For a glimpse at one potential growth area in the action sports arena, look no further than the Westfield Culver City mall on a recent June afternoon, where a handful of young men clad in baggy sweat pants, slim-fitting T-shirts and ultra-lightweight sneakers take turns flinging themselves off the shopping center's third-story mezzanine, leaping from level to level, before back-flipping, belly-sliding and bouncing to a stop on the ground floor of the atrium, to the cheers and wild applause of some 100 spectators.
It's the taping of the June 11 season finale of MTV's "Ultimate Parkour Challenge," a six-episode series showcasing the practitioners of parkour, a street sport that's part gymnastics, part stunt work, and all about moving from point A to point B by any means necessary even if that means careening over a coffee kiosk, piloting a Segway scooter while doing a handstand or propelling yourself through (yes, through) the back of a mall shopping cart.
If you're unfamiliar with the name (which has its roots in the French word parcours, meaning "route"), you may have seen the human pinball effect in the opening chase scene of the 2006 James Bond film "Casino Royale," in which parkour legend Sébastien Foucan plays a baddie who leaps over, under and through every imaginable obstacle in his path, before scampering up a construction crane and through the scaffolding of a building like Spider-Man to do battle with Daniel Craig.
More recently, Disney's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" featured acrobatic fight scenes that had the cast careening off walls and leaping off roofs in parkour-style moves. (David Belle, the Frenchman considered the founder of the sport, worked on that film as parkour stunt coordinator.)
At its most basic, parkour, which Belle developed in France in the late 1990s, consists of running along a route and negotiating any and every obstacle as efficiently as possible. Some purists argue that the phrase "freerunning" should be used when referring to the iteration of the discipline that incorporates theatrical flourishes such as flips and spins, but used here, parkour refers to both. From France, the sport spread to the U.K. and then to the U.S. in the early years of the new millennium.
Despite being a below-the-radar discipline with a community that ranges from an estimated couple of thousand hard-core practitioners nationwide to maybe 10 times that number who've tried it at least once, some involved in the sport think it's headed from a niche physical fitness subculture into mass consciousness — and that it will happen this year or next.
"I think parkour is going to be twice as big as skateboarding — it's going to be huge," says Mark Toorock, a Washington, D.C., fitness trainer and parkour practitioner who founded an online community called American Parkour (APK) in 2005.
"Skateboarding is the $4 1/2- to $5-billion industry it is because it's not just [for] people who skate," Toorock notes, "but people like my uncle who've never gotten on a skateboard but still own a pair of Vans [skate shoes]."
Toorock uses the skate industry to explain why he's not just making a leap worthy of a traceur (as parkour athletes are sometimes called) when he forecasts freerunning is about to become a major force in the action sports arena.
"Skateboarding first came out of surfing in the late '60s," he said, "but took until the late '80s and '90s to become what we know it as today. It took snowboarding about half that time to become an Olympic sport, and the next thing you have that's similar to that is parkour — which has been out of France for about eight years — so it's close to that point.
"Just search for 'parkour' on YouTube versus 'snowboarding' or 'skateboarding' and you'll be surprised. That's what makes me think things are ready to pop," he said. (As of June 16, a "parkour" search returned 351,000 hits, "snowboarding" 245,000, and "skateboarding" 684,000.)
Victor Bevine, an executive producer of "Ultimate Parkour Challenge" and a co-founder (with David Thompson, also an executive producer on the show) of the recently created World Freerunning & Parkour Federation, shares that view of the future. "I actually think it can be twice as big," Bevine said. "Everybody under the age of 18 knows what this is."
Adam Dunlap, who started a parkour-inspired clothing line based in Beaverton, Ore., called Take Flight Apparel, is more naunced: "Can this be as big as skateboarding? The simple answer is yes. But the people in the parkour community have been saying that this is going to be the next big action sport for years. But it's taking a lot longer than I thought."