Surfing has films, skateboarding has VHS tapes, and parkour has the internet. After a few clips of David Belle leaping around the French suburbs made their way to the internet, a sport was accidentally born. New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson explains how parkour managed to be the first sport to go viral.
If you saw the opening scene of the most recent James Bond movie, Casino Royale, you may have unknowingly been introduced to what some are calling a new sport - Parkour. It's a sort of freestyle acrobatics or gymnastics, only the apparatus is ordinary urban architecture.
The most adventurous devotees seem to defy gravity, running up against vertical walls, flipping over handrails, leaping, almost flying from rooftop to rooftop.
While skateboarding and snowboarding had their underground VHS tapes to help capture a broader following, Parkour may be the first sport made popular entirely via the Internet. Its origins can be traced to one man in the French suburbs, David Belle, who had no intention of popularizing anything.
A couple of clips of Belle were posted on the Web, and soon aspiring youngsters were posting their own clips and meeting online to form their own Parkour clans everywhere from Lithuania to Japan.
New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson made a pilgrimage to Paris to talk with Parkour's patriarch, and he says the mythic tales Belle heard about his acrobatic fireman father stamped his destiny. ALEC WILKINSON: All the stories that he heard about his father were sort of hero stories, Superman stories and Tarzan stories. David wanted to be Spiderman and so he really literally devised ways of swinging from tree to tree and jumping over rocks and climbing up walls and leaping from one stairwell to another.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, because it is so breathtaking to watch, and it's stunning video, it is just made to order for the YouTube world, eh? ALEC WILKINSON: Yes. I can't think of a circumstance like it, in which a completely private activity engaged in by a solitary person, with his friends, became something which spread around the world. Of course, it's all and entirely because of the Internet. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you mentioned that David had dreamed of being [LAUGHING] Spiderman. ALEC WILKINSON: Yes. BOB GARFIELD: Do I understand that he actually had the opportunity to be Spiderman? ALEC WILKINSON: He did. He did. He was offered the role, I think, for Spiderman III, of being the body double, as it were. It had been his childhood ambition, really, to be that kind of figure. In the end, though, he finally turned this opportunity down because he had come to feel sufficiently committed to pursuing his own performance of Parkour.
He reminds me of what I have heard and read about the figure of Charlie Parker. He seems committed entirely to what he is doing. He doesn't seem to be one of those people who sees necessarily choices between engagement with the world or disengagement. He simply really wants to do Parkour.
He'd like to bring it himself to as many people as possible by means of performances and shows, but he's not sufficiently ambitious to really figure out a way to make it happen. Before he does, I suspect someone else will figure out how to popularize it.
Certainly the man who was in Casino Royale, Sebastian Foucon, has stolen the march on him a little bit. And it's one of the reasons they no longer speak.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, it's clear that, much like the videos, the sport itself has gone viral. People all over the world are doing Parkour. ALEC WILKINSON: Yeah. BOB GARFIELD: Does David Belle feel that he has - does he feel he's lost control of his invention? ALEC WILKINSON: I would think no because, again, he is so revered that, you know, in other parts of the world there are right now arguments going on about whether or not David Belle would approve of that maneuver. You know, here's a new thing I'm trying. Well, that's not Parkour, man. Dude, that's not Parkour - very heated, vehement kind of website exchanges. So I don't think he probably feels he's lost control.
I think it may happen once marketers really get hold of it - you know, once Nike really figures out how to build a Parkour shoe. BOB GARFIELD: One more thing. As a former bored adolescent, I can say that I've invented, you know, probably a half a dozen sports myself - ALEC WILKINSON: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: - including my beloved sock golf, which is played with a couple of balled-up [LAUGHS] socks and a trash can, indoors or outdoors. Do they have any chance to go viral, or do they have to be just breathtaking to witness in order for [LAUGHS] this phenomenon to play out? ALEC WILKINSON: Well, I'm sure it has a lot to do with the dramatic impact. And you alluded to it before - it's so spectacular to see. And I cannot myself watch any of these films of Belle, as many times as I have, without my hands and feet breaking into a sweat. It's a little like watching Macbeth and sort of wanting to yell out from the audience, no, don't do it.
It seems to me it was like hearing the Beatles for the first time. It was so different from everything else. It had so much vitality.
To the kid who is wired to receive this kind of particular electronic charge through the screen of his computer, I think it's all but irresistible. And it plays on those adolescent themes of superheroes and fantasies and having a response for life that seems larger than life, when, in fact, adolescence is all about being utterly sort of terrified of life around you. BOB GARFIELD: Alec, thank you so much for joining us. ALEC WILKINSON: Thank you very much, my pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: And, you know, when you get ready to do 7,000 words on sock golf, you just give me a holler. ALEC WILKINSON: I'll go to the source.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Alec Wilkinson is a writer for The New Yorker. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited, this week, pretty much by me. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Madeleine Elish and Andrya Ambro. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Bob Garfield. [MUSIC TAG]