Sexism in Parkour

Storror Jam Group Picture - By Elias Sell

     I want to start off by saying this essay is not an attack on all male athletes or all females athletes in the parkour community. This essay is specifically written on the experiences I had at the Storror Jam in Philadelphia and Beast Coast in D.C. I am writing this essay in an attempt to open up an honest conversation that can help us, the parkour community, recognize its sexism problem and in turn become an even closer and more supportive community than we already are.

     When I first started parkour training in March I was excited, but also a little wary of the sexism that I assumed would exist based on my experience in other sports. My introduction to sexism in sports started about 16 years ago when I began martial arts training. From there I found out how prominent sexism was not only in sports, but also in my job as a stage manager and my volunteer work as build leader for Habitat for Humanity. So you can imagine my shock when I went to my first class and walked into a gym that had obviously made an effort to eliminate any type of discrimination. In this gym I experience a world where the kids are treated the same as the adults and vice versa; and women are treated the same as the men and vice versa. Even the beginners are treated the same as the athletes that have been training for years. It was an amazing experience that made me fall in love with not only the sport, but also the community.

     Having had the experience I have had so far at my gym imagine my surprise when I got to my first jam and realized how prominent sexism was in the parkour community outside of the gym. My first taste of sexism in parkour started at the Storror Jam. I pride myself on going out of my way to get to know everyone and try to learn a little from everyone around me and that was no exception for this event. I realized very quickly however that when I was training and talking to other athletes about how they train or do certain moves, that a lot of the guys treated me in a much different way than they treated other male athletes. For example, when I was training they would ask  me if I wanted advice or help and then they would just hang out and watch me work on things. They would just shoot the bull when they talked and then maybe give me little words of encouragement, for example “don’t worry, some times things are just hard to get” or “maybe we should work on something easier, like kongs.” I would have loved to work with any number of these athletes on any skills beginner to advanced, as long as they had been willing to give me advice on how to become better or give me tricks to do moves better. Instead I felt extremely condescended to, which was frustrating because not only did I really want to learn from these athletes but  I also felt like they really were oblivious to what they were doing and how they were treating me.  

     Another thing that happened multiple times throughout the jam that really bothered me was the assumption that I was not there as an athlete, but as a spectator. Multiple times while talking to athletes I was stopped mid-sentence and I asked why I was there or who I was there to see or if I was dating one of the other athletes. At this point not only was I irritated because every time I tried to train I was being talked down to; but now as a female the assumption was also that I was not even there as an athlete, but as a girlfriend or a spectator.

     Having had that experience throughout the jam I was a little upset with most of the guys at the jam, so I was more than excited when two girls came in to the gym that evening. I realized very quickly, however, that the sexism in parkour doesn’t just stem from the males, but also from the females. The girls that came in grabbed me pretty quickly and started talking to me about life and parkour and my experience so far in the community. It was so much fun talking to them and hearing their experiences and how they got started in this sport. After talking for a while they started asking about the community at the gym and in Philadelphia in general. We talked a for some time about the gym philosophies and my experiences in the gym and how I’ve been working to get more females in the gym and encouraging them to stick with and showing them that parkour isn't just a male sport. They were very encouraging of everything I was trying to do, but then they started telling me about other areas that had more concrete female parkour communities and how I should come spend more time with them at the all female parkour jams and meet ups. For clarification up to this point I never realized that there was even such things as all female parkour jams and meet ups, and honestly the idea of them completely baffled me. The idea of going to jams and retreats that were just for girls was not only confusing to me, but also really bothered me.  For me, the points of jams are to train with all of the best athletes, men and women, and to push each other to be the best we can be. So having gained the knowledge that some of the women in the parkour community were very much separating themselves from the men and the men in the parkour community were struggling with how to interact with women athletes, I went on to Beast Coast, where I realized just how segregated our community actually was.

Relaxing at Storror Jam - By Elias Sell

Some jumps at Beast Coast - By Elias Sell

     My main goals at Beast Coast was to meet as many athletes as possible and go to as many seminars as I could. The first seminar I went to was female led, which I thought was cool because I really hadn’t had a chance to train with a lot of females. The first thing I noticed, however, was that the only people that went to this seminar were women. It was an amazing seminar that I think would have benefited everyone, yet only females were there. I found this super weird until I started listening to all the conversations happening around me; they were all very much along the same lines as the conversation I had the night before at the Storror Jam. Everyone was talking about these all-women jams and retreats and honestly if I was a guy and had come to that seminar or overheard any of the conversations happening within the group, I would have been very uncomfortable. After that seminar I’m not exactly sure where all the female athletes went. I broke off into a really awesome group of people, that consisted of athletes from all over the place and all skill levels, and went to train in the city. It was an amazing experience,because the farther into the city we went the bigger our group became and every time we stopped to train it was this awesome mix of incredibly supportive and encouraging athletes. At some point while talking to some of the guys, who were still being weird towards me, I realized that once again I was the only female in my group and wondered why none of the girls I had just been in seminar with had come along with us. I had planned on talking to the girls that night and seeing why they didn’t go out and train with us, but none of them stayed the night at the gym with us, either. It was another disheartening moment where I realized just how real the segregation of male and female athletes really is at these big “community” events.

