Vancouver's parkour stars leap buildings

Ideally suited for urban environments, the sport of freerunning combines the moves of Spider-Man with the skill of a gymnast

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      The James Bond movie Casino Royale stands out in the series for a couple of reasons: it’s the first 007 flick to star Daniel Craig, and it introduces the secret agent before he’s acquired his licence to kill. But it’s also become famous for something else entirely. Its opening chase scene has been embraced by the parkour community, as it’s one of the most vivid illustrations of the method of travelling through urban environments as quickly and efficiently as possible by leaping, climbing, running, and tumbling.

      Parkour (pronounced “par-KOOR”) isn’t just the stuff of Hollywood movies, though. Having originated in France, it’s gaining a growing and dedicated following around the globe. And it’s a scene that’s about to explode in Vancouver.

      “It’s the art of overcoming obstacles,” says René Scavington, an ardent local practitioner (known as a traceur) and founder of the Parkour B.C. online community, in an interview on Main Street. “It’s about learning to move from one place to another regardless of what’s in the way. There’s a small but international community that’s helping legitimize the sport—how to teach it and how to develop it.”

      Scavington is determined to develop the sport in his hometown of Vancouver. He’s hoping Hastings Park will have a dedicated parkour area. Parkour B.C. holds meet-ups every Sunday afternoon in different public spaces, from the Vancouver Art Gallery plaza to local parks. Along with Lucius Fairburn, Scavington founded Origins Parkour and Athletic Facility, the city’s first fitness centre geared to parkour training, which is set to open any day now. (It’s just awaiting licensing from the City of Vancouver.)

      The 10,000-square-foot space looks like a jungle gym for adults, complete with minibuildings and oversize staircases to scramble up and jump off, ledges to dangle from, benches to leap over, and metal bars to swing from. A skilled traceur in action looks like a cross between Spider-Man, a cat, and an Olympic gymnast.

      Of course, the stunt doubles in Casino Royale and other high-level traceurs go through rigorous training to be able to pull off such astonishing feats. In fact, parkour, which is also known as freerunning, has military roots.

      According to the World Freerunning Parkour Association, in the early 1900s a French naval officer named Georges Hébert designed a physical-training method using man-made obstacle courses to re-create the natural environment. His method became the basis for all French military training. French soldiers took their new discipline to Vietnam and described it as “le parcours du combattant”, the path of the warrior.

      A former French special-forces soldier who’d been in those Vietnamese jungles taught the discipline to his son, David Belle. He’s credited with taking his dad’s battle-ready moves and combining them with gymnastics and martial arts in his hometown of Lisses, just outside Paris, to form parkour as it’s known today.

      Once videos of Belle and his friends traversing housing projects in that town started to hit the Internet in the early 2000s, parkour took off around the world. Since he discovered it a decade ago, Scavington has travelled to the French capital as well as London, New York, Montreal, and other cities to learn more.

      Traceurs, he explains, train their bodies and minds to move about their environment in unique ways. For instance, instead of using a set of stairs to get from point A to point B, traceurs might leap or climb to the next level. To execute such moves without getting hurt, though, practitioners require conditioning that focuses on everything from improving balance to building muscular strength to practising plyometrics (explosive movements).

      “A lot of people think fitness is determined by how far you can run, but to me it’s really about how well you can move your body,” Scavington says. “For parkour, it helps if you learn to explore your body and move properly before you interact with structures.”

      Origins will be offering parkour classes of all types, including those for beginners and kids. Scavington sees the discipline as an ideal element of cross-training.

      “Like yoga, it has these principles of flow, but it also is a strength sport,” Scavington says. “Our classes are open to anyone. We’ve had interest from a lot of women who want to do something to empower themselves, something a little bit beyond yoga.”

      Vancouver actor Jordan Davis took up parkour about six years ago, once he found himself bored with lifting weights. He’s now working toward being a stuntman, and says he’s learned more about himself through parkour than through any other sport he’s practised.

      “As a beginner, I began to understand my body’s limitations and my mental barriers that could keep me from progressing,” Davis tells the Straight. “I find parkour can put your life into a peaceful perspective. The concentration, intensity, and respect for progression can be applied to every aspect of your life. A lot of the knowledge gained in parkour is applicable to many areas of life where people are stressed or lack motivation. In my eyes, parkour can help people in ways that they never knew.

      “It’s not for everyone,” he adds, “but you don’t really know what you’re capable of until you give it an effort.”

      In addition to the fitness component, Scavington says, self-expression is a big part of parkour.

      “Besides running, jumping, and climbing, all of a sudden you start to think ‘How else can I express myself?’ ” he says. “There’s a creative approach, a tricking side to it, where people find ways to go over structures and use their own style to put an exclamation point on it.

      “Some people find it intimidating, especially the stuff they see in movies,” he adds. “But to me, it’s just a very human thing to do.”