The Paradox of Bravery

There has been a recent incidence shared on social media that caught my attention for numerous reasons. Its relationship to my ongoing interest in parkour, health and safety, risk, and policy, however, that has inspired me to write.

The incident is the amazing story of Mamoudou Gassama, the ‘migrant Malian Spiderman’, who, staying illegally in France to be with his brother, scaled the outside of an apartment building to rescue a dangling 4 year old boy. Mamoudou, you’re a champion. I love all of the life saving climbs you do.

I’m not going to comment on the family who left the boy at home or the people in the balcony next door who didn’t rescue him – you can read the article to hear the full story. Rather, I’m interested in the implications of the decision by President Emmanuel Macron to honour him with French citizenship and a job as a firefighter for his bravery. More specifically, I’m interested in the interesting paradox that this decision by the press, bystanders, and the powers that be, both police (who would likely have arrived eventually) and politicians, has in the face of how parkour training* is often treated.

*Not to say that Mamoudou is a parkour practitioner or that parkour is the only activity where scaling buildings is present – climbing and free soloing is of course applicable.

The people watching the incident unfold did right to applaud and cheer Mamoudou for his bravery and to express their joy at the boy’s life being saved. It’s also wonderful for Mamoudou to be honoured with citizenship and a job for saving the boy’s life –  this, of course, opens up the discussion about the treatment of migrants, but again, not the focus of this article.

The other side of the coin is curious. Many in the parkour community are well aware of the laws, bylaws, and policies that impact on our ability to train parkour as well as public opinion and misconceptions about our practice. We sometimes face judgmental comments from passers-by and most practitioners within the core community (people who train outdoors, outside of a class structure) have had an interaction with staff, security, or police and asked to cease our activities.

This paradoxical situation is therefore fascinating to me. On one hand, you have government, laws, and people who act in the name of those laws (sometimes misinterpreting or overreaching) seeking to implement and uphold policies that impinge on people’s options to train their physical and mental capabilities. On the other hand, you have government, laws, and the people who act in the name of those laws seeking to use policy to honour somebody for using their physical and mental capabilities within a practical situation.

In other words, if you use your abilities to save somebodies life there’s a high chance that you’ll be honoured for it, as in Mamoudou’s case. But, if the child is removed from the equation, and you’re training or using your body in ways that could enable you to save a life, you’ll probably be told to stop or perhaps even arrested in some circumstances like Alain Robert, the first French ‘Spiderman’.

I find this problematic.

Parkour is a training method that, among many things, improves people’s confidence, physical and mental abilities, teaches appreciation for one’s body and for the environment, and sound risk assessment skills. I’ve heard of a number of situations where people’s parkour training has either saved lives (including their own), enabled them to escape muggings, get into their own or neighbours houses after being locked out, making it easier and safer to complete physical work on the job or for household chores, and the retrieval of children’s lost balls from rooftops.

The tagline on the Parkour NZ website (of which I volunteer as CEO) reads, very aptly, in my opinion:

[Parkour], The activity that teaches you how to move and live in the modern world.

We shouldn’t just celebrate the physical acts of bravery that save lives, we should celebrate and enable the training of physical practices so that more people can have such positive impacts on the world. (I’m looking at you balcony dude – sorry, I couldn’t help myself).