If you’re unfamiliar with Cultural Studies, it can be largely theoretical and have less empirical research. So, as a biomechanist turned sociologist, I’m continually grappling with theory and trying my darndest to understand theoritical treatises. Even Andrew’s talk, that I found very compelling, was difficult for me to follow at times, so my very brief overview certainly won’t do it and Andrew’s thoughts justice. Nonethless, it covered many elements, including the etymology of the word comfort, the atrocities in the Congo Free State by Leopold II of Belgium – i.e. capitalist use of slaves, and their discomfort, to create increased comfort for a select group of Belgians, the commodification of comfort via the marketing of things like furniture and plane seats – where comfort is esteemed and marketers try and get us to hunger for it and hunt after it.
My first thought was that in this capitalist culture, we have to have comfort (read as: Money) in order to experience other comforts or more comforts. My parkour brain quickly took over however. As a practitioner of parkour, an embodied practice, I often think about how concepts could be explained via the experiences of the body. Or perhaps rather, due to my inexpeience within this space, how can I explore the ideas in the way I know how – the body. Departing from where Andrew was going with his unpacking of comfort within capitalist culture, I found myself asking, how do our bodies understand and experience comfort and discomfort? Is one bad and one good? How does one come to experience them and how can get there on purpose?
My experience with parkour is a very tangible and personal example of how the – varying degress of – discomfort involved in physical training has resulted in greater feelings of comfort – i.e. quality of life. If someone feels clumsy or disconnected from their bodies and/or clostrophobic or trapped within the city, then sustained parkour practice – a form of discomfort, at least initially – may enable and empower them and their bodies when in a city space (I realise parkour is not only an urban practice – don’t hear what I’m not saying). They now know how to move and how to navigate their world with greater degress of confidence. This is not only present in parkour or other physical exercise, but also in mental exercises, spirtual observances, and social challenges (e.g. social media fasts). It is my experience and therefore belief that in these such situations, the experience of discomfort – particularly when it is actioned on purpose – allows one to attain higher levels of comfort.
Converserly, the more comfort one seeks out and attains, the greater the opportunity for discomfort. If I continually seek after the comfort of the couch, I begin embracing inactivity. The negative health effects associated with low levels of physical activity are well documented, but there’s also the potential that seeking comfort will result in one discovering laziness, apathy, only willing to experience “optimal” conditions e.g. only this time, this texture, this temperature, this taste, will do.
This is still a half baked idea that I’ve thrown together in one night but I wanted to preserve it and thought I may as well share it. I’m also not suggesting that’s entirely new as it smells of things of read and heard and discussed before – it definitely ties into my feelings on risk and the attainment of safety.
UPDATE #1: I’ve included a video summary of my article for those who would prefer not to read for any reason. Please forgive some verbal hiccups. Follow up any of the details properly in the article below –there are links galore!
UPDATE #2: I’ve added SUP (Standup Paddleboarding) to the list (it’s not included in the video as I added it later). I had included in the initial list to research but I must have deleted it. Mikkel Rugaard reminded me of it in a post on Parkour Research.
Some people (and I don’t mean to pick on Jason, he just happened to release his video while I was writing this) have suggested that we should hold off on rallying against FIG when we don’t know all the details. Others (and I mean to pick on Rene and Dylan because they made excellent points and released their media while I was writing this) have said that we know enough to realise that working with F.I.G. = B.A.D.
Jason happened to mention that the athletes going to FISE are athletes, not people who are good at writing essays and putting their opinions out on the internet. I agree. A lot of athletes are not great spokespersons or researchers. Unfortunately, as Rene points out, these same athletes are the commodity here. Their participation is what give FIG power.
The biggest news in the parkour world at present are the steps being taken by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) to appropriate parkour into their own gymnastic activity. Big news. It’s keeping me up at night.
You can also read up on all the news articles/press releases at Inside the Games.
This particular blog is focused on providing a counter argument to APEX’s statement ‘On Competition & Collaboration’. Although I assume the statement is written to provide clarity, it only brought more confusion for me.
“We will continue seeking the support of organisations and groups in which we can build win-win situations that will grow the sport in a healthy way.”
“We will strive to mitigate those downsides of competition and terminate business relationships if need be.”
True to their word, after deeming their relationship with FIG, FISE and The Mouvement to not be win-win or ultimately healthy for the parkour community (through the many discussions, posts, press releases and their own behind the scenes interaction with FIG) they have terminated their relationship and will host their event back on home soil in the U.S.A
This is an important step in the fight against FIG, but this post was focused on APEX’s specific statement RE competition. The outcomes of their event in France are no longer relevant, however, some of the confusion, contradiction and ambiguity of their original statement (in my opinion) still remains. As such, the original post resumes from here.
Original Blog Resumes
I’d like to preface my thoughts by first saying that I’ve never met Ryan, Amos or Brandon in person. I have spoken to Ryan and Amos online a few times and think they’ve all done some stellar work in the parkour community, particularly in the US. I’m a keen follower of their work via Parkour EDU, I have Ryan’s book Parkour Strength Training, I love the way Amos moves, and I think Brandon is a great commentator (more on that soon).
