Why Freerunning is not an Olympic Sport

With the recent announcement that a number of traditionally ‘lifestyle’ sports have been accepted into the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, there have been some discussions within the community about the potential that Parkour may one day ‘finally’ be part of the games.

The biggest comparison we have right now is skateboarding, which has a history of large competitions and events over its last forty-something years. Now with skateboarding, competitions are judged in a similar system to the current ‘Art of Motion’ competitions. In effect, athletes perform timed runs on a course where they are free to display their skills and abilities, and then a panel of judges award scores and medals accordingly. Its a scoring system that is closest to gymnastics, which while being more rigid in its methods, is an established olympic sport and has a historically defined scoring system.

The community has only just recently had outcry about the flaws with a scoring system like this however. For the sake of the ‘Art of Motion’ competition, lets assume that here we are talking about freerunning and not parkour. I hope I dont need to go into detail about the differences here, but for the uninitiated here is my brief and basic definition.

Parkour

A method of training for effective or efficient movement, as a way to overcome obstacles and challenges within an environment.

Free Running

An application and fusion of existing techniques and methods, namely parkour, breakdancing, tricking etc with the goal to create or practice aesthetic or innovative movement.

How have freerunning competitions worked?

With the ‘Art of Motion’ contest we faced an issue where in one athlete’s qualifier video, he significantly outperformed others in some areas, but due to the way the scoring system is set up, he did not gain entry to the competition. In my personal opinion, the AoM events are skewed towards the more dance orientated, performance aspect of freerunning. With major sponsors so far only supporting this style of contests, we as a community really only have working proof of one element of competition within freerunning (although with recent speed comps, this is beginning to change)

Perform various flips off walls, throw in a precision and some spinning, and you have most AoM runs. Even real innovators like Pasha, or the technical monsters like DK, we’re still at something that is basically gymnastics on walls. As we have recently seen, no scoring system can accurately represent the skills and abilities of the various athletes and styles in freerunning.

I’ve personally worked at and supported the AoM events before, and while I think its a bit of fun and it has clearly influenced freerunning in a way I feel is a net positive, I don’t believe it is the strongest representation of what parkour or freerunning should be. As a general trend in freerunning, people are sacrificing covering distance or using the environment in exchange to fit more tricks into succession. This results in short runs that generally rely on going down a course in a series of moves.

red bull art of motion freerunning competition
‘Art of Motion’ competition in Vienna

 

How have parkour competitions worked?

Comparatively, parkour is focused on the moving across an environment as fast as possible. When it comes to the olympics, we’re looking at the ‘Steeplechase’ as our nearest cousin. Its a track and field event and has 20+ hurdles and a series of jumps with water. It is effectively an endurance event, with obstacles. Within parkour itself, the closest thing we have to a proven, scaled speed competition is ‘Ninja Warrior’.

The format for NW is similar to the steeplechase, but instead of being a about endurance through distance, its endurance through physical stress and technical challenges. Ninja Warrior particularly focuses on arm strength in its later stages, and rock climbers and parkour athletes are most favoured for success across these skills.

Finally there have been a handful of ‘head to head’ speed contests, where two or more athletes race against each other (but ultimately against the clock) to beat a course the fastest. With something like the olympics, the only metric I feel is sensible to be awarded world encompassing medals for is one that is absolute, and the only absolute metric we can use to measure parkour ability is time.

ninja warrior course
Ninja Warrior

So parkour, or freerunning for the Olympics?

With AoM, we run into some of the problems already discussed. The competitive format still needs some work, especially considering how various the styles within freerunning are. The bigger issue at hand is that, at its core, an AoM style competition boils down to acrobatics in sequence.

The olympics already has sports just like this. Gymnastics, Rhythmic Gymnastics, Synchronised Swimming etc. Why would we want to push freerunning to the olympics, when its generally a sloppier version of gymnastics?

If you go down the Ninja Warrior route, you end up at what is effectively horizontal ‘sport climbing’ in the later stages. Its not truly representative of parkour to have people shimmying along on rings or finger grips, because while those are elements of parkour training, we borrow them from climbing ultimately.

