Co-creator defends risky urban sport

By Amanda Graf

Imagine the flowing movement of a cheetah bounding across a plain, or the elegant swoops of a monkey moving through the trees. Keep the image of the fluid momentum of their movements, but replace the animals with urban dwellers and the landscape with stairways, walls, poles and fences. The result is parkour, the underground sport and philosophy that is spreading across the globe.

But there is currently some controversy surrounding parkour. The Chicago Tribune reported the parkour-related death of Alex Leatherbarrow of Oxfordshire, England, who failed to clear a six-foot gap between buildings in 2005. There has also been speculation that the recent death of University student Chris Fu might be parkour-related because he was a member of a parkour Facebook group.

“I feel very bad when things like this happen,” said Sebastien Foucan, a co-creator of parkour, who heard about Fu’s death from friends in the U.K. “Parkour brings so much inspiration, but it can bring bad things too.”

Parkour (which means “course” in French) is a discipline based on moving through an environment efficiently but with elegance. A parkour practitioner, known as a “traceur,” combines running, jumping, climbing and other forms of physical movement to overcome obstacles. When practiced by professionals, the effect is a seamless flow of movement propelling a traceur across a landscape.

“It is a way to express yourself with your environment,” Foucan said.

Nate Ortega, senior in LAS, understands the need to develop parkour skills slowly and carefully. As a freshman, he saw parkour videos online and developed an interest in Foucan’s philosophy. He created the I-Parkour registered student organization at the University in the fall of 2005.

“I didn’t just jump right away. It’s like a baby step kind of thing,” Ortega said.

He and a group of friends began to “build up strength” through exercise and healthy eating. After studying basic parkour tutorials online, they began practicing, but they always recognized their limits, he said. Because Ortega is abroad studying in France, the group is not active this semester.

Ortega, who has only suffered minor bumps and scrapes while practicing parkour, said he plans every move he makes step-by-step, rarely acting out of instinct. He said he often reminds his group to avoid being reckless or trying something crazy.

“We’re not here to show off,” Ortega said. “What the people do on TV took their entire lives to learn. We’re trying to follow the philosophy, moving in a different way. … You’re not a Spiderman.”

“Life is made of obstacles and challenges – to overcome them is to progress,” Foucan’s wrote on his Web site. “If you become skilled at parkour, you gain something for the rest of your life.”

Ortega said parkour is not just about overcoming physical obstacles; it also helps him overcome mental obstacles and deal with school work. He would like to instill the parkour philosophy and appreciation for environment in more people, but, like Foucan, he does not want anyone with the wrong mind-set to get involved.

Ortega heard about Fu’s death, but he said they had never met, and Fu had never practiced parkour with his group. He said his heart goes out to Fu’s family.

Foucan, who plays a parkour-performing villain in the latest James Bond movie, “Casino Royale,” understands the dangers of parkour’s growing popularity. He said when people see it, they quickly assume it is easy and do not understand the intense training and thought parkour requires.

“Practice your discipline and make it your lifestyle,” Foucan advises. The combination of parkour videos at YouTube.com, a video-sharing Web site, and online forums that connect traceurs across the globe has created an international community of parkour practitioners.

“It began as child’s play,” Foucan said. As young men, he and fellow parkour pioneer David Belle found a form of expression in the energetic climbing and jumping games they played in their small French town. Slowly, their fun was influenced by Asian philosophy and parkour developed as a discipline, he said.

“It’s a kind of road, a path,” Foucan said. “It is the opposite of competition. You must try to be like an animal, fluid like water.”

Even while sitting on a train or in his car, Foucan said his mind is always focusing on his interaction with his environment.

“It is everywhere,” he said.