From here on I’m going to contrast some of APEX’s statements with either a counter-narrative, something from their own archives that causes me to question their motives or are at least very confusing, or gives me cause for concern.
1. APEX says “We do not recognize parkour as a competitive sport”. They have also claimed that they haven’t called their competitions parkour competitions, but simply competitions with various events (i.e. Time Trials, Skills Challenge, and Style Battle)
Amos to Julie Angel on the Parkour Research Facebook page: “APEX School of Movement has never been just a parkour organization. Although that’s our main focus, we house many movement arts under our roofs. We strive to be inclusive, and we’ve found that the crossover and mutual inspiration can be very powerful.
This isn’t opportunist semantics because this has actually been our stance since almost as far back as 2012. You’ll notice that we titled the event the “APEX Invitational” for a few years and then “APEX International” instead of something along the lines of “Parkour Championships.”
2. APEX says “parkour is not something you can win. There are no championships.”.
Parkour is traditionally non-competitive, and most training at present is undertaken that way. However, in the same way that we’re not having the “are flips parkour?” debate anymore, things evolve. There have been international parkour competitions since 2009.
The North American Parkour Championships (NAPC) are run by Sport Parkour League (SPL) and Brandon Douglass has been an athlete and podium finisher as well as a commentator.
3. APEX says “We do not feel that we have the authority to make claims on the “original philosophy” or “true essence” of parkour, and thus none of our arguments rely on such claims. However, the founders of our disciplines appear unanimous in that what they pioneered is non-competitive…. Now, this doesn’t mean there’s no room for evolution of definitions and ideas, but their vocal position on the matter should be respectfully taken into great consideration as a factor.”
Agreed. None of the founders personally want to compete in parkour competitions, but if we’re going to respectfully take their vocal positions, should we not consider these quotes?
It [competition] is not as bad as people say
You have the right to go there.
I have no right to tell you what to do.
If someone wants to do competition, he’s got the right to do competition.
If people are happy because they do competitions, bravo.
If it makes you happy, it’s good. I have no problem with that.
I don’t want to ban competitions.
If some people want competitions there will be some competitions Everybody is free within parkour to do what he or she wants.
4. APEX have said “No rules, no touchdowns, and no referees mean no elites.” and “If you’re the best course runner in the world, it doesn’t then apply that you’ve reached the elite level of the international parkour community (spoiler alert, there isn’t one).”
5. APEX are fully entitled to change their opinions. We all are. At the start of this post, I linked to my previous post about the evolution of my own opinions on competition. However, regardless of their position (i.e. calling them parkour competitions or not), many people watching and even those participating see these competitions as parkour competitions:
(The long term repercussions of this particular point have the potential to be extremely damaging for the parkour community, because if FIG are the ones “buying” APEX’s OCS events, but everyone just thinks they’re parkour competitions, then FIG could eventually put marketing of “OCS” in the too hard basket and simply stick with “parkour”)
If you read APEX’s statement you’ll assume that they’re “opposed” to parkour competitions, but if you’ve read the rest of this post you’ll see that there are countless statements where they refer to their own and others events as parkour/freerunning competitions.
If they’re opposed to parkour competition, but are hosting a qualifying event for the North American Parkour Championships then there appear to be business motives.
If APEX continues to work towards their Obstacle Course Sprint – and whatever else comes – models in association with FIG, despite vocal outcry from many within the global parkour community, then there appear to be business motives.
I don’t know what’s going on inside their heads and what their true motives are, so don’t let my thoughts be taken as truth, but from where I’m sitting and the information that is available to me, I think they would have been more honest to remove the moral high ground/preservation of parkour pitch and instead said…
We like parkour, but we also like movement disciplines in general. Diversifying means we’ll get more people through our doors and because we’re entrepreneurs and we’re following the American Dream, this is a strategic business move.
Post Publication Editions
I’ve received further information after publishing this, but instead of editing anything original I’m leaving it all as is and I’m adding some clarifying points from some of the people I mention above.
From Rene Scavington:
Hey Damien just to give you a bit more info if you want for the article. We “SPL” skyped with Apex about hosting an event at their facility. The manager of Apex Denver (Vinny Fiaco) and I have been in talks for awhile about making it happen, but not knowing how the owners would feel about it. My understanding is that they are choosing to have a “no parkour competition” stance with their own brand, but will continue to support the parkour community that wants to have parkour competitions. They also aren’t getting any revenue from our event. They are donating the venue.
From Ryan Ford:
Hey Damien, I don’t have time to fully respond to this right now but here are a few other quick facts to consider. APEX HQ is our parent company that heads up the APEX INTL, APEX pro team, etc. Each school is independently owned and operated (licensees, not franchises) and therefore has a huge amount of room to run itself how it chooses. We support our licensees with lots of resources but they aren’t required to follow much in particular as long as they are running a safe and professional business (but most of them choose to use all the same systems, curriculum etc. anyway). APEX HQ solidified it’s stance on parkour competition only recently as it became a more complex and controversial subject in the international community. However, we also recognize the free will of our students, athletes, coaches, licensees, etc. to take part in parkour competitions if they want to. APEX HQ doesn’t currently call anything a parkour competition but if Rene wants to call it that, it’s his prerogative. APEX and Origins can agree to disagree on the naming and still have a mutual respect for each other.
