In 1902, a catastrophic volcanic eruption obliterated the town of St. Pierre on the Caribbean island of Martinique, killing some 28,000 individuals in a flash. A young, French naval lieutenant, George Hebert valiantly coordinated the evacuation of over 700 people, both indigenous and European, from the outskirts of the town. The experience had a profound effect on him. For as he watched people move in those crucial first moments, it seemed that the indigenous people overcame the obstacles in their path with grace and creativity, while the Europeans moved badly, searching for familiar pathways, which now no longer existed. It was clear to him that “modern man” had lost the ability to move efficiently and effectively in all but the most routine environments. In addition, the heroism and tragedy he witnessed on that day reinforced his belief that, to be of real value, athletic skill and physical conditioning must be joined with courage and altruism, an epiphany which gave rise to the original motto of parkour, “Etre fort pour être utile” – “Be strong to be useful.”
Traveling extensively, Hebert continued to be impressed by the physical development and movement skills of indigenous peoples in Africa and elsewhere. Based on these observations, Hebert formulated a physical training discipline that he called “the natural method” using climbing, running, swimming and man-made obstacle courses to recreate the natural environment.
Hebert’s “Natural Method” soon became the basis for all French military training, and the first organized obstacle course training in the modern era. Inspired by his work, units of the French Special Forces in the 1950’s further developed Hebert’s work into what came to be known as, “parcours du combattant.”, or “the path of the warrior”.
Years later, Raymond Belle, a fireman and veteran of the French Special Forces, returned to his hometown of Lisses on the outskirts of Paris, where he introduced the discipline of parcours du combattant and the teachings of Hebert to his young son David and a group of David’s close friends, who then set out to adapt Raymond’s teachings to their “natural setting”, giving birth to what we now know as “Parkour.”
Belle and then best friend, Sebastian Foucan established a group of “traceurs” (the original term for parkour practitioners), which they named the “Yamikazi”, after a tribe of warriors in Africa. As the first organized group of traceurs, the Yamikazi began to develop a following in France that included filmmaker Luc Besson. “The Yamikazi”, Besson’s film about the group accelerated the growth of Parkour.
It was around this time that a personal split began to develop between Belle and Foucan, with Foucan ultimately going his own way. Proficient in English, Foucan brought the discipline to the UK where he chose to call it “Freerunning” rather than “Parkour”. This became a source of both confusion and conflict as people came to define Belle’s “Parkour” as the most efficient way from point A to point B (no flips or acrobatics), and Foucan’s “Freerunning” as the most creative way from A to B, embracing influences from other movement disciplines such break dancing, martial arts tricking and gymnastics. The controversy continues to some degree to this day amongst a small community of purists, though Belle himself is known to have used flips in his own practice.
From the late 90s onward, the underground movement continued to spread worldwide with Belle and Foucan at the helm of their respective followers, giving interviews, booking TV and film appearances, and guiding fans with their thoughts on competition (mostly against) and the philosophies of the sport.
In 2003, British filmmaker Mike Christie’s JUMP LONDON, followed by JUMP BRITAIN in 2005, depicted the growth of the sport on the streets of the UK’s largest city, where teams like URBAN FREEFLOW further developed their style of “Freerunning”, and began to dominate the London scene.
In 2004, David Belle re-appeared in French film DISTRICT B-13, which gained something of a cult following outside of France. But it wasn’t until Sebastian Foucan’s appearance in the awesome opening chase scene of the James Bond film CASINO ROYALE in 2006 that audiences in the US started to realize that something new and really exciting was afoot! In that same year, the Madonna CONFESSIONS Tour and video further established Parkour in the public consciousness, with Sebastian, American Levi Meeuwenberg and WFPF Founding Member Oleg Vorslav as featured performers.
Finally, it was the sudden game-changing arrival of YouTube in 2005, where traceurs from around the world could post their videos and share their latest discoveries that launched parkour as a global movement. This was propelled exponentially by Latvian Oleg Vorslav’s astounding video known as “Russian Climbing”. With over 50 million views to date, “Russian Climbing” was one of the first videos to define “going viral”, and put parkour on the desktop of millions of average folks worldwide. What took the skateboarding Z-Boys 20 years to accomplish–bringing their sport to the mainstream– Oleg and the other young practitioners of Parkour did almost overnight.
In the years following, new leaders and pioneers emerged who did not necessarily identify with Belle or Foucan and did not define themselves as following either Parkour or Freerunning. They simply called themselves Traceurs or more often Freerunners or just simply athletes who had studied the disciplines of Parkour and Freerunning to hone their apparently super-human skills. In the UK, Ryan Doyle, Tim Shieff, Ben Jenkin and Phil Doyle (all WFPF founding members), along with Daniel Ilabaca, Kie Willis and Chase Armitage and his group 3Run formed the vanguard of a new generation of British freerunners. In the US, groups like APK, Team Tempest (a prominent stunt team) continued to spread awareness of parkour through videos, websites, small gatherings, appearances on and off-screen, and most of all on-line forums.
In October of 2007, RED BULL ART OF MOTION in Vienna was the world’s first major competition involving Parkour and/or Freerunning held anywhere in the world. Red Bull refrained from using either name for the sport, fearful that they would alienate the loudest voices in the parkour community who were at that time dead-set against competition.
It was at this event that the first contact between the eventual WFPF founders and their athlete partners Ryan Doyle and Tim Shieff took place. First place in the competition was taken by Ryan Doyle. Doyle experienced a bad leg break on his third and final round, reminding everyone that this was indeed a sport that entails considerable risk, and giving some justification to those who did and do believe that competition could have a negative impact on the sport and movement.
