Commercial Pressures

A few months ago I wrote a deliberately provocative article about the inevitable commercialisation of parkour. This polemic was intended to get a response and I was somewhat reassured by the number of people who got in touch via social media and otherwise to offer words of thanks for crystallising a feeling amongst the parkour community that is rarely articulated.

For some, it was perhaps uncomfortable reading and for that I feel a little guilty. I would like to re-emphasise the first paragraph: turning down morally questionable money that offers fame, progression and adventure would be very difficult if it were presented to me. In addition to this, I’d like to add that railing against this trend is not in my interests. By being difficult, I risk cutting myself off from friends and cohorts whose skills and abilities I value. I hope that whatever you feel about the article, the risk I’m taking can be appreciated.

A few people picked me up on the suggestion that parkour and freerunning are two different things and I felt that a response was needed. For me, parkour and freerunning are identical and yet entirely different. They can be both at the same time, an ambiguity that I think is part of the movement’s nature. These labels are not fixed; they are contradictory, in the same way that a subculture that offers freedom can also give itself to commercialisation and institutionalisation. Or a photographer that sells the spectacular before criticising those who perform such spectacles. (The irony is certainly not lost on me.) Such inconsistencies are part of parkour’s nature.

What interests me at present is the notion that, in response to being co-opted by commercialisation and mediatisation, parkour has developed a mechanism to retain its authenticity: it has created a part of itself that is a commodity and developed a separate identity for it, whilst the non-representational aspects – ie, the spirit, the humility, the daily training in the rain – remain pure and, in a way, untouched. It means that there is something for traceurs and freerunners alike.

It’s a theory – one that might not stand up to scrutiny – and your thoughts would be very welcome. Please get in touch.

Below is the original article, first published here on the Parkour Generations website.

Spectacle and spirit; parkour needs better sponsors

My position on energy drinks is not something I’ve kept quiet about. Before I get started, understand this: if I were a top-level athlete and an energy drink came knocking, I would have a really hard time turning them down. This makes me sad. Hopefully this confession of hypocrisy will give you an understanding that I appreciate the difficulty that energy drink sponsorship creates. Now that’s out of the way, hear this.

Every athlete who does any work for an energy drink company knows in his/her heart that the product is toxic. Just like beer and deep-fried Mars bars, energy drinks are simply not part of the diet of a high-performing athlete.

The beauty of parkour is that it requires nothing. The flip side of this is that parkour can be used to sell pretty much anything.

It’s widely reported that sponsored athletes seen on screen sipping from a can are often drinking water. There’s a reason why there are virtually no Olympic level athletes receiving sponsorship: both the companies and the athletes know this stuff is not good.

Sponsorship and commercialisation is inevitable. The authenticity of parkour – the pure, alternative, liberating power of our subculture – is often damaged when money becomes involved. This is unavoidable: in our neoliberal world, commercialisation is par for the course. However. The least that communities and individuals can do is try to choose companies that produce something beneficial towards parkour, health, or being physical. The beauty of parkour is that it requires nothing. The flip side of this is that parkour can be used to sell pretty much anything. By comparison, the climbing community is supported by a wealth of progressive companies engineering fantastic products and funding athletes, events and expeditions around the world. It’s a healthy symbiosis.

If you associate yourself with an energy drink or a casino, all of your inspirational words of wisdom regarding health, training, diet and philosophy are meaningless.

If there is a compromise to be made when choosing our path, then surely it should be towards something neutral – not something negative. Any degree of commercialisation entails a compromise of ethics and authenticity; we need to be more aggressive in deciding where we draw the line. And here’s why. If you associate yourself with an energy drink or a casino, all of your inspirational words of wisdom regarding health, training, diet and philosophy are meaningless. It’s not just that you sold out; you sold out to a product that you know undermines the healthy body/healthy mind mentality of a traceur.

Energy drinks have bought lifestyle sports. The two are almost inseparable. These companies have created incredible events and sponsored athletes have pushed the limits of human capacity. Why? Because it taps into a youth market, and there is no way that these products can be marketed to children based on what it contains. The sugary, caffeinated water topped up with questionable chemicals is not the product. It’s all about the brand.

There’s a part of me that sees parkour and freerunning as two distinct things; the first is a global community that trains not for the camera or a social media presence, but for itself. By contrast, freerunning is what we see selling beer, energy drinks and online casinos, with high fives and shouts of ‘bam!’ after nailing an extra twist into a sandpit landing and a sketchy, one-handed recovery cartwheel.

Parkour remains pure and authentic thanks to a vast, often silent majority. You can’t properly convey spirit and humility through YouTube and Facebook, and the subtlety of a showreel will never convey that the landing on this catpass-pre is unsighted and therefore terrifying. Parkour keeps its head down, quietly teaching, training, travelling and finding adventure. By contrast, freerunning, parkour’s brash, noisy brother, has sold a huge chunk of itself to the bright lights and boy, does it make it a lot of noise.

The spectacle is on sale. The spirit we keep for ourselves.