"It's like skateboarding, only without the skateboard."
LOS ANGELES — For a glimpse at one potential growth area in the action sports arena, look no further than the Westfield Culver City mall on a recent June afternoon, where a handful of young men clad in baggy sweatpants, slim-fitting T-shirts and ultralightweight sneakers take turns flinging themselves off the shopping center’s third-story mezzanine, leaping from level to level, before back-flipping, belly-sliding and bouncing to a stop on the ground floor of the atrium, to the cheers and wild applause of some 100 spectators.
It’s the taping of the season finale of MTV’s “Ultimate Parkour Challenge,” a six-episode series showcasing the practitioners of parkour, a street sport that’s part gymnastics, part stunt work, and all about moving from point A to point B by any means necessary even if that means careening over a coffee kiosk, piloting a Segway scooter while doing a handstand or propelling yourself through (yes, through) the back of a mall shopping cart.
If you’re unfamiliar with the name (which has its roots in the French word parcours, meaning “route”), you may have seen the human pinball effect in the opening chase scene of the 2006 James Bond film “Casino Royale,” in which parkour legend Sebastien Foucan plays a baddie who leaps over, under and through every imaginable obstacle in his path, before scampering up a construction crane and through the scaffolding of a building like Spider-Man to do battle with Daniel Craig.
More recently, Disney’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” featured acrobatic fight scenes that had the cast careening off walls and leaping off roofs in parkour-style moves. (David Belle, the Frenchman considered the founder of the sport, worked on that film as parkour stunt coordinator.)
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At its most basic, parkour, which Belle developed in France in the late 1990s, consists of running along a route and negotiating any and every obstacle as efficiently as possible. Some purists argue that the phrase “free-running” should be used when referring to the iteration of the discipline that incorporates theatrical flourishes such as flips and spins, but used here, parkour refers to both. From France, the sport spread to the U.K. and then to the U.S. in the early years of the new millennium.
‘IT’S GOING TO BE HUGE’
Despite being a below-the-radar discipline with a community that ranges from an estimated couple of thousand hard-core practitioners nationwide to maybe 10 times that number who’ve tried it at least once, some involved in the sport think it’s headed from a niche physical fitness subculture into mass consciousness — and that it will happen this year or next.
“I think parkour is going to be twice as big as skateboarding — it’s going to be huge,” says Mark Toorock, a Washington, D.C., fitness trainer and parkour practitioner who founded an online community called American Parkour (APK) in 2005.
“Skateboarding is the $4 1/2- to $5-billion industry it is because it’s not just (for) people who skate,” Toorock notes, “but people like my uncle who’ve never gotten on a skateboard but still own a pair of Vans (skate shoes).”
Toorock uses the skate industry to explain why he’s not just making a leap worthy of a traceur (as parkour athletes are sometimes called) when he forecasts freerunning is about to become a major force in the action sports arena.
“Skateboarding first came out of surfing in the late ’60s,” he said, “but took until the late ’80s and ’90s to become what we know it as today. It took snowboarding about half that time to become an Olympic sport, and the next thing you have that’s similar to that is parkour — which has been out of France for about eight years — so it’s close to that point.
“Just search for ‘parkour’ on YouTube versus ‘snowboarding’ or ‘skateboarding’ and you’ll be surprised. That’s what makes me think things are ready to pop,” he said. (As of June 16, a “parkour” search returned 351,000 hits, “snowboarding” 245,000, and “skateboarding” 684,000.)
Victor Bevine, an executive producer of “Ultimate Parkour Challenge” and a co-founder (with David Thompson, also an executive producer on the show) of the recently created World Freerunning & Parkour Federation, shares that view of the future. “I actually think it can be twice as big,” Bevine said. “Everybody under the age of 18 knows what this is.”
Adam Dunlap, who started a parkour-inspired clothing line based in Beaverton, Ore., called Take Flight Apparel, is more nuanced: “Can this be as big as skateboarding? The simple answer is yes. But the people in the parkour community have been saying that this is going to be the next big action sport for years. But it’s taking a lot longer than I thought.”
Parkour as a launchpad for soon-to-be popular lifestyle brands is far from a universal opinion, especially since no specialized equipment or clothing is actually needed. While many consider sturdy, lightweight running shoes a basic necessity (K-Swiss launched the first parkour-specific shoe in 2007), some think barefoot is best. Pants are usually loosefitting enough to allow unhindered movement and offer some protection from abrasion, although here personal choices include running shorts, baggy sweats modified to mid-calf and cargo pants (so maps and other gear can be stowed in the pockets). Tops are soft, lightweight T-shirts.
