Parkour
The Danger of Dilution: Parkour is not a sport (nor exercise)
5th March 2017
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Parkour is not a sport and nor is it exercise. It is something different: a discipline, a practice, maybe a unique thing.

(This is my best attempt at a definition:)

Parkour is a training thing (system/method/approach/discipline) which is based on moving around a (usually urban) environment and about improving how well one can move. The movements are diverse, including jumping and swinging and climbing and vaulting, and it is based on overcoming obstacles. Parkour also has a certain spirit associated with it, including usefulness and humility and challenge and self-overcoming and helping others and community, as well as some playfulness and creativity. The mental aspect of the discipline is also key: dealing with fear and discomfort and engaging with discipline and self-belief and building confidence.

So, there are many things which make something not parkour. The movement itself is not one of them: if someone is doing flips, this does not stop it being parkour; instead it all depends on why they are doing flips. If someone’s aim is to learn cool tricks or do stunts or get youtube views, that isn’t the same spirit as parkour, so I would usually term that ‘freerunning’ to designate a different culture – which isn’t to say that I am against freerunning, only that it is different, the same way I think that there are many other great things which are not parkour.

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Sports: by my reckoning, sport is a physical activity which requires skill and is against other people. Sports are not solo endeavours, or uncompetitive thing; working out or going running are not sports. If it is not physical, such as chess, it is a game, not a sport. There isn’t a clear distinction: what about pool, darts, table tennis, etc.

[I note that definitions of sport vary. The one I gave above matches the Oxford English Dictionary one, but other definitions such as that by Council of Europe (an international group of countries separate to the EU but linked to the European Convention of Human Rights) are broader: “all forms of physical activity which, through casual or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels.”. That definition is too broad: it would include dancing in clubs and sex, which are not sport, and I suspect it was drafted broadly to give more power to whichever institutions that definition was empowering!]

I also think that you have to be able to influence competitors’ performance: in football, you defend your goal from the other team while trying to score in theirs. So many athletics (aka ‘track and field’) disciplines are not sports: a 100m sprint or shotputt do not have any ability to influence others’ performance and would only be slightly different if the event was not done at the same time as other competitors. This too blurs: larger cycling races clearly have strategy and tactics and are a sport, while the time trial elements are not. At some point there is something of an influence.

Inherent to sport is competition. It is about beating other people, whether by getting more balls in their hoop than they do in yours or about lifting a bigger weight.

And so parkour is not a sport because it is not competitive. This debate has been had in parkour for awhile, and I remain firm that parkour is not about competition and competition (in the big sense) does not have a place in parkour. As small parts of training, like games and challenges, bits of competition are part of the play, but not competition events.

Parkour spirit has met existing culture and the result has been a mixture of the two, especially in the USA, which has a more individualistic and competitive culture and is less connected to the origins of the discipline. Competition in a big sense has no place in parkour as I see it. I know the arguments, some of them are misguided (you can have events and bring people together without a competition) and the others are not worth what is lost. Games have a place in parkour, challenges against each other, but not competition as such. I love speed routes! It’s a fun challenge, it tests you under pressure, you can work with people to figure out the best ways of doing things, it’s great, and I have no problem with comparing your times to other people, the same we compare many other things. Comparison is fine. Competition is something else: it is about placing value on being better than others. The aim is to be better, there is recognition for it, and stuff. That is not a parkour value and comes at the cost of important parkour values.

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Parkour is also not exercise. Now, in a way it is: unlike sport parkour does actually fit in the exercise category, and I don’t have as big a problem with parkour being described as exercise as I do with it being described as a sport. This one isn’t about a conceptual-category problem, rather about language that doesn’t quite fit.

When I do parkour, I don’t feel like I’m ‘exercising’. I’m playing, climbing, exploring, challenging myself and trying to overcome the challenges.

Words are not just words; words have meanings, linked to the culture of the language.’Exercise’ has a certain meaning. It’s what people do to keep fit, which is usually mostly about losing weight and improving appearances; we are told to do it because it’s good for us, to reduce risk of heart disease or to feel happier. It’s what we are told we should do thirty minutes of, five times per week, of moderate intensity which could just be intense walking. The word has all of this associated cultural baggage.

I don’t think this meaning matches with what parkour is, why I do it, and why people do it. The aims of ‘exercise’, and the type of ‘fitness’ that it is about, are not about parkour. For more about ‘fitness’, its usual meaning and how parkour is different/what I think it should be about, see this post that anyone can do parkour and this post about fitness.

Parkour is about freedom, the joy of simply moving, the ability to be able to move better, to reach that challenge, to come up against challenges and overcome them, to improve what you can do, to face up against mental difficulties and fears and do battle with them, sometimes winning and otherwise coming away feeling a failure, and also about playing and figuring out movement puzzles and coming up with new movements.

