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Master of His Domain

Written by Danielle Preiss

Master of His Domain

Adam Dunlap claims to be the voice of parkour on the Internet. And for that, he’s earned a reputation all his own.

On the surface, Adam Dunlap seems like an unlikely face of big business. He sprinkles his conversations with spiritual allusions and his blog posts with smiley faces. Often pictured in a hoodie, he enjoys oversharing on the Internet and is friendly on the phone, demurring only when asked how many domain names he currently owns. “We have tons of ‘em,” he says.

At 27, Dunlap is one of the biggest figures in commercialized parkour. He leads a major athletic clothing line (Take Flight), directs several parkour-related businesses (the website Parkour.com and the consultation company Parkour 91), and manages David Belle, the discipline’s biggest talent.

But within the parkour community, Dunlap is a polarizing personality. While Take Flight attracts a loyal following (the company surpassed 60,000 Facebook likes in June), commenters fill message boards with venom for Dunlap. Critics accuse him of faking his relationship with Belle. They also complain about his unscrupulous business practices with Take Flight, such as buying domain names to prevent competition and copyrighting the word “parkour” for use on Take Flight clothing.

“As far as controversy, there’s definitely been a lot of it, especially with my proximity to him and Take Flight,” says Colt McCormack, Take Flight’s web designer. “It’s been trying at times.”

Online, Dunlap’s name turns up some serious vitriol and a heavy dose of mocking. An entire website, Take Flight Sucks, serves as “a forum where whistle-blowers have a place to speak their mind without being singled out.” A meme called “Hipster Dunlap” plays off Dunlap’s insistence on defining true parkour. A photo of Dunlap, doctored with heavy-rimmed black glasses and the words “Everyone does parkour wrong, except me,” prompted 74 responses as of this writing. One commenter, Autumn Smith (who also penned an “Open letter of protest to Adam Dunlap/Take Flight,” on Facebook), called Dunlap “an incredibly narcissistic douche” and “in dire need of a healthy dose of humility.” Another, Caelan MacTavish Huntress, followed the meme’s vibe with, “You guys are so lame. I hated Adam before it was cool.”

Dunlap enjoys engaging his critics. He regularly participates in comment threads and even posted feedback on Take Flight Sucks’ mission statement, suggesting a revision that featured Take Flight’s name more prominently. He devotes more than one entry on his personal blog to explaining why he’s not shady. The blog also includes categories like “Adam’s Teachings,” “Adam Thoughts,” and “Business Quotes,” a list of business-related sayings followed by the date Dunlap coined them. “Don’t assume people are mischievous. Just assume they are dumb. It’ll make your life easier,” reads one from 2006.

But despite the massive Internet presence he maintains within the community, Dunlap’s appearance on the public radar is a rather recent phenomenon. Painfully skinny as a kid, Dunlap was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at 18. He attempted to manage the condition through diet and weightlifting, but nothing helped. “I never got stronger,” he says. Through what Dunlap describes as fate, he found parkour in 2006 while attending Oregon State University and living at a house of the Christian fraternity Diakonos. One day, Dunlap asked if any of the guys had seen the thing “where they jump over fences.” One of the fraternity brothers told him to search “Yamakasi,” and Dunlap found Belle’s chase scene from District B13. “When I saw David moving and all the physicality he had, it just resonated with me and I thought, ‘That’s what I need. That’s what’s going to change my life,’” he says.

The first time Dunlap tried parkour, he ran until he was too exhausted to continue. “I thought that’s what parkour was — you just run and you just never stop,” he says. After a year of practice, he made a demo tape of his training to send to potential sponsors, which remains the only video he has posted of himself practicing. He still trains today but has been out with a sprained ankle since December 2012.

After graduating from OSU in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Dunlap pursued acting and modeling. When that career didn’t materialize, he took an office job at Nike World Headquarters nearby. On the 12th day, he quit. “I was pushing papers, it was a gorgeous day, and I said, ‘I can’t. I can’t do this. I have to do parkour.’”

In February 2008, just a year out of college, he founded Revolution Parkour, one of the first gyms in the country. Take Flight came soon after. “He envisioned it being a much bigger thing than it was at the time,” says Brandon Latocki, an instructor at Revolution Parkour and a former student of Dunlap’s. “Five years on now, you see parkour gyms opening up everywhere. He foresaw that need for parkour clothing and so he put it out there. He put his name in the hat before anyone else did.”

While working with Revolution Parkour, Dunlap hatched an improbable idea: working with the legendary David Belle. Dunlap lacked any connection to Belle and spoke no French, but through a nearly two-year process of emailing Belle (through Belle’s late assistant Guy Janodet), he convinced Belle to allow him to fly to France for a meeting.