From Amos Rendao:
This is one of the things that confuses me:
Ryan: APEX HQ solidified its stance on parkour competition only recently… vs Amos: We have been titling these events “obstacle course competitions” not “parkour competitions” for years.
Last weekend I attended (and competed in) NZ’s first parkour competition, organised by Honest Parkour and held at Flow Albany in Auckland. The event was modeled off the NAPC and Apex competitions in Canada and the US, with Speed, Skill and Style events. I competed in Speed (came 9th) and Skill (7th) and was convinced to have a play during the Style jam qualifiers as well where I introduced everyone to rail dancing and (intentional) belly flops. I didn’t progress any further but I was definitely in a league of my own.
For it being the first of its kind in New Zealand and only a small group of guys putting it together, it seemed to run remarkably smoothly and I heard a lot of good feedback from participants and spectators alike. This, however, is not a review, but rather a reflection.
I have traditionally been quite anti-competition when it comes to parkour, and being involved in the parkour community has even lessened my interest in competition outside of parkour. However, through the process of my PhD research on the development of parkour in New Zealand (thesis to be submitted in early 2019), particularly my in-depth interviews with different practitioners around the country, my feelings on competition have begun to change. With competition in parkour still a very contested topic and with the recent JAMZAC competition having just happened I thought it was good timing to share the evolution of my thoughts.
I started training parkour in 2008 after meeting Barnz, one of the first Kiwi traceurs. The parkour that he introduced to me was non-competitive. Barnz was my mentor and I was the newcomer, so I trained in the way he and others in the local Hamilton community trained and talked the way they talked.
Parkour was non-competitive because that’s what Barnz told me.
Although I trusted Barnz, I realised that he was getting his information from somewhere, so I read everything there was to read and I watched everything there was to watch. From my research, I discovered that even though there was fragmentation and diversity among the founders of parkour, they all seemed to agree that it wasn’t a competitive activity (it’s important to note that there seems to be a louder anti-competition voice among 2nd and 3rd generation practitioners). By this time, however, there were parkour and freerunning competitions being held around the world. None of the people running these competitions were the founders, and the founders say (or have said) these events aren’t authentic. Who am I to say otherwise?
Parkour was non-competitive because the founders said it was, that means that parkour competitions are an oxymoron.
While I recognised that the founders said parkour was non-competitive and I agreed, I also recognised that a) I actually have no real connection to them as I haven’t met or spoken with them directly and they haven’t been to New Zealand, and b) they have been quite open-handed with the development of parkour and their opinions change as well. So, while parkour was non-competitive initially, there are now competitive streams available due to different people heeding the advice of the founders and “following their own path”.
Throughout the process of coaching parkour, helping to start and eventually lead Parkour NZ, and also my own training journey, I really came to value the transformative power of parkour; how parkour helped to change people’s lives. One of the common themes I’ve picked up surrounding parkour’s mystique is that it felt more approachable and inclusive to many people because it was non-competitive. There was no grading, no getting picked last for a team because your abilities weren’t up to scratch, no comparisons. A breath of fresh air amongst an ever increasing smog of competitive sporting congestion.
I was involved in competitive sports (particularly rugby) in my youth and so parkour’s non-competitive nature wasn’t the initial drawcard for me, but as a coach and administrator, I really value the stories of the people I work with and for.
Parkour was traditionally non-competitive and while there are competitions now, non-competitive parkour is more valuable because the long term ramifications of competition are likely to result in parkour being less inviting and inclusive.
So far, I’ve interviewed 18 traceurs, traceuses and freerunners for my PhD. I’ve interviewed typically polarised practitioners who are traditional/anti-competition and modern/pro-competition. But I’ve also interviewed David Belle zealots who think competition could be quite a valuable training tool, freerunners with no allegiances who think competition hampers freedom and every other position on the parkour spectrum. I knew that the NZ scene was diverse, but it is significantly more nuanced than I ever thought.
A sometimes parkour student of mine and friend shared her thoughts with me about the competition. She comes from a karate background and is used to the institutionalisation of belts, colours, tests and grading. It wasn’t a choice, it was a requirement. She loves the non-competitive nature of parkour compared to her karate experience, but she participated in the JAMZAC competition because she was able to choose to participate and she found that fun and empowering.
I have heard some really weak arguments in favour of competition (e.g. “It’s just another excuse to get together” – that’s only valid if the event is held on a new date, but if it replaces a jam that was already going to happen that argument doesn’t hold up), but I’ve also realised that fighting against competition in an attempt to make things more inclusive (my previous stance against competition) is another form of exclusion. Who am I to say that another expression is invalid or less authentic?
