A traceur, or parkour athlete, suspends himself from scaffolding around a building in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. While pushing the body and mind’s limitations is a key tenant of parkour, taking extreme risks for the sake of performance is traditionally considered counter to the discipline.
In the early 1900s, a French naval lieutenant was inspired by communities abroad to create a physical training plan focused on moving smoothly and efficiently through the available environment, all in the service of others. He called it “the natural method,” and it became the foundation of the obstacle training used by the French special forces in the 1950s—known as parcours du combatant. In the 1980s, a French teenager named David Belle learned the discipline from his father, a veteran and fireman. Along with a small group of friends, Belle shaped the sport into what it is now and named it parkour in the late 1990s.
Over the years, parkour—and freerunning, a variation of the sport—has evolved, shifting with each new generation of participants. Some traceurs, or parkour athletes, are traditionalists and believe the root of the sport is the seamless action of moving from one location to another. Others prefer to spice up their movements with flips and spins, using the activity as a form of artistic and physical expression. Certain groups hold competitions, while others feel competition conflicts with the original goals of the discipline. Nearly all athletes embrace the method’s mantras of self-improvement and harnessing the power of your own body and mind.
Critics of parkour say it can be dangerous for participants, encourage trespassing, and cause damage to property. Over the years, multiple people have died while attempting perilous stunts, like jumping from roof to roof or climbing on high ledges and rails. Despite the controversy and risks, the United Kingdom has officially recognized the sport and it continues to grow internationally—aided by social media likes and YouTube views.
- Nat Geo Expeditions