My introduction to the parkour community was at a gym that works hard and goes out of it’s way to make sure that everyone that walks in the door feels equal: male or female, but based on my experience at these jams in the community it does not feel like this is something we all seem to strive for. I wish I had a magic solution to fixing this problem, but I think it's going to take all of us to solve the sexism issue in our community. I truly believe that both sides are at fault for pushing this issue to the point where it is and my hope is that by opening up an honest conversation between the groups I can help spur us along to work together to be better and fix this. As a community we should want everyone to be the best athlete possible. We should want our female athletes to be as amazing as our male athletes and our male athletes to be as phenomenal as our female athletes. We have so much we can learn from each other and that will never happen if we keep segregating ourselves at events and putting up barriers based on sex.

Parkour, Freerunning, and the Nature of Competition

     As we near the end of summer and beginning of fall, we also enter the season of the some of the biggest competitions in our sport. Two of the most well known competitions are the North American Parkour Championships(1)(NAPC) and the Red Bull Art of Motion(2) (AoM).


     NAPC, hosted in Vancouver at Origins Parkour, pits competitors against one another in three separate events: the point based skill competition in which athletes attempt to perform the cleanest runs with predefined requirements, the time based speed competition in which athletes clear a number of checkpoints in the lowest amount of time possible, the point based freestyle competition in which athletes create their own runs in a specified area, ending in a biggest trick showdown between the top three athletes. AoM is a purely freestyle competition hosted by Red Bull that takes place in Santorini, Greece. The goal is to descend from the top of the course across various rooftops to a designated finish line at the bottom of the course in a limited amount of time. Competitors are judged on creativity, flow, difficulty, execution, and overall performance.

     Art of Motion has been running for a decade and has become the most popular free-running event in the world by far. Many athletes participate in the event, be it in person, creating a video for the online qualifier(3), voting in said qualifier, or by watching the stream online. However, there is a large population of athletes that is absolutely opposed to competition in parkour in any form, adopting the mantra “Run Without Rivals”. These athletes actively boycott these events, believing that parkour is based upon intrinsic motivation, not rivalry, and that competition undermines the cooperative and familial aspects that are so fundamental to parkour philosophy, specifically that “... [competition] stands against the philosophy of parkour to compete to win or earn anything that is not part of parkour values, such as medals, prizes, trophies, money, fame, recognition, or glory.”(4) While these views have merit, they reflect an overly optimistic view of parkour and an overly pessimistic view of competition. Both are simply unrealistic extremes that reflect the outdated and in some ways dishonest ideals of an undeveloped discipline with a very small community.

     Try to imagine a world with no Olympic games, no national sport leagues, or general competitive leagues in any sport/game/discipline. Would the world have ever seen the 3:43 mile(5), the 1102 pound dead-lift(6), or the 12’3” broad jump(7)? Would there be any professional athletes? The answer is not certain, but there is certainly a strong indication that athletes that compete are more motivated to reach beyond what was once thought to be impossible.  “When people push their own limits, they inspire the people around them and ultimately, they end up pushing the limits of the sport as a whole. This is not only true for sport, but also for intellectual and artistic domains such as chess, academics, business, dance, music, and the list goes on.”(8) The phrase “A rising tide lifts all ships” comes to mind; the competition between athletes creates a higher standard for their sport which fellow athletes strive to attain thusly.  Why, then, should parkour be any different? Maybe the real issue lies within the competitions’ formats themselves rather than the concept of competition.

     Maybe the parkour community should consider creating a new format that pushes people to be the best they can be while preventing people from being alienated and encouraging athletes to work together while maintaining a strong sense of community. A good format achieves objective judging, pits the athlete versus the course, and offers a variety of movements. The issue with speed courses is that though they are very objective and excellent pressure testing, they create situations where there’s a best move and the tallest guy that can stride the biggest just wins, which makes it difficult to incorporate the varied styles of parkour. Style competitions like AoM encourage individual style but suffer from the subjectivity of judges. Gymnastics excels in strict and objective judging, but doesn’t offer the same freedom as style competitions. Maybe parkour could benefit from formats akin to rock climbing and bouldering. These formats offer greater freedom where athletes have the option to choose routes that are more similar to their skill-sets which encourages participants to pursue their individual style. This can put athletes with completely different styles in exactly the same league as one another.

     The currently popular formats are not inherently bad, however they do not appropriately represent the whole of parkour by any measure. They encapsulate exactly what they are and do so very well, however as a whole, parkour is so much more than just skill, speed, or style. What do you think about the current formats? If you could create your own, what would your competition format be?

  1. NAPC 2017 (https://www.sportparkourleague.com/napc2017)

  2. Red Bull Art of Motion (http://www.redbull.com/en/events/1331591841166/red-bull-art-of-motion)

  3. AoM Online Qualifier (http://www.redbull.com/en/events/1331591841166/red-bull-art-of-motion)

  4. Why there are no Parkour competitions (http://parkourpedia.com/other/why-there-are-no-parkour-competitions/)

  5. 1 Mile World Record 3:43:13 Hicham el Guerouj (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ji0yK7fV5Rk)

  6. Eddie Hall Deadlift 500kg (1102.31 lbs) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9Y4o_BqC0A)

  7. Byron Jones 12’3” Broad Jump Sets World Record | 2015 NFL Combine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0UeHxglMJ4)

  8. Pro Parkour, Pro Competition (http://learn.originsparkour.com/pro-parkour-pro-competition/)

 

The Parkour Roadmap

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