Parkour was traditionally non-competitive but now there are many different ways that you can experience parkour.
So, I’m no longer anti-competition it seems. But I’m not ready to embrace parkour competition without some caveats:
There are many ways that you can experience parkour, but some of these ways have louder voices in the neo-liberal and Western world than others (e.g. competition is fast and exciting and will, therefore, attract sponsorship, gain profile and popularity). It is worth ensuring that many different stories are being shared so that people can see themselves participating in parkour. This is why I believe the work of groups like See & Do, Parkour Dance, Free your Instinct, and other types of grassroots service provision are essential so that these stories aren’t drowned out by all the “hype”.
There are many ways that you can experience parkour, but if the language we use only gives value to what is bigger, higher, faster, then we devalue other ways that parkour is experienced. I’ve seen and heard people at competitions, including announcers/commentators say that these people (the competition participants) are the “best” at parkour. Talented surely, but competitions are a very specific interpretation of parkour training and do not accurately represent the diversity involved in our practice. Our language should reflect that.
I’m generalising, but the formats and challenges (mainly in skill and speed events) escalate in difficulty mostly through increases in height, speed and distance, thus catering more towards taller practitioners. Ultimately, ignoring lower, slower, closer, etc. is likely to reinforce certain characteristics as being more valuable. Two examples:
An escalating rail balance challenge at a competition required increases in speed in order to earn the points. Speed on rails is one thing we train, but time and positions on rails are others. Another interpretation of that challenge could then be ‘remain in balance [in this way] for at least [x] amount of time’.
While being able to complete a previously unknown challenge first time is one way of measuring adeptness. Being able to repeat that challenge multiple times is another that I would argue is perhaps more “parkour-like”. Instead of higher points being awarded for the quicker you achieve it (e.g. 10, 7, 5), points could be stacked for how many times you demonstrate the ability to overcome the challenge (e.g. 3, 6, 10).
For that reason, I think there is an opportunity to diversify the way competition challenges are constructed to better reflect the diversity of how parkour is practised outside of competition. If this isn’t adhered to for whatever reason (e.g. those challenges aren’t fun for viewers), the previous points become even more important.
As with parkour, my thoughts have evolved and may continue to do so. My hope is that whatever path parkour travels, the community as a whole is empowered and – though our personal convictions may vary – nobody is selfish in whatever their pursuits may be.
Recently I was invited to speak at the Agenda 2020 Action Sport Symposium at the University of Waikato. The symposium was hosted by Professors Holly Thorpe and Belinda Wheaton (who happen to be my PhD supervisors). You can watch the whole video here.
The focus of the event was on experiences and trends of action sports already in, heading to, or potentially heading towards Olympic inclusion. There were three panels representing these positions:
Panel 1 – Lessons learned from past inclusion of action sports into the Olympic Games: Windsurfing, snowboarding, mountain biking and BMX
Panel 2 – Tokyo 2020 and the inclusion of new sports: Surfing, skateboarding, and sport-climbing
Panel 3 – Future Olympic Sports: Parkour, SUP (stand up paddleboarding), and kitesurfing
In addition to the above activities and their respective speakers, there was insight from Holly and Belinda on their IOC (International Olympic Committee) funded research on action sports and the Olympics, from NZ IOC member Barry Meister on the Olympic inclusion process, and from Jake Wilkins of the NZ Olympic Committee on some of NZ’s processes.
I don’t think my talk was anything special – writing this blog post actually came off the back of what I thought was a poor contribution – but I learned a great deal from the other speakers and gained a lot of insight into the IOC, the recognition process for international federations and the aftermath of Olympic exposure. So here, in addition to thoughts from various global community members and some thoughts from Scott Bass (see his original article on parkour being in the Olympics here – http://www.ampisound.com/featured/parkour-freerunning-olympic-sport/) is my run down on parkour in the Olympics.
NZ Parkour differentiates between parkour and freerunning and has chosen (at present) to represent and govern – their understanding of – parkour only. However, in this blog post –except where stated – I will use the term ‘parkour’ as a blanket to term to describe all other generally used terms and their definitions.
NZ Parkour and I personally are opposed to parkour competition at the present time. While I aim to lay out both sides of the debate and highlight things I learned from the symposium and community discussion surrounding in, I think it’s impossible for me not to be informed by my bias.
Parkour and Competition
Before we start talking about the potential or the desire for parkour to be in the Olympics or not, we first have to talk about competition in general. Let’s lay some groundwork:
Parkour IS Competitive
The first acknowledgement we have to make is that parkour is fiercely intra-competitive. At its core, parkour is all about self-improvement, so we must be continually striving to better ourselves – compete against our former selves if you will. That’s a given. Parkour is certainly competitive.
Parkour is NOT Competitive
The second acknowledgement we have to make is that parkour is not inherently inter-competitive. While we can look at – and experience first-hand – competitive characteristics within the founders, what they developed was not a codified competitive sport. That’s a given. Parkour is certainly not competitive.
