Parkour in the Olympics: Lessons from Agenda 2020 Action Sport Symposium
Recently I was invited to speak at the Agenda 2020 Action Sport Symposium at the University of Waikato. The symposium was hosted by Professors Holly Thorpe and Belinda Wheaton (who happen to be my PhD supervisors). You can watch the whole video here.
The focus of the event was on experiences and trends of action sports already in, heading to, or potentially heading towards Olympic inclusion. There were three panels representing these positions:
- Panel 1 – Lessons learned from past inclusion of action sports into the Olympic Games: Windsurfing, snowboarding, mountain biking and BMX
- Panel 2 – Tokyo 2020 and the inclusion of new sports: Surfing, skateboarding, and sport-climbing
- Panel 3 – Future Olympic Sports: Parkour, SUP (stand up paddleboarding), and kitesurfing
In addition to the above activities and their respective speakers, there was insight from Holly and Belinda on their IOC (International Olympic Committee) funded research on action sports and the Olympics, from NZ IOC member Barry Meister on the Olympic inclusion process, and from Jake Wilkins of the NZ Olympic Committee on some of NZ’s processes.
I don’t think my talk was anything special – writing this blog post actually came off the back of what I thought was a poor contribution – but I learned a great deal from the other speakers and gained a lot of insight into the IOC, the recognition process for international federations and the aftermath of Olympic exposure. So here, in addition to thoughts from various global community members and some thoughts from Scott Bass (see his original article on parkour being in the Olympics here – http://www.ampisound.com/featured/parkour-freerunning-olympic-sport/) is my run down on parkour in the Olympics.
- NZ Parkour differentiates between parkour and freerunning and has chosen (at present) to represent and govern – their understanding of – parkour only. However, in this blog post –except where stated – I will use the term ‘parkour’ as a blanket to term to describe all other generally used terms and their definitions.
- NZ Parkour and I personally are opposed to parkour competition at the present time. While I aim to lay out both sides of the debate and highlight things I learned from the symposium and community discussion surrounding in, I think it’s impossible for me not to be informed by my bias.
Parkour and Competition
Before we start talking about the potential or the desire for parkour to be in the Olympics or not, we first have to talk about competition in general. Let’s lay some groundwork:
Parkour IS Competitive
The first acknowledgement we have to make is that parkour is fiercely intra-competitive. At its core, parkour is all about self-improvement, so we must be continually striving to better ourselves – compete against our former selves if you will. That’s a given. Parkour is certainly competitive.
Parkour is NOT Competitive
The second acknowledgement we have to make is that parkour is not inherently inter-competitive. While we can look at – and experience first-hand – competitive characteristics within the founders, what they developed was not a codified competitive sport. That’s a given. Parkour is certainly not competitive.
Parkour is Evolving
As an academic doing insider research (my PhD topic is “Examining the development of parkour in New Zealand”), it’s been extremely enlightening, encouraging, and deflating all at the same time to learn that the history of parkour mirrors the history of many other action sports in numerous ways. While parkour is certainly different, we’re not as unique as we often think. We don’t have to look very hard to see that parkour is evolving all the time. One of the areas of evolution is in training and event formats, including competitive events. Parkour competition wasn’t a thing and now it is.
The global parkour community is clearly divided on the topic of competition. Below are some – for and against – competition articles, websites, and threads from various figureheads and groups in the community. As you’ll note, there are more anti-competitive than pro-competitive articles below (feel free to send any I’ve missed in my direction) but the existence and growing popularity of competitive formats suggest that there are many who are pro-competition. Things have progressed since the writing of some of these articles, so some arguments don’t necessarily stack up in the wake of recent history.
- Adam Dunlap – Should parkour be in the Olympics? Absolutely. Part 1 and Part 2
- Alex Pavlotski – Parkour and the link between competition and depression
- American Parkour Forums – Pro/Anti Discussion
- Inari (Kevin Mooney) – Competition in parkour: A question of why?
- Naïm Linconsolable – 5 good reasons not to participate in any parkour/freerunning championship or competition
- Parkour Lausanne – Competition
- Tom Coppola – Pro Parkour, Pro Competition
- WFPF – Competitions
The New Debate
Even though parkour is inherently non-competitive, parkour competitions now exist. If anybody states that parkour is NOT competitive in the face of growing awareness of parkour competition and popularity, then we enter into a debate over authenticity. What is the real parkour? Instead of going down that path, I suggest a new angle – is competition valuable for parkour?
