path.