Stranger than Fiction

By Jave Harron

Parkour: The Art of Displacement

When most people think of martial arts, several different styles of fighting immediately come to mind. Martial artists condition themselves to face enemies and drill their movements. But, what if there was a martial art that focused on fleeing, rather than fighting? The French, who normally respond to threats in such a manner, developed something along those lines.

Behold parkour, the art of displacement. If martial arts is training for the fight, parkour's training for the flight. Parkour is sometimes called 'free-running,' although there are some technical differences between the two. Parkour is all about moving between two points as efficiently as possible. That is, with as few movements as possible. If being chased, perhaps vaulting over a wall may save time than climbing down a set of stairs. Free-running, by contrast, generally has more focus on "competitive" and "showy" aspects. Free-running is more competitive, and runs counter to many of the ideas of parkour, according to some. Free-running generally tends to focus on the flashiest and most spectacular stunts, while parkour focuses on what works. (I personally prefer parkour of the two.)

So, how did parkour start? Is it just some extreme sport? Parkour is not a sport in the classic sense, since there are no formal hierarchies, competitiveness, or team work. It can trace its routes back to a French naval officer named George Hebert. Upon traveling to French colonies in Africa in the 1900s, he noticed many of the natives were in good physical condition, simply due to their daily lives requiring more physical activity. After Hebert had to help save civilians from an erupting volcano in 1902, he noticed that athletic skill should be combined with "courage and altruism." He would create his own exercise and conditioning regimen, the "methode naturelle," which include physical training, self defense skills, and mental conditioning.

This would set the stage for a development in military training and education: the parcours du combattant, or the military obstacle course. Firefighters, police, and other emergency personnel would later adopt the obstacle course as a training method, since it trained muscle reaction and gave the ability to navigate through obstructions.

Parkour was brought into its modern form by a man named David Belle. The son of a firefighter, Belle would condition himself in a similar manner to his father. While training, he was exposed to the philosophy of George Hebert, and trained in martial arts and gymnastics. He would develop many of these ideas together to form the new art of "parkour," from the French name of the obstacle course ("parkourse").

A male practitioner of parkour is called a traceur. A female is called a traceuse. Traceurs view the world as a massive obstacle course, and consider different ways to explore the world. From climbing trees, to playground jungle gyms, to the common suburbs, to parks, to cities, there are countless places to "do" parkour. It is meant to be applicable in most places, when a quick escape is needed.

True to its roots, parkour includes intense physical conditioning. As someone who has done mixed martial arts training, daily cardio, and weight lifting, I can honestly say parkour is the 'best workout I've got,' at least with the group I normally train with. A traceur can also view the world as a gym, performing exercises on walls and ledges they find. The world becomes your gym. Many of these exercises focus on body weight, and being able to lift it (such as pull-ups and push-ups).

Parkour looks fairly impressive on its own. While "free running" aims for style rather than efficiency, it is often grouped together with parkour. Both, however, have recently been appearing in several games, movies, and graphic novels due to how awesome it looks. "Tomb Raider," "Prince of Persia," "Assassin's Creed," "Mirror's Edge," "Crackdown," and other videogames have included it. The Jason Bourne movies and newer Bond ones, plus the action film "District B13" have notable parkour scenes (parkour being the sole reason for District B13 being made). Spiderman arguably uses parkour the most extensively of comic book superheros.

Moves similar to parkour also appeared in older martial arts movies, and some action ones: from wall jumping wire-fu martial artists to rooftop chase scenes. Parkour is a great and stylish way for characters of yours to get around, as well as a making for a combination of "economy of motion" with a "martial arts" philosophy of development. If you want "Rule of Cool," parkour is certainly an interesting thing to include. It can be used in ancient, mystic forests, the big city, or anywhere else you imagine. But the fact people (including me) practice these maneuvers for fun is certainly strange. After all, ninjas jumping over buildings was just fiction, right?