Mister Parkour: The Born Samurai

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Paul Boakye goes in search of an extreme sports fanatic and finds Sébastien Foucan is a guru in training.

We started in child-play and we never stopped. It became like our culture; a way of life. So we practised our discipline and we called it Parkour.

Call it a discipline, an art, a sport or urban ballet. Name it Parkour, Le Parkour, Free Run, or just PK; many people would call it just plain crazy. It’s hard to tell exactly how wide the edges of the Millennium Bridge might be, but it’s easy to tell how far the river Thames is below, and that the figure flying from one ledge of the bridge to the other is Sébastien Foucan in Channel 4’s documentary, Jump London [2003].

Needless to say, this is an extremely dangerous pastime. Almost every Parkour web site includes a disclaimer such as that found on Foucan’s own homepage:

“You must take responsibility for your health and safety! Parkour is a potentially dangerous sport, which is often seen practised at a very high level by professionals. Don’t take risks – you may be risking your own life.”

However, it seems that Nike and Toyota don’t mind living a little dangerously these days in pursuit of the fruits of their advertising spend. Both companies have featured Foucan and many of his signatures Parkour moves in European television ads. Nevertheless, interest in the sport is growing rapidly. Exact figures are hard to come by since there are currently no leagues, competitions or official associations, but there is already talk of making Parkour an Olympic sport. If the numbers of new web sites is anything to go by, this new Parkour craze could soon make Foucan a very rich man indeed. If he plays his cards right, that is. I wanted to know just what money and fame would mean to the man they call, Mister Parkour, and walked smack-bang into a rift between two old friends, and the ensuing battle between commercialism and spirituality.

“If Parkour becomes an Olympic sport I can’t say it’s bad,” says Foucan, “but for me it’s not my way. This is for other people. My goal is not to make Parkour a competitive sport but to make more and more people understand Parkour like they understand Tai Chi. Tai Chi is not Olympic, but it is a discipline. I’d like everybody to practise this discipline, Parkour, in their own way, at their own level, but competition, with winners and prizes is totally opposite to my goal.”

Born out of childhood play between Foucan and his former friend David Belle, Parkour’s journey from Parisian roots in the suburbs of Lisses to its present status as arguably the most compelling new sport in decades, has not been without its trials and tribulations. After appearing on Channel 2 TV in France, Foucan and Belle formed a group called Yamakazi with people they had inspired along the way. The word, “Yamakazi” comes from the Lingala language, mostly used in Zaire and Congo, and means “strong body, strong spirit, strong man.” It is an equally apt description of Foucan and his ideals for Parkour as a discipline.

Later on, as the media circus came to town, the group split due to personal disagreements and infighting. When the split came, the rest of the group continued and made a film with Luc Besson called Les Samourai des Temps Moderns, telling the fictional tale of a group of Robin Hood types who use their Parkour skills to evade capture, while stealing money to fund the healthcare needs of a child injured copying their Parkour training. In reality, two youngsters actually died copying moves from the film. As Foucan recalls, “With no message, nobody to explain; it was only a movie, kids can be very impressionable. But we are not Spiderman or Superman. This is why it is so important for me to do documentaries like Jump London because we can explain the discipline and tell people not to try this at home. There is more to Parkour than spectacle.”

In practice, there are fewer predefined movements in Parkour than say, gymnastics, martial arts, or other extreme sports. Parkour is about fluid unlimited movement over obstacles, and the ability to improvise is as important as being able to replicate previously practised moves. Despite this, Parkouristes, as they are called, regularly practise many “basic” movements. Foucan cites the importance of good jumping and landing techniques.

“It’s like anything,” says Foucan. “Once you practise, you develop step-by-step. After you’ve reached a certain level, you can do something bigger, stronger, it’s normal. But it’s more important how you move than scaling great heights.”

For the British public, we first became aware of Parkour on BBC TV’s Rush Hour, featuring David Belle leaping across London’s rooftops from office to home in a bid to catch his favourite TV programme. However, the biggest international surge in interest occurred after the screening of Jump London, in which the charismatic Foucan explained the background to Parkour while we watched in astonishment as he and his team of French “Traceurs” vaulted, somersaulted, and tumbled across the capital using some of the city’s most famous landmarks as their stepping stones.