That isn’t the same thing as exercise, which usually has particular and limited aims and is often soulless. I go running sometimes, and though I sometimes track how far I’ve run and how long for, I go running because I enjoy the experience, not because I want to lose weight or reach a certain time. I think that is different.

(And again, I don’t mean that exercise is bad, only that it is different to parkour.)

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Those points made, let’s talk about dilution and the dangers of dilution.

Parkour recently became officially recognised as a sport. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. There are certainly many benefits of becoming ‘official’, such as funding opportunities and greater recognition, and it should mean that we can reach more people, from media and changed perspectives. All of these are Good Things.

Similarly, if a doctor recommends exercise, or if I’m a parkour coach trying to advertise my classes to normal people, then describing parkour as exercise is going to help people understand what it’s about and get them to turn up. More Good Things.

But something doesn’t quite fit. Imagine doing parkour in heels or business shoes (stiff leather, a fat heel, a shiny slippery sole)… it would change how you move, and it wouldn’t be for the better.

Adopting cultural language (and meaning) which doesn’t fit changes how we perceive of parkour. Imagine running a ‘parkour fitness’ class: people will turn up expecting to do things which burn calories and build muscle and have someone yell things like ‘One more rep!’, and this will likely affect what the coach does. Business changes what parkour is too, and the need for customers and desire to grow a business often changes what is being done.

It’s a bit like how ‘dance’ is different to ‘dance sport’, or gymnastics as a discipline. I’ve been to a few dance classes, and they taught us how to dance a certain style. It’s about dancing better and improving your quality – but it isn’t about beating people. Dancing to learn to dance is different to dancing to score points and beat other people. Similarly, gymnastics is very constraining: there are certain disciplines and movements which fit within it. Movement is optimised for a particular quality, and training is mostly geared towards competitions.

All of this is a form of dilution. Say I buy a bottle of wine at the pub. I could share it with two others, and we get to drink a glass each. Or, I could water it down, and share it with six others, but the wine would be much weaker. Perhaps, instead of buying wine, I invent a new drink which is really good, but in the hurry to profit as much as possible I expanded the drink-making-factories and did so in a hurry such that the process wasn’t as high quality, and so the final product that was being sold in large amounts was not as good as the new drink I had actually invented.

I may be trying too hard with the analogy, but you get the point. There is always a danger – perhaps inevitable and unaviodable – that new things get diluted when they get shared. We focus too much on sharing it – whether that’s in wanting to spread the parkour message wider and have more people attend classes or because more people are needed to pay for classes in a for a parkour business to survive.

Fitting parkour into the conceptual category of ‘sport’ or ‘exercise’ distorts it and dilutes it. The danger is that some of the spirit of parkour is lost in this.

So we see some parkour gyms making different ‘grades’ of student and setting a ‘grading’ test; we see parkour classes that do the movements of parkour and try to pass on the spirit, but the people attending the classes are not there to really do parkour but to lose some weight or learn cool tricks; and we see parkour competitions, honouring the person who was fastest or looked coolest or completed the most challenges or did the most difficult tricks. Because this is what sport is meant to look like, so parkour is adapted to fit our existing cultural approaches instead of developed as its own thing.

These aren’t the only ways in which parkour is diluted: there is also corporate branding cool-hunters trying to make money off parkour; and there is the bottom-up version of this where individuals want to look cool and get youtube clicks and facebook likes to feed an ego too. If these are your aims, what you do is different. It is harder to represent parkour spirit in videos, though there are many that do it well (discussed more in this post).

Parkour parks are another example. They makes us move differently, change how we think, and can also mean that if we are out training elsewhere, we are told ‘You aren’t welcome here, go and be confined to your park.‘. No longer are we radically challenging conceptions of public space, using a creative vision to transform a wall and railing into a playground, developing new ways of moving and adapting to our environment. Instead, we go to a designed place, where we are ‘meant to be’, to move in a place designed for particular movements.

(Which, again, isn’t to say I am against parkour parks, nor that there isn’t creativity in them, but to recognise some of the downsides of them.)

So the danger with parkour is that the essence of what we do changes because of how we view it, such as with sport or exercise labels. Not all change is bad, but we must be vigilant to interrogate change and try to allow good change while not allowing bad change. Such as making it less about macho warrior spirit and more about child-like playfulness (and from what Julie Angel’s book seemed to say, this is more how Williams Belle developed it and why there is more playfulness in the ‘Art du Deplacement’ approach), or running parkour classes for older people. Bad change like associating it with ‘cool culture’ and energy drinks.

Compromises are inevitable, but we must be careful to make them only when it is worth it, and allow too much to be eroded that there isn’t enough left. Maybe it’s worth teaching a watered-down version of parkour, because we know we are teaching a watered-down version to some people while still retaining the complete version ourselves (and this is how I sometimes do it: when I did some choreography work, they only cared about the movement and little about the meaning behind it, though I did mention that sometimes).

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Comments and discussion welcome 🙂

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