Before speaking at the symposium I put a call out on the Parkour Research group on Facebook for any thoughts and opinions on the issue. It became clear from my own research, the corresponding group discussion, and subsequent discussions that the community has three different views:
- Pro-Competition, Anti-Olympic Inclusion
- Pro-Competition, Pro-Olympic Inclusion
I’ll summarise some of the community standpoints and include a few quotes. I haven’t sought permission from those quoted, so they will remain anonymous unless any of the speakers ask to be named.
The previously linked to articles are more comprehensive in their points against parkour competition, so I’ll just include the ones brought up within the Olympic debate.
- While parkour’s roots are over a hundred years old, the founders of parkour are still alive, still training, and their intention was never for parkour to be competitive. The communities that work more closely with the founders appear to hold to that – parkour competition being an oxymoron – ideal.
- Many practitioners around the world share that they got involved with parkour because of its non-competitive nature. It was refreshing to them because it wasn’t like the regulated sport they were either used to or turned off from. That means that many see competition as damaging to grass roots participation.
- “I don’t want my kids growing up with the idea that parkour is something you win.”
- Parkour practice is incredibly broad, so the creation of standardised competition is a limiting factor that may prevent people from exploring parkour in its true and fuller context. Competitions essentially define what parkour is and therefore what has value.
- “…you are defining accomplishment–you are defining what is ‘good’ and what should be trained.”
- Current competitions specifically highlight faster, longer, further, higher, etc. while seemingly ignoring slower, shorter, smaller, lower which can be equally if not more challenging and are ever present within parkour training. Parkour competition essentially forces us to have the previously avoided authenticity debate.
Pro-Competition, Anti-Olympic Inclusion*
- Parkour competitions are unrepresented internationally with the few competition organisers based primarily in North America. Parkour competition on a global stage (the Olympics) with lopsided representation would be a mistake.
- While progress is being made, there is no standardised competition format in parkour across competition organisers. Until parkour has the competitive pedigree of other action sports, it shouldn’t be on the world stage. Fast tracking parkour into the Olympics could potentially damage and misrepresent the sport.
- “If a solid and objective competition format is never reached then it should never be in the Olympics.”
Pro-Competition, Pro-Olympic Inclusion
- As a popular but still small scale action sport, the Olympic stage would provide a wonderful platform to share parkour with the world.
- “The coverage this would get parkour could be incredibly beneficial to the growth of the sport.”
- Olympic sport is the pinnacle of sporting competition and parkour is the essence of human movement potential so it’s really the most Olympic of possible sports.
- While there may be issues with parkour being in the Olympics, instead of putting it in the too hard basket or believing it could be negative, let’s iron out the issues and get it there eventually.
*And then there are those who are both for and against general parkour competition who believe the Olympics as a phenomenon are ultimately damaging and not the positive influence they claim to be and therefore we shouldn’t participate. See article on Olympic protests.
Parkour at the Olympics
All opinions aside, what do we need to know in terms of parkour and Olympic inclusion?
Discussions are taking place.
Only those who were at the discussions can say what actually took place, but various European parkour community figureheads met together with each other and the IOC in 2014 to discuss parkour.
Parkour is already being included in the Olympics
Parkour demonstrations and training opportunities have actually been at the Olympics already, though not in a competitive sense.
1. Lillehammer 2016
The Mouvement, in partnership with Ubisoft (makers of Assissins Creed), presented parkour to the IOC and to visitors at the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway in March 2016. See:
- Parkour in Lillehammer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmJ3W9-fSuQ
- Parkour at the 2016 Youth Olympics – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8V4wLL0SYII
- Ubisoft & Mouvement International, Lillehammer 2016 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSJYH6z5XjI
While it is my understanding that parkour was presented purely as a new activity for people to enjoy and not as a promotion for inclusion in the Olympic programme (from discussions with Mark Cooper, CE of the Mouvement), the videos above clearly show that parkour in the Olympics was certainly on people’s minds.
2. Rio 2016
Parkour featured in the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
There are a number of issues that present themselves when talking about parkour as an Olympic sport:
Does parkour have different expressions in the same way that swimming has different strokes, or are these different expressions actually different activities (i.e.parkour and freerunning) altogether? Likely there would still be one international federation governing both activities regardless of the outcome of this debate, but what it then opens up is whether there are multiple formats, subformats, etc.
What does a parkour competition look like? The two main formats so far are style and speed, playing on the different training expressions (or definitions) of parkour, with skill being another element within the NAPC and Apex International Competitions. There are clashes and crossovers with other existing and potential Olympic sports with all of these formats that may prevent or hamper Olympic inclusion. Broadly – gymnastics and obstacle course racing.
