Tracing Parkour's Rapid Rise to Recognition in Britain
Virtually unknown in this country a decade ago, parkour now finds itself jostling with the likes of British Cycling for funding and could soon be part of the national curriculum. We headed to a session in Leeds to learn more about its rapid rise.
There are very few sports that have managed to cement themselves in the public consciousness as rapidly as parkour. Whether it be through Hollywood blockbusters, video games or viral videos, the discipline has established itself as an alternative to traditional sporting activities, allowing a select few individuals to traverse our cities with levels of grace and power that most of us would consider superhuman.
What's truly remarkable, however, is that this seemingly outsider sport could soon be taught in Britian's schools. In January, the UK became the first country in the world to officially recognise parkour as a sport, paving the way for government funding for grassroots coaching and an introduction to the national curriculum. Virtually unknown in this country a decade ago, that parkour now finds itself jostling with the likes of British Cycling for funding is testament to the hard work of coaches and practitioners up and down the country.
Jim Key is one of those coaches. Key has been training himself in parkour for over a decade and was a prominent member of the sport's burgeoning early community. He has a background in martial arts, but is candid about what drew him to a pursuit that was then little-known outside France: "I started the same way as many people," he explains. "I saw somebody else doing it on the internet and it looked cool; there was nothing else to it." Still, it wasn't until he was introduced to the work of David Belle that things really clicked into place.
Belle will be recognisable to some as a star of French cinema, but he is far more influential as one of the founders of the parkour movement. Belle comes from a family of French servicemen renowned for their athletic prowess; his father and grandfather sowed the seeds for the physical and philosophical treatises upon which parkour would eventually come to be founded. When, as a young man, he became disaffected with both school and traditional sports clubs, he embraced the exercises his family had devised and developed over almost a century.
Parkour gave meaning to physical activity in a way that Belle had not found before – his father had used his skills to survive and to save the lives of those around him. Parkour could change the way David lived his life in a way that learning to kick a ball never could.
Initially training alone, Belle subsequently moved to Lisses, an area still regarded as something of a site of pilgrimage by the parkour community. Here he found a number of like-minded individuals, including Sébastian Foucan – a man famed for giving Daniel Craig the run-around in the opening to Casino Royale – and the group labelled themselves the "Yamakasi", a Congolese Lingala phrase meaning "to be strong in one's person". Together they trained, developed the sport, and with time their videos brought parkour to national attention in France.
Crucially, the Yamakasi espoused a philosophy that continues to underpin parkour. It was not enough to be physically strong: their training was intended to promote values and principles such as humility, self-sacrifice, honesty, and hard work. New members were subject to an intense vetting process to ensure their motivations for joining were aligned with the group's principles, and the traceuers – as they called themselves at the time – would challenge themselves by training without food or water, or sleeping on the floor without a blanket.
Over time the group fractured over philosophy and intention, and with the sport's growth, new practitioners are not expected to adhere to or even be aware of the work and philosophy of the Yamakasi. Nevertheless, for people like Key, their work gives meaning to parkour that outsiders have never really understood.
In 2008, Key became one of the first officially qualified parkour coaches in Britain and by 2011 he had moved to Leeds and formed SingleBound Coaching with his friend and fellow parkour coach Dale Annous. They remain the only recognised coaches in Leeds, teaching on behalf of the council, schools, and anyone who wants to get into the sport. SingleBound is an associate member of Parkour UK, the official body representing the sport at a national level. It will soon be responsible for not only the awarding of official qualifications, but also the allocation of government funding.
Standing in SingleBound's purpose-built gym, it's hard to believe how far this sport has come in so short a time. In the beginning, Key explains, "there was no organisation, it was just searching online to see if anyone [interested] was remotely in your area. That was as far as organisation went. What we used to do was meet up in the same way you would for skateboarding – same place, same time every week."
Things didn't really kick off until the airing of Jump London and Jump Britain, two Channel 4-produced documentaries featuring Foucan, which brought parkour into homes across the country. "Pre-Jump Britain, there were a maximum of 50 people in the country practicing parkour," Key says. "Post-Jump Britain, and for a couple of years afterwards, it started gaining steam. Internet forums sprung up and YouTube became a thing, and that all came together to give people an idea of what they were looking for.
"Now you could train in groups with friends, and then you'd go home and watch videos of other people on a similar level to you, but they'd be doing something completely different. Younger people started coming into groups, and communities would form; each city effectively had its own community. Then we'd teach them and they'd learn what had taken us four years in six months."
