Parkour kings of the urban jungle

NO SAFETY NET: ‘‘Traceur’’ Max Arshavsky in downtown Auckland.
NO SAFETY NET: ‘‘Traceur’’ Max Arshavsky in downtown Auckland.

Max Arshavsky doesn't walk down stairs, he slides along rails; he doesn't go around walls, he jumps over them - and he's not the only New Zealander who would make Spider-Man stop in his tracks.

Parkour, born in the streets of France, is the ultimate rebellion, an activity with no rules and - most importantly, say practitioners - no winners. It is the art of moving swiftly and fluidly through urban landscape, using ledges, branches, walls, railings and scaffolding to get from point A to B in the quickest time.

At night urban apartments and business buildings become playgrounds of the agile.

THRILL OF THE JUMP: ‘‘Traceur’’ Max Arshavsky in Auckland.
THRILL OF THE JUMP: ‘‘Traceur’’ Max Arshavsky in Auckland.

"The core of it is overcoming physical obstacles and there's no definition of how big an obstacle is per person. You look at something and find an obstacle yourself - whether a bench, a kerb, a tree...a thought," says Damien Puddle, managing director of New Zealand Parkour Association (NZPA).

Parkour devotees - known as traceurs, from the French verb "to trace" (as in a path) - are lured in by enthralling amateur YouTube footage highlighting "hardcore Parkour" practitioners. Online "fails" show wannabes collapsing against walls, flying over railings and crumpling through roofs while attempting tricky moves.

One of the cat-like shadows frequenting Auckland central at night belongs to property manager Arshavsky (don't worry; he signed something about not practising on his employer's buildings). The 22-year-old has been a traceur for more than eight years. "It's as dangerous as you make it. I've trained for ages and know my limits, it's about challenging yourself and there's a feeling of peace when I run," he says

Think of it like jazz: a traceur lets go of everything they know (tumbles and rolls replace notes and major chords) in favour of improvisation. The free-form nature is about adapting to your environment - the inability to do so creates potential danger although Puddle says traceurs value their safety, and the essence of the activity is not about the highest jump or the flashiest flip, but self-improvement.

Parkour has come a long way since the 1980s when Frenchman David Belle, inspired by his father's invention of the movement in military circles, developed the activity with a group of young men as a challenging way to navigate the sprawl of south Paris.

Its image of gutsy teens leaping from one high building to another was made popular through Hollywood movies (Casino Royale), music videos (David Guetta) and Nike advertisements (nearly every one). But the reality, says Puddle, is you don't have to be a buff Daniel Craig to take part.

Many are drawn to Parkour because of the sheer daredevilry as well as the physical fitness element - traceurs say they spend many hours conditioning their legs to make frog-like leaps and their upper bodies sharpened so they can effortlessly hang on walls like monkeys. But once they start, traceurs begin to approach the activity with a Zen-like mindset.

To overcome physical obstacles you need to understand and acknowledge them, learning to unpack any fears in your head. Says Puddle: "It's a development that goes beyond just being fitter, it trains your mind to see things differently and be creative."

At 15 years old Martini Miller's drug and alcohol abuse earned him the "troubled youth" tag, until the discovery of some YouTube videos led him to the world of Parkour which helped put his life back on track.

Learning how to have fun without taking mind-altering substances was a big turning point for Miller: "I was able to retain that joy I had as a child. Parkour is about exploring who you are and your limits. What helped me was the welcoming community and that the philosophy puts so much emphasis on overcoming obstacles in life."

The 24-year-old has just finished running New Zealand's first Parkour-based youth development initiative at a YMCA second-chance programme in Wellington. "All participants left with a deeper understanding of their environment and knowledge of how to interact safely with it. The initiative built up their self-confidence and life skills, giving them tools to overcome obstacles in everyday life."

The programme was a success, says Miller, because Parkour, as a non-traditional sport, makes it easier to engage with the disengaged. "It's about celebrating individual progress instead of progress determined by a team. It's entirely self-motivated. There's nobody telling you what you should be doing - you have to discover that yourself."

Miller is a strong advocate for the "forgotten article" of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child - "the right of children to play and engage in cultural activity".

"We all move. We all did it as children - we climbed, we jumped, we played with not a care in the world. This is about taking that, looking at it consciously and pushing ourselves in a controlled and safe manner to fully realise our potential."

Despite Puddle and Miller emphasising Parkour's non-competitive nature, it seems inevitable that its popularity, coupled with the show-off aspect of the internet, will take it down the same track as other extreme sports. It's something Parkour purists like Puddle want to avoid, and the aim behind NZPA is to keep kids from "just jumping from buildings because they saw something cool on the internet".

Earlier this year, American Justin Casquejo, 16, gave Parkour a badge of notoriety by sneaking past security at the new World Trade Center and scaling to the top. He followed this by posting photos of the view to social media, bragging about his bravery.

There have been deaths from Parkour - including Russian Pavel Kashin who attempted a backflip on a wall next to a 16-storey drop and lost his balance. In New Zealand neither police, St John nor ACC could confirm any Parkour-related major accidents. A spokesperson for ACC attributes this to injuries being minimal or people saying they had fallen over instead of specifically referencing Parkour.

Lawyer and academic John Miller says New Zealand is the best country in the world to practise Parkour due to our ACC rules. "This is why bungy jumping started in New Zealand, people can't get sued and you get covered for your injuries - people tend to get more adventurous. It's in our psyche. There's generally a spirit of adventure with our country."

ACC entitlements are revoked only if injuries are wilfully inflicted, says Miller, so Parkour is in the same category as skiing and motor-racing - a high risk activity but one covered nonetheless.

Arshavsky has clearly intertwined Parkour philosophy, perhaps subconsciously, into his own life. When he takes the Sunday Star-Times to a few of his favourite spots his driving is slightly erratic and he seems to judge each orange light the way he does urban obstacles - calculating the quickest way to get to the end goal and, narrowly, making it.

When we pull into a carpark he cuts off a driver who's about to turn. After some middle-finger, door-slamming abuse from the cut-off man, Arshavsky patiently explains: "I'm sorry, I thought you were hesitating."

Sunday Star Times