- Past and present freerunning competition formats resemble gymnastics floor routines but on hard cityscape type structures either outside on the real deal or indoors on primarily plywood. The extreme variety of movement styles present within freerunning make it all but impossible to create a standardised scoring system that accurately represents the skills and abilities of the various athletes and their styles like we have with gymnastics. When you boil it down, freerunning could be described as acrobatics in sequence which is already represented within gymnastics. While visually appealing, freerunning at present is basically sloppier gymnastics.
- Parkour competitions are easier to standardise if we take a pure ‘A to B as efficiently as possible’ definition – thus we get a timed race over obstacles or the Steeplechase on steroids. However, there are several different obstacle course race formats that stem from the same roots as parkour or are otherwise similar. They include:
- Ninja Warrior type competitions – In the later stages of these courses it becomes grip strength warrior and loses much of the varied parkour-esque obstacles and movement opportunities in favour of pure upper body strength. With sport-climbing being added to Tokyo 2020 (though future inclusion is not a given), this seems an unlikely format.
- OCR events – OCR or Obstacle Course Racing consists of your popular mud run events that have many different course lengths and cater to your weekend warrior fun runners to your elite CrossFit type training enthusiasts. Perhaps the most specific example of an OCR event like parkour would be…
- The obstacle run in the military pentathlon – Videos of these races are often shared around on social media. It consists of a 500m course with 20 standardised obstacles held on a lane based track not too different from an Olympic track but zigzagging back and forth. While having many similarities to parkour training it is a multisport event that includes swimming, throwing, shooting and cross country running. While it could be an Olympic event under the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM, i.e. Modern Pentathlon), it is exclusively for military personnel and not universally available. However, it sounds like the OCR community is specifically aiming to modify the military pentathlon with current OCR formats to create a new type of course. It is my understanding that the OCR community or at least Spartan Race (a private company) via the International Obstacle Racing Federation (IORF), are aiming to have OCR join the Olympic programme under modern pentathlon to avoid the challenge of recognising a new international federation.
Governing Body Issues
In order to have an event within the Olympic programme, an international federation must be recognised by the IOC. At present, parkour doesn’t have a universally recognised international federation. Instead (like skateboarding) we have three competing bodies:
- FIADD (Fédération Internationale des Arts Du Déplacement) based in the UK
- The Mouvement (Mouvement International du Parkour, Freerunning et L’art du Déplacement) based in the UK/France
- WFPF (World Freerunning & Parkour Federation) based in the USA
These three groups come from varying backgrounds, they all aim to cover all conceptualisations of the practice, but have different support structures and promote/explore parkour and freerunning in different ways. All of them lack unanimous support.
In fact, there are only a handful of national federations in the world that are even in a position to put their weight behind one of these entities. To my knowledge there are only five countries that have national governing bodies and even within these nations there are issues with how national federations are given recognition (please correct me if any of these details are incorrect):
- New Zealand – NZ Parkour is recognised by Sport NZ as the only national body for parkour in NZ, but it does not yet meet the requirements of Sport NZ’s investment framework which is the only recognition process in place. As mentioned NZ Parkour currently governs – their understanding of – parkour only.
- Australia – The Australian Sports Commission don’t recognise parkour as a sport, so the Australian Parkour Association cannot receive recognition (perhaps related to their non-competitive stance?), while at the same time they cannot seek charitable status like NZ Parkour has because the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission do recognise it as a sport. The APA currently governs – their understanding of – parkour only.
- United Kingdom – Parkour UK is an official member of the Sport and Recreation Alliance and independant of any other federation. Parkour UK use parkour as an umbrella term.
- Chinese Taipei (a.k.a Taiwan) – To my knowledge, the Chinese Taipei Parkour Association are an independent body, but I don’t know if they have government recognition.
- Sweden – Parkour and Tricking Sweden is a national body within the Swedish Gymnastics Federation and supported by the Swedish Sports Confederation. PKTR Sweden use parkour as an umbrella term and specifically include tricking as well.
- Norway – Freerunning is part of the Royal Dutch Gymnastics Union (KNGU)
- I’ve also been informed that Malaysia (through a Ninja Warrior like obstacle course racing federation), Indonesia (sport for all federation), and France (via their athletics federation) also have national parkour organisations in some capacity.
As we can see, the broadness of parkour training has caused parkour organisations in varying countries to be independent, align itself with gymnastics, obstacle course racing, or athletics and to define and govern parkour differently.
Who would lead?
I don’t fully understand all of the recognition processes with the IOC, but it seems that we have a chicken/egg scenario where some national bodies can’t get recognition without an international body, but the international body can’t get recognition without a certain number of affiliated national bodies. With the various affiliations outlined above, we seem to have an even messier situation on our hands as we talk about Olympic inclusion, especially if we start talking about international and national funding.