Isn’t he ever afraid? “When I was younger, maybe,” he tells me. “When I didn’t know exactly my body, how I feel, I was less connected with me, you know, but now I know me. I know my limitations. If you give me a musical instrument and say, play, it’s impossible for me. But learning something step-by-step, a human being can achieve amazing things.” So does he have other interests outside of Parkour like Buddhism or meditation, I asked.

“Parkour is my meditation. But I also like Asian philosophy and martial art. I like Bruce Lee, Michael Jordan, Mohammed Ali, and Gandhi, and all these people and these things have influenced me. For me, it’s about how you can be efficient without destruction without doing bad things. It’s about doing good things that people can admire and that help them to do better.”

Noble ideals, but what does he think of the growing commercialisation of Parkour and its activities? The opposing camps argue that this growth towards the mainstream will either see Parkour blossom, or result in the death of its true meaning at the hands of corporate exploitation. Wary of the popularisation of their sport, some Parkouristes claim that this will destroy the community feeling they attribute to being part of what separates Parkour from other activities and makes it special. They fear the posers and fashion labels stepping in for a killing. They speak of the nightmare of Parkour becoming like skateboarding. Those involved in the commercialisation of the discipline claim that increased money in a sport is positive and that large companies supply equipment that would otherwise be unavailable, while consumers retain the right not to buy what’s on offer.

With its large teenage appeal and following, you can be sure that the economic pressures which drive brands to seek out new markets will inevitably squeeze more and more profits from Parkour like anything else from football to hip hop. It could also be argued that these activities still retain much of the special appeal for those who love them, but few would seriously claim that these interests and activities are ever left untainted by commercialism.

Sébastien Foucan: The Born Samurai

For many, the imminent release of a Parkour video game from Core Design is the beginning of a frenzy of media exploitation, and indeed, the concept of the game does seem remarkably opposed to the actual principles spirit behind Foucan and Belle’s original ideals. Do they themselves feel exploited?

Sébastien didn’t want to answer that question and I didn’t want to pursue the issue. Does he have an agent then, I asked him. “Yes, he said. Did he have an agent when the game was first presented to him as an idea? “No.” But he’s got an agent now! “Yes.” So what’s it like seeing himself in a video game? “To see my face in a video game as a kid would have been really funny. But now my daughter can play with me when I’m away, and for me, her Daddy, that’s very, very good.”

So what is it about him that makes him so giving, so willing to share his skills and experience with others, I wanted to know. “Because I love this!” was his reply. “When we were children, we were practising Parkour with love, fun, and a good feeling. We organised parties in the forest and each person brings their own food, and we cook with fire, and people play the guitar; it was peaceful. Nobody knows this, but I remember, and this is always in my mind.”

Yes, but is there anything in his growing up, in his family life, in the way they loved as a family, and dealt with each other, that makes him this very special spiritual person who wants to give? Is he the youngest of several children?

“No. I have five brothers and one sister, and me, I am the third. It’s a good question because lots of people all the time ask me about Parkour, Parkour, Parkour – but never about me or my family. My mother and father came to France from Guadeloupe. This is my roots. I have been there twice. I remember the rocks and the waterfalls and feeling like a big cat; a panther or a cheetah.”

“I read a lot of books. I’m interested in many things. I’m an artist, I practise oil painting. I don’t know. I remember when I was very young one day a woman telling me, ‘You have a special sensitivity to teach.’ When I was younger nobody teach me nothing. All the things I know now I learn by myself. You can learn from your mother, your father, your brothers, but the moment you appear out in the real world, real life is like a jungle. With my groups in the past, when we begin to split is when business come; when the media come; when show come; when the spectacle come, and you know, I felt very good before all that and now probably I try to get it back.”

For more information visit www.foucan.com. Or check out these links:

  • Sébastien Foucan
  • Parkour
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