The advent of social media meant that parkour practitioners separated by hundreds of miles could share skills and training tips among their growing community. "I remember an instance of one particular movement that somebody did and we were all completely blown away – we never thought it was possible – and for quite a while it was this unique thing that this one guy could do. Then as soon as the second person could do it, everyone could do it. And now everyone does it without batting an eyelid," Key says. Parkour had become a viral sport.
When it comes to the impact official recognition will have on the sport, Key is optimistic. It's only through the hard work of people like him that parkour has professionalised to the point of Whitehall approval, and the hope now is that the coaches who have thus far been "struggling to survive" will see the benefits. Most are unable to make a living coaching only parkour, and the LevelUp Academy where SingleBound is based also provides a space for cheerleading classes, tumbling, and gymnastics. Key expects that, with a push from Sport England, "there'll be an opportunity for thousands and thousands of people to get involved because the truly dedicated coaches will be able to get by...and they'll be able to apply for funding."
But Key says that funding represents only half the battle to legitimise the sport. In the wake of last month's announcement, a number of newspapers pounced on plans to introduce parkour to the school curriculum by publishing stories about its apparent danger, and the injuries amateurs suffer due to poor coaching. He is quick to point out that this reputation for danger is in no way the fault of the community, and that the term "parkour centres" used in the stories is a misnomer.
"One of the things we've struggled with, and we will continue to, is the perception of parkour as dangerous, and these places that don't have qualified coaches are making that worse. People are seeing trampoline parks claiming to have parkour instructors when they have nothing of the sort."
Currently, Parkour UK is the only body that can grant accredited parkour qualifications, and the hope is that official recognition will demonstrate to the public how seriously legitimate coaches take safety.
The real purpose of recognition and funding though is to increase participation. Parkour has always retained an exclusionary mystique, but when asked who is attracted to the sport, Key's answer is boisterous: "'Everyone' is the short answer," he says. "We get people from a real cross-section of society."
He's not bluffing. The evening of VICE Sports' visit, there are men and women of varying abilities and fitness levels, the youngest being 16, the oldest a woman who I would place in her sixties. Although she doesn't attempt the more extreme activities, she is clearly enjoying herself.
Key puts parkour's appeal down to something very simple: "It reminds people of when they wanted to be a Power Ranger or a ninja as a kid.
"At some point we were running around climbing trees, and we wanted to jump on the sofa, and then at some point in our development – for all of us – we're told not to do that."
There's a case to be made that no sport is more accessible than parkour. You can't be priced out of it. You don't need any equipment, not even a ball – all a kid needs to get started is a wall. Coaching sessions are cheap by comparison to the demands of bigger sports and, thanks to an abundance of online tutorials, not always a necessity.
In some ways, parkour is a sport that has grown out of a need to react to our new urban landscapes. Coming out of the banlieues of France, it could so easily be transplanted to the warren-like council estates of London, Sheffield, and Manchester. "It really is about being free in those environments," Key says. "These spaces are designed to do a certain thing, which is to keep us walled off and show us which paths to go down. We take what's there for the purpose of X to do Y." It has the potential to take our drab, oppressive cities and turn them into literal playgrounds.
To test Key's constant assurance that parkour is a sport for everyone, I join the evening's session. Given that my BMI falls just inside the healthy range, while my list of sporting achievements reads: 'knocked unconscious twice playing rugby, and once used as a rolling substitute in football to give better players a breather', I don't have high hopes. More than once I manage to fall on my face when staying upright would have been easier, and my inability to spring up a wall in a single bound like so many of my peers makes me feel like Gomer Pyle.
But my failures aren't down to poor coaching, or even a lack of physical ability, but rather a need to teach my body how to move again. Throughout the session, I think to myself over and over: 'If this was 15 years ago, every movement I am expected to perform would be second nature to me.'
I jokingly ask Key one final question: does he think we'll see parkour at the Olympics any time soon? He says he hopes not, because competition has no place in the sport and to introduce it would be to distort its principles. Grudgingly, he seems to admit that this may be the way it has to go though. I worry he may be right: Sport England is renowned for its fickle allocation of funding. If parkour isn't bringing home medals, its free spirit and comparative lack of tradition will probably never be taken into the hearts of those who make the decisions – no matter how many ordinary kids take it into theirs.