Parkour is Evolving
As an academic doing insider research (my PhD topic is “Examining the development of parkour in New Zealand”), it’s been extremely enlightening, encouraging, and deflating all at the same time to learn that the history of parkour mirrors the history of many other action sports in numerous ways. While parkour is certainly different, we’re not as unique as we often think. We don’t have to look very hard to see that parkour is evolving all the time. One of the areas of evolution is in training and event formats, including competitive events. Parkour competition wasn’t a thing and now it is.
The global parkour community is clearly divided on the topic of competition. Below are some – for and against – competition articles, websites, and threads from various figureheads and groups in the community. As you’ll note, there are more anti-competitive than pro-competitive articles below (feel free to send any I’ve missed in my direction) but the existence and growing popularity of competitive formats suggest that there are many who are pro-competition. Things have progressed since the writing of some of these articles, so some arguments don’t necessarily stack up in the wake of recent history.
Adam Dunlap – Should parkour be in the Olympics? Absolutely. Part 1 and Part 2
Even though parkour is inherently non-competitive, parkour competitions now exist. If anybody states that parkour is NOT competitive in the face of growing awareness of parkour competition and popularity, then we enter into a debate over authenticity. What is the real parkour? Instead of going down that path, I suggest a new angle – is competition valuable for parkour?
Before speaking at the symposium I put a call out on the Parkour Research group on Facebook for any thoughts and opinions on the issue. It became clear from my own research, the corresponding group discussion, and subsequent discussions that the community has three different views:
Pro-Competition, Anti-Olympic Inclusion
Pro-Competition, Pro-Olympic Inclusion
I’ll summarise some of the community standpoints and include a few quotes. I haven’t sought permission from those quoted, so they will remain anonymous unless any of the speakers ask to be named.
The previously linked to articles are more comprehensive in their points against parkour competition, so I’ll just include the ones brought up within the Olympic debate.
While parkour’s roots are over a hundred years old, the founders of parkour are still alive, still training, and their intention was never for parkour to be competitive. The communities that work more closely with the founders appear to hold to that – parkour competition being an oxymoron – ideal.
Many practitioners around the world share that they got involved with parkour because of its non-competitive nature. It was refreshing to them because it wasn’t like the regulated sport they were either used to or turned off from. That means that many see competition as damaging to grass roots participation.
“I don’t want my kids growing up with the idea that parkour is something you win.”
Parkour practice is incredibly broad, so the creation of standardised competition is a limiting factor that may prevent people from exploring parkour in its true and fuller context. Competitions essentially define what parkour is and therefore what has value.
“…you are defining accomplishment–you are defining what is ‘good’ and what should be trained.”
Current competitions specifically highlight faster, longer, further, higher, etc. while seemingly ignoring slower, shorter, smaller, lower which can be equally if not more challenging and are ever present within parkour training. Parkour competition essentially forces us to have the previously avoided authenticity debate.
Pro-Competition, Anti-Olympic Inclusion*
Parkour competitions are unrepresented internationally with the few competition organisers based primarily in North America. Parkour competition on a global stage (the Olympics) with lopsided representation would be a mistake.
While progress is being made, there is no standardised competition format in parkour across competition organisers. Until parkour has the competitive pedigree of other action sports, it shouldn’t be on the world stage. Fast tracking parkour into the Olympics could potentially damage and misrepresent the sport.
“If a solid and objective competition format is never reached then it should never be in the Olympics.”
Pro-Competition, Pro-Olympic Inclusion
As a popular but still small scale action sport, the Olympic stage would provide a wonderful platform to share parkour with the world.
“The coverage this would get parkour could be incredibly beneficial to the growth of the sport.”
Olympic sport is the pinnacle of sporting competition and parkour is the essence of human movement potential so it’s really the most Olympic of possible sports.
While there may be issues with parkour being in the Olympics, instead of putting it in the too hard basket or believing it could be negative, let’s iron out the issues and get it there eventually.
*And then there are those who are both for and against general parkour competition who believe the Olympics as a phenomenon are ultimately damaging and not the positive influence they claim to be and therefore we shouldn’t participate. See article on Olympic protests.
Parkour at the Olympics
All opinions aside, what do we need to know in terms of parkour and Olympic inclusion?
Discussions are taking place.
Only those who were at the discussions can say what actually took place, but various European parkour community figureheads met together with each other and the IOC in 2014 to discuss parkour.
Parkour is already being included in the Olympics
Parkour demonstrations and training opportunities have actually been at the Olympics already, though not in a competitive sense.
1. Lillehammer 2016
The Mouvement, in partnership with Ubisoft (makers of Assissins Creed), presented parkour to the IOC and to visitors at the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway in March 2016. See:
While it is my understanding that parkour was presented purely as a new activity for people to enjoy and not as a promotion for inclusion in the Olympic programme (from discussions with Mark Cooper, CE of the Mouvement), the videos above clearly show that parkour in the Olympics was certainly on people’s minds.
