One of the world’s most unique and most eye-catching sports, parkour seems tailor-made for youths but is starting to find a diverse fanbase.
On opposite sides of the world, two very different people are tackling the same sport in two very different ways. Leaping and vaulting with power, 31-year-old Kevin Francomme displays raw athleticism and a patent lack of fear as he trains in London. The Frenchman clearly trusts his body. Meanwhile, in Singapore, 64-year-old grandmother Ann Tham is trying to build trust in her body as she slowly scales a wall and then balances atop it.
Ledges, walls, stairs and fences become apparatus as part of Parkour.
Francomme and Tham both are participating in parkour, an extreme sport in which people jump, swing and vault off of walls, ledges, fences, benches and staircases. An unusual sport in which there are essentially no rules and no official playing area, parkour challenges its participants to use the urban environment as their apparatus, to conceive of and execute innovative movements on the fly.
A professional parkour athlete, Francomme often stands at one end of an urban space and then sets off for the other end with no exact plan. Along the way he may run along a ledge, leap several metres through the air to land on top of a fence before jumping on to a staircase and then grabbing hold of a railing to swing down into a courtyard. The aim is to move through an area with power, speed, balance and style.
Parkour offers its participants a chance to display their athleticism in a unique manner.
Parkour was born in the early 1900s when a French naval officer constructed a new method for navigating spaces that were covered in obstacles. His intention was to give other soldiers the skills for moving swiftly and safely through urban battlegrounds, like war-torn cities. The French military took his teachings, honed them and came up with a system they named “parcours du combatant,” which translates in English as the “path of the warrior”.
Many decades later, in the 1990s, a French stuntman named David Belle came across this French military training system and saw potential for it to be converted into a sport. He began doing parkour, but with a twist. Instead of purely functional movements designed for soldiers engaged in combat, Belle gave it a hefty dose of flair and theatre, with priority given to stylish manoeuvres. Just like that, parkour was born.
Nearly 30 years later, parkour is now popular across the globe, and offers a livelihood to serious participants like Francomme, who is a lead trainer at London’s Parkour Generations, one of the world’s biggest parkour centres. Parkour Generations offers classes for everyone from beginners to seasoned parkour athletes, and also has training centres in the US, South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil and Scotland.
Middle-aged people in Singapore are improving their body confidence by doing Parkour.
Their biggest centre is the London headquarters, based in a warehouse among quiet docks in Eastern London which has been converted into a playground for parkour enthusiasts. The centre is filled with boxes to leap on to or over, metal frames to straddle or swing from, thick ropes to climb, ledges on which to balance, and lots of weights to help parkour athletes build their strength.
Some of Parkour Generations athletes may compete at the first-ever Parkour World Championships, to be held in the Japanese city of Hiroshima this April. The establishment of that global event will be a massive step forward for a sport which, until now, has offered its participants few opportunities for widespread recognition.
Meanwhile, in Singapore, Parkour is helping middle-aged people improve their mobility and body confidence. I visit an apartment complex in downtown Singapore where Move Academy coach Tan Shie Boon is teaching parkour to a group of participants aged mostly in their 50s and 60s.
Parkour was invented as a way for soldiers to move through urban environments efficiently.
This is where I meet Ann Tham, who tells me that only a year previously she had trouble merely walking. Yet during this training session she is a powerhouse, jumping, running and scaling walls assuredly. She tells me that learning parkour is one of the best things she has ever done. It gas greatly increased her fitness, strength and flexibility, and made her far less scared of being injured by falling or tripping over, something that plays on the minds of so many people as they enter their 60s and 70s.
Tan Shie Boon, an extremely fit 26-year-old Singaporean man, tells me he gets huge satisfaction from teaching older students like Tham. “To see them improving with every session is great,” he says, as his class takes a water break in the sweltering Singapore heat. “You see them become more confident in their body – they start to realise they can do many more things than they thought they could.”
From young to old, professional to amateur, London to Singapore, parkour athletes can’t seem to get enough of the sport.