Parkour was never meant for competition. At least that’s the opinion of the discipline’s purist advocates. They maintain that ever since David Belle began filming his training sessions in France, motivations such as efficiency of movement and a sense of community have served as the proper pursuits of traceurs — not vanquishing an opponent. “One of parkour’s core tenets is that it is non-competitive,” writes Alan Schexnayder of FlipYeahParkour.com. “It’s never been competitive; when competition is added, parkour becomes nothing more than a glorified form of street acrobatics.”
But a growing number of television shows and competitive events seek to change that historical spirit. The World Freerunning & Parkour Federation (WFPF) sanctions events around the world, energy drink magnate Red Bull brings 18 of the world’s top freerunners together for the Art of Motion in Santorini, Greece on Sept. 14, and NBC’s American Ninja Warrior put the athletes in front of nearly 6 million viewers in its fifth season.
Ryan Doyle thinks competition offers benefits. The Liverpool, England native became one of the first professional freerunners when he signed with Red Bull in 2007. Since then, the two-time Art of Motion champion and first-ever International Freerunning Champion has made quite the living with his tricks.
Vertical Floor caught up with the 28-year-old Doyle from his recently re-designed Airborn Academy in Liverpool to talk about the role competition plays in parkour.
You suffered a horrific injury in the 2007 Art of Moation. What helped you persevere through that?
Ryan Doyle: People say parkour is dangerous. If you learn basic parkour skills — how to roll and use your body — you are more safe in these environments. What I’m doing is safe because I know how to use my body. I’m trying to get people to get off their ass and get out of the video games. I just want to be an inspiration to them all.
What kind of backlash did you receive from the more purist parkour communities following your injury?
RD: I got hate mail that they were glad I broke my leg because I turned parkour into a sport. But it would have happened eventually. I was just following suit. At the end of the day, we are all just trying to make a living. I just took the media route.
Many traceurs feel that formal competitions oppose parkour’s philosophy, that parkour is not about besting another. How do you manage that contradiction?
RD: It’s very hard to explain. You don’t feel as if you are there competing against 25 other guys…we are competing against the course. We aren’t afraid to plan a run in front of each other. Everybody is too busy creating their own ideas, and they’re in it for themselves, not to compete. It unites them all, and they become like family and friends forever.
I see Art of Motion as a chance to perform. Some people like to compete, but I like to perform. If I qualify for the second round, that’s a bonus. I’m just wanting to perform that first time.
Even though there’s a strong anti-competitive bent, do you think people now go to big-time competitions like Art of Motion solely to compete against other freerunners?
RD: I don’t think so. A lot of people want to go to Art of Motion just to be around the other guys, and meet the other guys at their level. If somebody else is there doing what I don’t usually do, I think I can do that and we bounce off each other. I can progress faster when I am surrounded by more people doing it.
You’re a rare professional freerunner. It seems like a dream. How did you get on this path?
RD: People say I’m a professional freerunner. But I’m a filmmaker. I have a degree in media productions that took me five years. That’s what I want to put out. The competitive stuff is something I want to go away from.
How have competitions helped to advance freerunning and parkour?
RD: I think you’ve got to understand that there is more than one thing advancing in the sport. It’s not just the competition side of it. There’s more diversity of directions to go in. There are people who are good enough to make a name for themselves, and they go that route. I was going to be a stunter, and I didn’t plan on this action working out. It didn’t come with a manual. You just make it up as you go along, trying to be the best you can.
How do you see the competition in parkour now?
RD: I’m competing against 16- or 17-year-old kids who grew up watching my show reels. To be honest, they should be beating me by now. I’ve got nothing to gain. I’ve won Art of Motion twice. I don’t need more exposure, more prize money. I know what I can do with that.