2. Rio 2016
Parkour featured in the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
There are a number of issues that present themselves when talking about parkour as an Olympic sport:
Does parkour have different expressions in the same way that swimming has different strokes, or are these different expressions actually different activities (i.e.parkour and freerunning) altogether? Likely there would still be one international federation governing both activities regardless of the outcome of this debate, but what it then opens up is whether there are multiple formats, subformats, etc.
What does a parkour competition look like? The two main formats so far are style and speed, playing on the different training expressions (or definitions) of parkour, with skill being another element within the NAPC and Apex International Competitions. There are clashes and crossovers with other existing and potential Olympic sports with all of these formats that may prevent or hamper Olympic inclusion. Broadly – gymnastics and obstacle course racing.
Past and present freerunning competition formats resemble gymnastics floor routines but on hard cityscape type structures either outside on the real deal or indoors on primarily plywood. The extreme variety of movement styles present within freerunning make it all but impossible to create a standardised scoring system that accurately represents the skills and abilities of the various athletes and their styles like we have with gymnastics. When you boil it down, freerunning could be described as acrobatics in sequence which is already represented within gymnastics. While visually appealing, freerunning at present is basically sloppier gymnastics.
Parkour competitions are easier to standardise if we take a pure ‘A to B as efficiently as possible’ definition – thus we get a timed race over obstacles or the Steeplechase on steroids. However, there are several different obstacle course race formats that stem from the same roots as parkour or are otherwise similar. They include:
Ninja Warrior type competitions – In the later stages of these courses it becomes grip strength warrior and loses much of the varied parkour-esque obstacles and movement opportunities in favour of pure upper body strength. With sport-climbing being added to Tokyo 2020 (though future inclusion is not a given), this seems an unlikely format.
OCR events – OCR or Obstacle Course Racing consists of your popular mud run events that have many different course lengths and cater to your weekend warrior fun runners to your elite CrossFit type training enthusiasts. Perhaps the most specific example of an OCR event like parkour would be…
The obstacle run in the military pentathlon – Videos of these races are often shared around on social media. It consists of a 500m course with 20 standardised obstacles held on a lane based track not too different from an Olympic track but zigzagging back and forth. While having many similarities to parkour training it is a multisport event that includes swimming, throwing, shooting and cross country running. While it could be an Olympic event under the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM, i.e. Modern Pentathlon), it is exclusively for military personnel and not universally available. However, it sounds like the OCR community is specifically aiming to modify the military pentathlon with current OCR formats to create a new type of course. It is my understanding that the OCR community or at least Spartan Race (a private company) via the International Obstacle Racing Federation (IORF), are aiming to have OCR join the Olympic programme under modern pentathlon to avoid the challenge of recognising a new international federation.
Governing Body Issues
In order to have an event within the Olympic programme, an international federation must be recognised by the IOC. At present, parkour doesn’t have a universally recognised international federation. Instead (like skateboarding) we have three competing bodies:
FIADD (Fédération Internationale des Arts Du Déplacement) based in the UK
The Mouvement (Mouvement International du Parkour, Freerunning et L’art du Déplacement) based in the UK/France
WFPF (World Freerunning & Parkour Federation) based in the USA
These three groups come from varying backgrounds, they all aim to cover all conceptualisations of the practice, but have different support structures and promote/explore parkour and freerunning in different ways. All of them lack unanimous support.
In fact, there are only a handful of national federations in the world that are even in a position to put their weight behind one of these entities. To my knowledge there are only five countries that have national governing bodies and even within these nations there are issues with how national federations are given recognition (please correct me if any of these details are incorrect):
New Zealand – NZ Parkour is recognised by Sport NZ as the only national body for parkour in NZ, but it does not yet meet the requirements of Sport NZ’s investment framework which is the only recognition process in place. As mentioned NZ Parkour currently governs – their understanding of – parkour only.
Australia – The Australian Sports Commission don’t recognise parkour as a sport, so the Australian Parkour Association cannot receive recognition (perhaps related to their non-competitive stance?), while at the same time they cannot seek charitable status like NZ Parkour has because the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission do recognise it as a sport. The APA currently governs – their understanding of – parkour only.
United Kingdom – Parkour UK is an official member of the Sport and Recreation Alliance and independant of any other federation. Parkour UK use parkour as an umbrella term.
Sweden – Parkour and Tricking Sweden is a national body within the Swedish Gymnastics Federation and supported by the Swedish Sports Confederation. PKTR Sweden use parkour as an umbrella term and specifically include tricking as well.
I’ve also been informed that Malaysia (through a Ninja Warrior like obstacle course racing federation), Indonesia (sport for all federation), and France (via their athletics federation) also have national parkour organisations in some capacity.
As we can see, the broadness of parkour training has caused parkour organisations in varying countries to be independent, align itself with gymnastics, obstacle course racing, or athletics and to define and govern parkour differently.
Who would lead?
I don’t fully understand all of the recognition processes with the IOC, but it seems that we have a chicken/egg scenario where some national bodies can’t get recognition without an international body, but the international body can’t get recognition without a certain number of affiliated national bodies. With the various affiliations outlined above, we seem to have an even messier situation on our hands as we talk about Olympic inclusion, especially if we start talking about international and national funding.