So to represent parkour in the olympics, we must push the aspects that parkour truly is unique for. In effect, is a steeplechase event that is shorter and more intense, but the skills involved are without doubt more developed and unique.

Steeplechase at the 2012 London Olympics
Steeplechase at the 2012 London Olympics

How could the format look?

So lets assume we work with an obstacle course, where athletes compete for the fastest time. Now begins the most challenging health and safety brief the olympics would likely ever see. To truly represent parkour abilities, a course cant rely on crash mats or padding on any element an athlete might need to use. So even if there are mats below some jumps, we still need to rely on wood, concrete or metal for all the ‘in play’ elements of a course. I don’t know enough about this subject to do anything more than speculate, but the last thing we want as a community is a ‘kids version’ style of course that doesn’t accurately represent the parkour skills.

An option I would propose would be a set of 20-30 obstacles which can be ordered differently each year, but require a similar set of skills and abilities to overcome. The issue here is that we are specifically directing which movements to be used to overcome them, which goes against a different part of the parkour philosophy, but may be a required sacrifice for the sake of fairness in a grander scheme.

For example, imagine a 150m course, scattered with serious parkour obstacles that require a full repertoire of movements to navigate effectively; these might include jumps at height, rail jumps, laches, armjumps, 180s, etc. We may finally be onto something. There are examples of successful competitive formats like this already, chiefly the firefighters games, which has almost all these elements just with some ladder usage thrown in. In terms of format, this is the one I feel would be most successful for the Olympics. A repeatable model, an unbiased metric for success and a distance that allows for both endurance and speed to be important.

So how could it actually get into the olympics?

I believe at present there are three conflicting parties trying to gain ‘worldwide governing body’ recognition within parkour and freerunning. To be in the olympics, you need to be in Sport Accord, which is what these groups are trying to get recognition from. There is FIADD, based in the UK and with ties to parkour generations, the WFPF, based in the USA with ties to MTV and the media industry and the Mouvement, apparently from Lisses, France. In my personal opinion, none of these groups has has the unbiased understanding of parkour culture to truly govern it. WFPF tends to lean towards performance and its founders are not practitioners, FIADD / ParkourGen tend to lean towards a lot of regimented fitness training (and is generally made up of the old yamakasi members), while the Mouvement seem inactive at present. If I could choose someone in the community to take charge, it would be Apex Parkour or Jump Freerun, but thats just my opinion.

For Parkour to get to the olympics, one of these groups (or a third party, or a collaboration between them) would first need to get approval to be the worldwide body to represent it at the olympics. Bear this in mind when you hear about people wishing parkour to be in the olympics, as we have found with some existing scenarios, regulation of teaching and governing bodies are not always positive to the actual core community. It’s an interesting thing because some of the people I see talking about this the most, are ones that have traditionally opposed the free running mindset and are aligned toward the traditional french attitude to training.

What we do know, is that Parkour is on the radar. It showed up in the Rio opening ceremony, with a large display as pictured below.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 5: Illustration of the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics at Maracana Stadium on August 5, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – AUGUST 5: Illustration of the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics at Maracana Stadium on August 5, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

My personal opinion

I personally feel that parkour as an olympic sport is a long ways off. We as a community have a lot of work to do, moving the common competitive nature towards a speed based obstacle course, instead of the current opinion based performance attitude we have previously used. Parkour traditionally is a non-competitive practice, and if you follow the very french attitude, its more about being strong and having particular skills, than being purely fast and applying them over a short distance.

With all these different definitions of parkour, the only way I can see to fairly represent it in an olympic event or otherwise is by demonstrating its most unique elements. To this end, overcoming obstacles effectively and rapidly. I don’t think we will see it in the olympics anytime soon, but maybe eventually, we will.

What happens next?

Keep an eye on what the ‘parkour organizations’ are doing. We are still in a land grab stage where different organizations are vying for ultimate control of parkour and how it will be developed over the next fifty years. The initial boom of parkour has been and gone, and now its up to the community to direct where it will go next. For some interesting further reading, see what happened with how skateboarding got into the olympics and the similar problems they encountered as a community.