In 2007, WFPF was launched to help bring the sport and philosophy of Parkour to mainstream audiences around the world (see history of WFPF, pg. ?) The ten founding athletes, including Ryan Doyle and Tim “Livewire” Shieff from the U.K., and Oleg Vorslav from Latvia came together around the idea that they could more effectively and positively influence the direction of Parkour’s growth from “the inside”, rather than remaining underground in opposition to all commercial development.
In September 2008 in London, the still influential Urban Freeflow (headed by Paul Corkery, or EZ as he was known), in partnership with Barclaycard, staged the first World Freerun Championship at the Roundhouse Theatre in London’s Camden Town.
In 2009, Urban Freeflow reached the peak of its influence with the production, again with Barclaycard, of the 2nd World Freerun Championship, this time in Trafalgar Square with an audience of nearly 10k in attendance. This competition was won by Tim “Livewire” Shieff. Urban Freeflow soon thereafter faded from the scene, ultimately due to poor athlete relations.
In 2009, WFPF produced the pilot for first major parkour TV show, MTV’s ULTIMATE PARKOUR CHALLENGE, a competition show starring the top parkour/freerunning athletes in the world at that time, including Ryan Doyle, Tim Shieff, Oleg Vorslav and Daniel Ilabaca, who up until that point had been against competition. The show also introduced relatively unknown American athletes Daniel Arroyo, Michael Turner and King David. Daniel Arroyo would go on to achieve genuine star status in the worldwide community, through both his beautiful movement along with his filmmaking skills and outspoken deeply held views on the philosophy of parkour. MTV’s ULTIMATE PARKOUR CHALLENGE went on to produce six episodes during the summer of 2010 and was met with wide praise for it adherence to the true spirit of parkour and the talent of its stars and filmmakers alike. It was ultimately canceled due to the high cost of each episode, but garnered 3.5 million TV viewers in the 12-24 y.o. male demo, along with tens of thousands of additional views online. Not only did the show launch WFPF in a big way, but it also exposed the movement and philosophy of parkour to a new and much wider audience.
In 2011, the cable network G4 launched a low-budget answer to ULTIMATE PARKOUR CHALLENGE called JUMP CITY, featuring a team competition. The show did not meet with great critical or audience success and was canceled after one season.
2010-2011 was also the high water mark for the Red Bull Art of Motion, with multiple events being held in Yokohama, Sao Paulo, London, and three in the US (in partnership with WFPF) in Tampa, Boston and Detroit. The years since have seen only 1 AOM per year, always on the Greek island of Santorini during the month of October. Entry is either by invitation or through video submission, and is always a big event on the yearly parkour calendar, launching many of the newer stars like Germany’s Jason Paul, Americans Corey DeMeyers and Jesse LaFlair, and WFPF Elite Athletes Latvian Pasha Petkuns, and Russians Alexandr Bayturin, Erik Mukhametshin and Alexander Zyulev. The last two AOM’s were won by WFPF Sponsored Athlete, DK Kyrsanidis
The parkour world since 2011 has been largely focused on the developmental aspect of the sport. UK-based and anti-competitive Parkour Generations has been doing workshops in the UK and beyond for some time, and Parkour UK has been recognized as an official NGB (National Governing Body), with classes being taught in schools and community programs countrywide.
WFPF has focused its efforts on assisting in the spread of indoor parkour programs in gyms and other facilities as a supplement to outdoor training for the next generation of parkour athletes, starting at age 5 or younger. WFPF’s Teaching Certification Program, created by a team of top athletes led by Robbie Corbett, WFPF Master Trainer, has certified nearly 600 parkour instructors in the US and Canada, and through its sister company USA Parkour (USAP), has extended insurance coverage to 70 gym and college programs nationwide, an crucial element in the litigious U.S. environment.
In Jan 2015, the WFPF founders launched the International Parkour Federation (IPF), a US non-profit dedicated to the advancement of parkour worldwide, assisting in the formation of national and continental governing bodies around the world. Most recently, IPF helped in the creation of the Asia Parkour Union, headquartered in Antalya, Turkey, with plans to conduct the first WFPF Teaching Certification outside North America.
In partnership with IPF, WFPF has continued to sanction competitions big and small around the US and across the globe, including the Urban Runners Challenge in Mexico City, Mexico, and the upcoming Vigo Street Stunts event in Vigo, Spain. In September 2015, WFPF sanctioned the first-ever College competition at USAP College affiliated school, U.W. Plattville. The USAP College division continues to grow under the direction of its founders and directors, Matt and Greg Milano.
Most recently, WFPF partnered with the All-Star Games, to host and sanction the first WFPF Parkour Pro-Am at the Mandalay Las Vegas (April 2016). Nearly 150 athletes were in attendance including 15 of the most noted parkour athletes in the world, who competed in front of five thousand fans. WFPF Elite Athlete Erik Mukhametshin from St. Petersburg, Russia won the first place prize of $3000, one of the largest cash prizes ever awarded for a parkour championship.
Parkour continues to grow exponentially among practitioners and fans alike. In March of 2014, parkour passed skateboarding in Google trends and has continued to ascendance in the years since.
In closing, we return to the now ancient question of what to call and how to describe this discipline. Google searches for parkour now produce 20,300,000 results, while searches for freerunning produce 943,000, with fewer and fewer entries actually referring to the sport past page seven. The die has been cast. Parkour it is, and so it will to be as this incredible sport continues to grow and develop worldwide.