If one of the current international parkour federations were somehow to get recognition with the IOC even with the current state of the various national body alignments, would the national federations in each country currently aligned to another body have to change their local situation in order to receive IOC funding?
As I understand it, Parkour UK, the APA and NZ Parkour are all staunchly opposed to gymnastic inclusion in their nations, because parkour isn’t gymnastics. However, we have parkour affiliated to gymnastics in two of the above nations. If this were to happen in enough nations, parkour could potentially be included under the International Gymnastics Federation in the Olympics. That may force the independent or otherwise aligned national bodies to change their situation to be involved or even to continue to receive funding from their national government sporting agency.
I spoke (via video conference) at a congress in Paris held by the Mouvement in July about NZ Parkour’s organisational and parkour in schools experience. There I learned that in Sweden, an OCR organisation approached the Swedish Sports Confederation for recognition but were denied because the competition format “timed obstacle course race” was the same format already recorded for parkour within Parkour and Tricking Sweden. This is perhaps one of the catalysts for the OCR shift towards modern pentathlon – there was an article about the Swedish Obstacle League looking to adapt the military pentathlon, but at the time of writing this the website is undergoing maintenance.
Lessons from previous and new Olympic Action Sports
You can watch the video for all the NZ based insights, but here’s my attempt at a summary hodgepodge of information.
Most action sports were or are divided on competition and Olympic competition.
The new Tokyo 2020 sports are only being included in the 2020 Olympics and have no official recognition beyond that. They also won’t receive any funding like the other recognised federations do. It very much seems like a case of
The IOC gives funding to the international federations that they recognise, that money is then passed from the international federation to the national ones and then onto their respective codes. This has created issues in New Zealand with windsurfing (under Yachting NZ / World Sailing in the Olympics), BMX and mountain biking (under Cycling NZ / International Cycling Union in the Olympics) despite all three of them having their own specific national and international governing bodies. The money given to the national bodies gets given either entirely or primarily to the sports that they deem more deserving or appropriate. This sees track and road cycling in NZ get more funding than the action sports and all the other sailing codes trump windsurfing, even though windsurfing has contributed more Olympic medals to NZ’s tally than all other sailing codes combined since its inclusion in the Olympics.
While I don’t know the exact figures, there aren’t a lot of national skateboarding federations, but there are enough for the IOC who are buddies with the International Roller Sport Federation (who have until Tokyo 2020, NOTHING to do with skateboarding), to include skateboarding under their banner. The head of the International Skateboarding Federation is apparently heading up the work at the Roller Sport Federation seeing as they know nothing about skateboarding, but the ISF are also currently being sued – apparently – by the World Skateboarding Federation over the whole situation.
Global snowboarding numbers are apparently in decline. Has it become too mainstream? The curse of the Olympics?
The Olympic format of sport-climbing is forcing changes on the way sport-climbers train. Bouldering, speed climbing, and lead climbing are the three sport-climbing disciplines. Athletes typically specialise in one of these areas, but at Tokyo 2020 athletes will be required to participate in all three where the scores of each event will be added together to get the winner.
While Olympic competition format and equipment is certainly a source of contention within the different action sports communities (another example is that the windsurfing board used in the Olympics is not a typical board used by most recreational windsurfers), none of the NZ bodies seemed to be concerned with the competition format seriously harming the future of the activity in the way some anti-competition proponents within parkour are.
Despite the various negative situations highlighted, the new bodies are excited about their inclusion and the potential opportunities it provides their athletes and ultimately their sports and the existing bodies don’t appear to want to leave the Olympics.
So there you go. Watch the video. Follow the links. Read the supplementary information.
Could parkour be in the Olympics? Yes.
Will it be in the Olympics? Hard to say. There’s a long and rigorous process with some very messy situations that could hamper or even prevent it from becoming an Olympic event.
Would I watch it if it was in the Olympics? Probably. Even though I’m against parkour competitions I still enjoy watching people move.
Should it be in the Olympics? This I think is the most important question. With everything I’ve learned, I can’t see how parkour’s inclusion within the Olympics would ultimately benefit the sport.
Regardless of what happens, both non-competitive and competitive parkour formats are likely here to stay. Since starting parkour and stopping my major involvement in previous sport (primarily rugby) I’ve become less competitive and see the benefits of collaboration over competition. I believe that advocates for and against parkour competition need to continue to have dialogue with each other to ensure parkours spirit, generally inclusive nature, and in-depth training experiences are preserved.