One of the biggest accusations hurled at Dunlap is that his relationship with Belle is fraudulent. Dunlap himself sees the strangeness. “It really doesn’t make a lot of sense why he was willing to work with me,” he says. “It makes no sense.” But to the spiritual Dunlap, the meeting was less disingenuous engineering and more akin to destiny. “I don’t think it’s random that David and I are close friends,” he says. “I think it was a very intentioned meeting, a kind of intentioned plan for us to be friends and to work together.”

According to Dunlap, Belle is simply innocent when it comes to business. “He doesn’t have any concept of building a brand. It makes no sense to him. It’s too long-term, too confusing,” he says. He convinced Belle to create accounts on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook in August 2011. The sudden media presence of the long-reticent Belle led many to speculate that Dunlap was impersonating him for business gain, a falsehood he says continues to cloud people’s assessment of him.

“The hate and animosity that rumor created hasn’t left,” he says. “So people that have never heard of me all of a sudden said, ‘Adam impersonated David Belle? What a scam artist!’ And then when it came out that I wasn’t impersonating David Belle, the perspective still was, ‘Oh, well, Adam’s shady.’” The business moves that followed added to a general wariness of Dunlap as he and Take Flight began to purchase a large number of domain names. At press time, a search turned up 69 registered under his name, 175 under Take Flight, and 102 under Parkour 91. A search of Belle’s name yielded 875.

Dunlap admits many domains exist purely to redirect to Take Flight, and adds this is simply smart business practice. “That makes it marketed and advertised in a cool way,” he explains. “No one wants to see, ‘Go to youtube.com/takeflightapparel to see our newest video.’ What they want to see is, ‘Hey, go to takeflight or itakeflight.com to see our newest video.’” He uses the same rationale to explain domains like parkourtees.com and parkourshirts.com. “Some of the vision is as simple as forwarding parkourtees.com to our tee page on our website and making sure no other company ever gets that domain because that can undermine our ability to keep growing our brand and our market share.”

But the domain grab that earned the most ire and cemented Dunlap’s reputation was the purchase of the domain names of two prominent traceurs: Marktoorock.com and Timshieff.com. Dunlap maintains he bought the domains simply to get the athletes’ attention, that he held no nefarious intent, and that he apologized. “He made some mistakes earlier about trying to capture those domain names to get people’s attention. That’s kind of like that bravado that can get you into trouble, and it got him into trouble,” says Latocki, insisting that Dunlap has done nothing similar since. “It was a mistake, it happened, and you learn from it.”

On a personal level, the fallout hurt Dunlap. On a professional level, he worried it amounted to career suicide. “We’re still very, very dependent on the parkour community to support us,” he explains. “All of a sudden, a rumor takes out 50 percent of your support base or takes out a very large part of a potential client base, and that affects the company very directly.”

Some suggest Dunlap is shrewder than he lets on. Traceur Max Henry wrote a response to a March 2013 blog post Dunlap wrote, “The four concepts the parkour community doesn’t understand about parkour,” which spawned a heated discussion online. Henry theorized that Dunlap stokes the message-board fires to gain page views for his company. “He’s either incredibly stupid or incredibly clever in his approach to marketing his brand/product,” writes Henry. “I’m heavily inclined to believe the latter.”

Dunlap claims he receives no personal profit from Take Flight, estimates his salary works out to about $2.50 an hour, and says he supports himself through side jobs and loans while personally financing the company. “If anyone thinks that I have it made, if anyone thinks that I’m rolling around in rims or something nice, they couldn’t have it more opposite,” he says.

Despite the digital hate, Dunlap does have those who support him and his work. “Parkour is something that once you start doing it, it becomes your own. So I can understand why people have a great passion about this sport and want to protect it from being overly commercialized,” says Latocki. “But that’s not what Adam is doing.” Chris Miller, another Revolution Parkour instructor and a former student of Dunlap’s, compares Dunlap’s success in the somewhat underground scene to punk music. “There are always people screaming ‘sellout’ at the people who are actually successful,” he says. “Adam’s name is one of those that’s just out there and easy to attack.” But Miller says those who know him gain a more balanced perspective. “There is a strong feeling toward the negative and a strong feeling toward the positive, and it depends on mostly whether or not people have actually interacted with Adam,” he says.

“Adam is a really good-hearted guy, honestly. He’s a really nice person if you talk to him, and I think if he just keeps on working to actually try and do better by people, then over the long term, that’ll pay off,” says McCormack. “But there’s definitely this friction.”

Next on Dunlap’s launch list is Parkour.com, a photo, video, and news site he will direct for Belle “as soon as we have enough money to launch it,” he says. Take Flight also plans to release the company’s own shoes, the Take Flight 1.0s, by the end of summer.

Talking about Take Flight’s projects and growth ignites a more animated Dunlap. “If someone works hard, and they create a great product, or they get paid well for a great commercial because they’re a great athlete, we respect that,” he explains, speaking a little louder, a little quicker, with less deliberation. “It’s O.K. to make a living from something you like doing.”