“As a subculture I don’t think it will go too far past rock climbing,” says Cliff Kravit, the founder of a California parkour community called PKCali. “I doubt it will even reach the popularity level of yoga.”
IN THE PUBLIC EYE
But, as anyone who has ever heard the words “downward dog” can tell you, yoga begat yoga mats and drawstring pants, yoga-centric sweat towels and even yoga-appropriate tank tops with built-in sports bras. Now, just imagine the potential for the yoga community if MTV had decided to run six episodes of something called “Ultimate Yoga Challenge.” Kravit, who teaches a weekly class locally, said he notices a surge in popularity every time there’s media focus on parkour. “After ‘Prince of Persia,’ the class was overflowing,” he said.
That brings us back around to the boys — and it is mostly, though not exclusively, a male sport — literally bouncing off the walls of Westfield Culver City on a Wednesday afternoon, a nine-pack of the sport’s best and brightest stars: Daniel Ilibaca, Ryan Doyle, Tim “Livewire” Shieff, Pip Andersen, Michael Turner, Ben Jenkin, King David, Daniel Arroyo and Oleg Vorslav, wrangled together by the WFPF to introduce the discipline (or a version of it, anyway) to the MTV generation.
MTV first aired “UPC” as a one-hour special in October, then picked it up for the six-episode run, which started airing in May. The show tries to balance the philosophy of parkour (which eschews the notion of competition) with the flash of extreme sports and graft it onto the story arc of an elimination-based reality show by pitting six of a rotating cast of nine against one another in each episode for a panel of judges.
While Bevine and Thompson have earned detractors within the community for giving parkour a competitive element, they’ve also managed to expose it to 1 million impressionable eyeballs. Which makes the zip-front hoodies, T-shirts and long-sleeve T’s emblazoned with the WFPF shield and the mantra “Know Obstacles, Know Freedom” noteworthy. Some are worn by the show’s crew, some by the athletes themselves.
“The shirts are mostly giveaways,” Bevine said during a break in the Culver City taping on June 9. “But this is what we’re really excited about.” With that, he bent down, pulled off his right shoe and brandished it for inspection.
Weighing in at 9.4 ounces each, the KO (“Know Obstacles”) Parkour Shoe feels like holding a piece of balsa wood (“It literally floats on water,” Bevine says). He points to the single piece of leather around the toe box that he says makes the shoe more durable, a sole that supposedly provides just the right amount of traction for the traceur, and a retail price of $39.95, an important factor, since shoes engaged in hard-core parkour get so much wear and tear, they need to be replaced every month and a half. (A fact acknowledged in the slogan: “the best shoe you will ever destroy.”
The WFPF website includes glowing testimonials from the star athletes (“Perfect grip … the lightest freerunning shoes I’ve ever worn,” Shieff is quoted as saying). Bevine said the shoe was off to a good start. “We started selling them a few days ago and sold 400 pairs in the first three days.”
As with other issues, the parkour community has a difference of opinion on the idea of using the discipline to move merchandise and make money. Kravit thinks it runs completely counter to everything the sport stands for (“Telling you what clothes are right for parkour is putting you in a box,” he says), while Bevine and company see themselves as providing an environment and an infrastructure for the emerging sport as it finds its legs in the popular culture. “We’re helping them with the storytelling part,” said Francis Lyons, an executive producer of “UPC.” “But those guys are the stars. It’s going to go wherever they want it to.”
The crowd gathered at the Westfield Culver City shopping center for the taping doesn’t seem to suffer from the same conflicts. Several of the tweens and teens watching with slack-jawed awe are already sporting parkour-related T-shirts.
Three of them, friends Matt Leonoudakis, 16, of Northridge, Calif., Kenji Kang, 15, of Canoga Park, Calif., and Cameron Cudiamat, 16, of Grenada Hills, Calif., take parkour classes at White Lotus Martial Arts Center in Northridge. Leonoudakis wears a red T-shirt, with the word parkour in white letters across the chest, and several tiny men in silhouette vaulting over the letters. “I made it myself on the Internet,” he said.
Cudiamat’s white T-shirt depicts a man back-flipping over a city skyline that spells out the phrase “I’d rather be freerunning.” His was a gift made by a friend.
When asked if they’d buy parkour-related gear, Leonoudakis bobbed his head enthusiastically. “I already ordered a pair of those new KOs,” he said. “Have you seen those? They’re going to be here in 12 weeks. I can’t wait.”
Asked about the appeal of parkour, Leonoudakis didn’t hesitate a second.
“It’s like skateboarding,” he said. “Only without the skateboard.”