If one of the current international parkour federations were somehow to get recognition with the IOC even with the current state of the various national body alignments, would the national federations in each country currently aligned to another body have to change their local situation in order to receive IOC funding?
As I understand it, Parkour UK, the APA and NZ Parkour are all staunchly opposed to gymnastic inclusion in their nations, because parkour isn’t gymnastics. However, we have parkour affiliated to gymnastics in two of the above nations. If this were to happen in enough nations, parkour could potentially be included under the International Gymnastics Federation in the Olympics. That may force the independent or otherwise aligned national bodies to change their situation to be involved or even to continue to receive funding from their national government sporting agency.
I spoke (via video conference) at a congress in Paris held by the Mouvement in July about NZ Parkour’s organisational and parkour in schools experience. There I learned that in Sweden, an OCR organisation approached the Swedish Sports Confederation for recognition but were denied because the competition format “timed obstacle course race” was the same format already recorded for parkour within Parkour and Tricking Sweden. This is perhaps one of the catalysts for the OCR shift towards modern pentathlon – there was an article about the Swedish Obstacle League looking to adapt the military pentathlon, but at the time of writing this the website is undergoing maintenance.
Lessons from previous and new Olympic Action Sports
You can watch the video for all the NZ based insights, but here’s my attempt at a
summary hodgepodge of information.
- Most action sports were or are divided on competition and Olympic competition.
- The new Tokyo 2020 sports are only being included in the 2020 Olympics and have no official recognition beyond that. They also won’t receive any funding like the other recognised federations do. It very much seems like a case of
- The IOC gives funding to the international federations that they recognise, that money is then passed from the international federation to the national ones and then onto their respective codes. This has created issues in New Zealand with windsurfing (under Yachting NZ / World Sailing in the Olympics), BMX and mountain biking (under Cycling NZ / International Cycling Union in the Olympics) despite all three of them having their own specific national and international governing bodies. The money given to the national bodies gets given either entirely or primarily to the sports that they deem more deserving or appropriate. This sees track and road cycling in NZ get more funding than the action sports and all the other sailing codes trump windsurfing, even though windsurfing has contributed more Olympic medals to NZ’s tally than all other sailing codes combined since its inclusion in the Olympics.
- While I don’t know the exact figures, there aren’t a lot of national skateboarding federations, but there are enough for the IOC who are buddies with the International Roller Sport Federation (who have until Tokyo 2020, NOTHING to do with skateboarding), to include skateboarding under their banner. The head of the International Skateboarding Federation is apparently heading up the work at the Roller Sport Federation seeing as they know nothing about skateboarding, but the ISF are also currently being sued – apparently – by the World Skateboarding Federation over the whole situation.
- Global snowboarding numbers are apparently in decline. Has it become too mainstream? The curse of the Olympics?
- The Olympic format of sport-climbing is forcing changes on the way sport-climbers train. Bouldering, speed climbing, and lead climbing are the three sport-climbing disciplines. Athletes typically specialise in one of these areas, but at Tokyo 2020 athletes will be required to participate in all three where the scores of each event will be added together to get the winner.
- While Olympic competition format and equipment is certainly a source of contention within the different action sports communities (another example is that the windsurfing board used in the Olympics is not a typical board used by most recreational windsurfers), none of the NZ bodies seemed to be concerned with the competition format seriously harming the future of the activity in the way some anti-competition proponents within parkour are.
- Despite the various negative situations highlighted, the new bodies are excited about their inclusion and the potential opportunities it provides their athletes and ultimately their sports and the existing bodies don’t appear to want to leave the Olympics.
- The IOC inclusion process is extremely rigorous.
So there you go. Watch the video. Follow the links. Read the supplementary information.
Could parkour be in the Olympics? Yes.
Will it be in the Olympics? Hard to say. There’s a long and rigorous process with some very messy situations that could hamper or even prevent it from becoming an Olympic event.
Would I watch it if it was in the Olympics? Probably. Even though I’m against parkour competitions I still enjoy watching people move.
Should it be in the Olympics? This I think is the most important question. With everything I’ve learned, I can’t see how parkour’s inclusion within the Olympics would ultimately benefit the sport.
Regardless of what happens, both non-competitive and competitive parkour formats are likely here to stay. Since starting parkour and stopping my major involvement in previous sport (primarily rugby) I’ve become less competitive and see the benefits of collaboration over competition. I believe that advocates for and against parkour competition need to continue to have dialogue with each other to ensure parkours spirit, generally inclusive nature, and in-depth training experiences are preserved.