13 comments on “Why Freerunning is not an Olympic Sport

  1. Just out of curiosity: What’s your thoughts on the format used by the Sports Parkour League and how would you think that could fit into a future Olympic event?

    • I haven’t experienced the format first hand, but i think their speed methods are very interesting. I don’t like the ‘big move’ category for style, I understand what they were getting at but the outward impression is worrying. ‘Best trick’ makes me think of jesse la flairs ‘lunar eclipse’ move more than a 20ft gainer height drop. If you’re doing a style contest I think setting the category of ‘big’ as the criteria of a single move is a bad idea.

      • I see what you mean, but you can’t deny that triple cork off drop Zen Shimada pulled off last year was pretty dope though! 😀
        Back on topic: You might or might not agree, but I think having separate speed and style based sub-categories and judged in a format similar to what they did, awarding separate medals for each, might well be the best way for an Olympic style event that best represents all aspects of the movement. Other Olympic sports already does this so parkour and freerunning needn’t be any different in this respect right? But then again I haven’t attended/experienced all that many events so I might just be talking a load of nonsense :p

        • In respect to the speed or style being split, I address that point above with the notion that the olympics already has many gymnastic events. Freerunning would just be seen as a lesser version of this to the world, whereas parkour would obviously be using its most unique elements (high level obstacle technique) that no other olympic sport currently has.

          • But then again, I suppose one can also argue that freerunning competitions have a sense of “realness” not found gymnastics competitions. By that I mean being done out on the concrete without the aid of sprung floor and crash mats, and athletes using improvised movement over a series of obstacles that aren’t pre-defined like the gymnastics apparatus. There’s also the fact that whilst many tricks are interchangeable between the two sports, many are also wholly unique to freerunning. I’m sure that makes it unique enough for many.

  2. To me, park our always had an element of the traceurs interaction and interpretation of the environment. It would be a challenge to incorporate that individuality into a tightly constrained obstacle course.
    It will be interesting to see how this develops.

    • Exactly, this is the problem with having a set lot of obstacles etc. Its a tradeoff between fairness and replication, and a core value of parkour…

  3. I think this is a great article for anaylsis of competition in parkour for the olympics, as it sets out to do.

    But it doesn’t deal with the questions of ‘do we want parkour to be in the olympics’ (my view: STRONG NO), or make the argument that ‘it is going to be in the olympics anyway, may as well try and influence it to be good’ (but you think it is a way off being close). That may be too much to deal with in this post, as it’s a different issue to the above, but you don’t even allude to these questions – instead, it seems like it’s assumed that it should be.

    • My point for the article is that freerunning should never be an olympic sport, but I think Parkour could be. If it was, I would absolutely watch it!

  4. I agree with what you say. I like to think of myself as being a traceur as I enjoy parkour and the efficiency and speed of it all. But I have watched many AoM competitions and I can say that sadly I also believe that competitions that involve free running are biased towards the whole gymnastics/dance side of free running. Let me put it this way, who gives the score? Judges. And who are judges? Humans. And humans, I believe, like to see the amount of flips and dance moves you can do in quick succession.

    Now onto parkour. Personally, I don’t want it to be in the Olympics as this brings competition, which I don’t believe in. But we can say it is more likely going to be in the Olympics than free since we can say that it is better defined than free running due to most people (who see the difference between parkour and free running), see parkour as efficiency whilst free running has a wider variety of meanings. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that parkour is very diverse, but I feel as though parkour has a better definition and is more concise than free running. As well as the fact that within parkour, it is more easier to use an actual method of judging it than parkour being based on human perception. But there is another problem. We use the environment to do parkour, so to put it into a small building compared to the outside world, and doing an 150 metre time trial would be one heck of a challenge.

    Finally, in my own opinion, I believe that to put free running into the Olympics would be kinda useless as it will turn into a dance/gymnastics competition. However, parkour can be implemented within the Olympics which makes this sport turn a bit competitive, even though it can bring more practitioners together. Also, there is the challenge of compressing parkour into such a small space which will be very difficult to do. But if it happens, so be it. I would 100% be down to watch it, even though I wouldn’t totally agree with it. But hey, parkour’s parkour right!

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