Scaling the Skyline

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.

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