The Health and Safety Reform Bill is currently before parliament (see more here and here). This reform to the current health and safety in employment act is taking place in an attempt to reduce workplace injury and death by 25% by 2020. That’s a worthy goal, a goal that everyone should support. However, I don’t wholly support the methods that are being proposed in order to achieve the goal. I’m going to use a story from the parkour world to describe my reasoning:
In parkour, we regularly have would-be practitioners – and perhaps more often their parents – asking if there is a soft, padded, “safe” environment where they can learn parkour. The irony of this question is that these environments often lead to the opposite of what these people want. When somebody, especially a new practitioner, trains in an environment full of mats, padding and foam they inevitably switch off the risk assessment system in their brain, thinking “I can do and try anything I want because this place is safe”. Wrong, unfortunately. One of the most important components of whether an accident or injury is going to occur is our ability to understand what we a capable of, what is required of us in a situation and whether we can manage the risk that is present. I have seen and heard of more serious injuries occurring in these supposed “safe” environments, because people push their limits without assessing the risk and without having true respect for themselves, their abilities or the environment.
We can use the story to draw some parallels: The soft, “safe” things equate to our workplace health and safety policies. Yes, policies have their place, but I make the case that the most important thing is to have safe people. No matter how rigorous, restrictive and “safe” you make a policy or an environment; there will always be somebody who finds a way to get hurt. By and large, that is not the fault of the policy but the fault of the individual. Safe people make fewer mistakes and know how to manage the risk in any environment, but unsafe people will get hurt no matter the circumstances.
Policy says – “Wear gloves to prevent cutting your hands, i.e. policy will keep you safe.”
The long term effect of this policy is that most people will rely on the gloves to prevent the injury, ignoring their own ability to avoid having their hands in dangerous places. Inevitably, somebody will find a way to hurt themselves regardless of the gloves/policy.
Education says – “Train yourself to a) avoid hurting your hands and/or b) toughen up your hands so that they don’t get hurt, i.e. having positive habits will keep you safe.”
The long term effect of this is the building of sound habits that will stick with most people no matter the situation. It’s possible that somebody will hurt their hands, but with education the expectation is that the individual will train harder, become more aware and thus more careful in the future.
As I said before, this is not an argument for removing all policy, but for the inclusion of education and training based initiatives to create safe people so that people are truly safe. The longer I train parkour and the more I’m involved with the parkour community the more I see its ability to positively transform other areas of life. Can parkour training teach us something about health and safety? I think so.
“The increased emphasis on academic success and structured supervised activity at the expense of explorative free-range play is thought to have the unintended consequence of impairing children’s ability to manage risk. In turn, this is believed to increase their involvement in far riskier – than climbing trees – behaviours when they are older.”
The results of the study: Teachers report higher concentration levels, no need for their timeout area for bad behaviour during lunchtime, less injury and less bullying [1-4]. Grant Schofield, professor of public health at AUT who worked on the study, said that the frontal lobe of the brain is developed when children are taking risks, which allows them to calculate consequences – a necessary skill to be sure. It’s great to see these schools taking part in this study and encouraging to see that the results line up with what many of us, especially in the parkour community, believe to be common sense.
The body of knowledge surrounding the importance of play is ever growing, and more recently it has begun to focus on play beyond the years of childhood [5-10]. Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, director of Temple University’s Infant and Child Laboratory in Pennsylvania, U.S.A and author of Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less (about the nature and importance of play time for adults) says that “we associate play with childhood, and therefore “playing” with childishness”, but as George Bernard Shaw said “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” It is likely that the lack of play in adults has contributed to the cotton-wool / bubble wrapping mentality that we are trying to combat today. So, if risk taking in play is essential to learning how to effectively manage risk [11-13], and parkour is essentially play for all ages – running, jumping, climbing, swinging, rolling, vaulting, overcoming challenges (sounds like play to me) – then parkour is a way of playing that results in effective risk management; a valuable tool that young people and adults alike can use to further the benefits of play from childhood into maturity.
Persons outside the parkour community often consider parkour to be an activity practiced by delinquents, thrill seekers, or only for the physical elite. In reality, parkour is an activity that all people who move can use to improve a myriad of skills, including physical fitness, self-esteem and self-efficacy, creativity, risk management and trust. With a non-competitive focus, this process of playing and learning can be achieved at any level of participation. If we as adults take cues from our children and engage in risky play like parkour – i.e. education and training – and spend less time coming up with restrictive rules – i.e. policy – would we not create a society that is healthier, smarter and safer? It would take longer than 2020 for this to permeate New Zealand society, but the lasting effects might dwarf the 25% reduction in injury and death sought through the Health and Safety Reform Bill.
The consequences to making a bad decision in parkour are often immediate and can be painful. The consequences of our choices in the rest of our life are not always so clear. This is one of the reasons why parkour is so valuable – it causes us to think critically about our choices and the actions we choose to take. We think about our end goal and make calculated decisions so that we can get there safely. We have to make decisions everyday, things that affect our relationships, our jobs, our mental wellbeing; by practicing parkour, we give ourselves a safe and practical outlet for learning to make sound decisions for our greater good.
One day, we’ll stop fighting to have parkour and other educative tools accepted and understood by the masses. Instead, we’ll be celebrating together at the strides we’ve made (parkour pun intended), the fun we’ve had, how much we’ve learned and how much safer we are.
Bring on that day.
*Education as in learning, not to be confused with the mainstream education system which may not actually produce desired results.