Ferret sprints toward a railing overlooking a staircase in the concrete playground behind the College Park condominium and shopping complex in downtown Toronto. He vaults over the railing onto a landing about eight feet below, dropping into a squat as lightly as a cat. Then he leaps up, leans over the next railing, grasps its thin black bars to his chest, and in one fluid, breathtaking move leans forward and flips over onto the concrete another eight feet below. Without pausing for breath, he tears away as if pursued by rabid pit bulls.
A skinny guy with a shaved head, Ferret -- a 22-year-old network administrator whose real name is Ben Wastle -- is a diehard practitioner of parkour. To the sport's devotees, known at traceurs, cities are giant obstacle courses. Railings, ramps, fences, and rooftops are all fair game. The goal is to connect several moves in a fluid, unbroken string while running as if your life depends on it. This show of urban athletics and its close cousin, free running (a more flexible style that includes nonprogressive moves such as grabs and flips) are taking over the streets and alleyways of cities all over the world.
Along with being a seriously intense workout, parkour is also a hands-on, down 'n' dirty way to see the urban landscape. Ask any traceur and, since most are males in their late teens and early twenties, he will tell you parkour has changed his relationship with the city he lives in. 'Parkour has opened most people's eyes to the vast array of creative architecture and buildings we have in Toronto,' says 23-year-old Dan 'Danno' Iaboni, one of Ferret's parkour buddies. 'It's also given us insight into the way urban planners think. We can actually call this our home because we've explored the whole thing.'
While parkour can be dangerous, it isn't reckless or random. Every situation is carefully assessed, each move executed with precision and an awareness of the laws of physics. It isn't about being flashy. It's about curiosity and seeing possibilities -- looking at a lamppost or bus shelter as an extension of the sidewalk. 'You can be out of shape and nonathletic, but that's OK because the basics of parkour are so simple,' says Danno. 'Running, jumping, rolling, balancing. You just limit yourself at the beginning to smaller obstacles. As long as you keep moving, that's all that matters.'
Like martial arts, parkour is a discipline, a means of self-discovery and self-improvement. Aesthetics is as important as agility. It's not enough to pull off a move-traceurs try to do it with grace, originality, and style. 'It's all about confidence, conquering fears, and achieving flow,' says Alex 'Wolfbeta' Tsiboulski, 19. (The Internet played a major role in the spread of parkour, and traceurs use their online handles even on the street.)
With groups in Germany, Australia, Croatia, Portugal, and Japan, parkour has become a global phenomenon. And it all started in the '80s, when David Belle and Sebastien Foucan were teens tearing around the suburbs of Paris and came up with the name parkour, after parcours du combattant, the obstacle courses of the French military (Belle's father was a soldier). Interest in the activity exploded in 2003 with the release of the British documentary Jump London, which stars Foucan, who is now in his early 30s.
As the sport's popularity has grown, corporations have come calling to cash in on its appeal to youth. There is already a parkour video game available for the PlayStation and, much like skateboarding, parkour has a sellable image and has already been used to promote Toyota, Siemens mobile phones, and Merrell shoes in Europe. In fact, the media often describe parkour as 'skateboarding without a skateboard,' an analogy that disgusts many traceurs. They distance themselves from the flashy flips, grabs, and 'sick tricks' that are integral to skateboarding (Danno calls these moves 'wasted motion'). After all, parkour may be about reclaiming the city streets, but it's done without leaving a mark.
Excerpted from This Magazine (May/June 2005), a political magazine published in Toronto. Subscriptions: $24.99/yr. Canadian, $35/yr. U.S. (6 issues) from 401 Richmond St. W. #396, Toronto, ON, M5V 3A8; www.thismagazine.ca.