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Parkour eyed for 2024 Olympics by gymnastics officials amid complaints

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PARIS (AP) — Their test of skill and courage was as dangerous as it was effective: Having clambered as stylishly as they could to the summit of a jagged, pyramid-shaped climbing wall in the suburbs of Paris, the young men would hang each other upside down by the feet from the top.

One slip and the four-story drop could have killed them.

Chau Belle flashes a grin at the memory of those heady days in the 1990s, when he and his gang of friends and cousins pushed each other and pushed the envelope of what has since mushroomed into a globalized street sport of urban acrobatics known as parkour. The sport is talked about as a possible new Olympic discipline but is also the focus of a heated custody battle as its popularity and marketing potential grow.

Parkour, derived from the French word for path or journey, was still just an exploration of self and of manhood when Belle and his friends were dangling each other off the 55-foot-tall Dame du Lac, with its view over Paris’ southern outskirts.

“It was a form of courage. A bit crazy, too. You really had to trust the person who held you,” the 41-year-old recalls. “It was a test. A test of self-belief. Of one’s friends. Of family. Of ourselves, too.”

Parkour was built around the simple philosophy that almost any terrain can, with imagination and training, be turned into a playground for running, jumping, climbing and pushing oneself.

Male practitioners call themselves traceurs; women are traceuses. Both roughly translate as pathfinder. They regard urban furniture — stairwells, walls, fences, pillars, tables, benches, trees, bridges, etc. — not as obstacles but as opportunities, free apparatus with which to have fun.

A milestone in parkour’s growth was injecting the adrenaline jolt into Daniel Craig’s opening scenes as James Bond, with the actor haring through a construction site in “Casino Royale” in pursuit of a terrorist with Spiderman skills, played by Sebastien Foucan.

Foucan was one of the founding practitioners of parkour, along with Belle, his cousin David Belle and a half-dozen others. Calling themselves “the Yamakasi” and the sport they were inventing “the art of movement,” they pieced together their new moves on, around and over the street furniture of Paris’ suburban concrete jungles.

“People see only what’s in front of them, at their feet. We succeeded in telling ourselves to look upwards, to say, ‘There are things we can do with this,’” Belle says. “We’d do the same exercise 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 times.”

“We obsessed about repetition, numbers, trying to figure out if something was useful,” he adds. “We were so hooked on this thing, on this search for ourselves.”

Others became hooked, too.

A child of the internet age, parkour spread virally and globally in part because its practitioners’ derring-do videos of gravity-defying flips, jumps and other exploits work in any language and readily generate social media clicks and followers.

But the sport’s coming of age has also attracted a powerful and determined suitor, one unwelcomed by many in parkour: gymnastics.

Using its financial muscle and clout within the Olympic movement, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) is steadily bringing — critics say forcing — parkour under its wing. This month, a FIG Congress officially recognized parkour as gymnastics’ newest discipline. FIG is now organizing introduction-to-parkour coaching courses, scheduling its first world championships for parkour in 2020 and intends to lobby the International Olympic Committee for parkour’s inclusion in the 2024 Olympic in Paris.

All this despite a #WeAreNOTGymnastics protest movement by parkour lovers on social media and howls of complaint from parkour groups.

“This is the equivalent of a hostile takeover,” says Eugene Minogue, chief executive of Parkour Earth, the grouping formed in 2017 from six national associations that is one of FIG’s most vocal critics but is struggling to defend itself against the 137-year-old gymnastics federation that has the ear of Olympic leaders and the sports establishment.

“They are completely whitewashing our sport, its integrity, its history, its lineage, its authenticity,” Minogue said.

Minogue suspects FIG of wanting to get its hands on parkour’s young and growing fan base, to stay relevant with Olympic leaders who want action sports that appeal to 21st century audiences and sponsors. Other long-established sports have done likewise: Cycling, for example, absorbed BMX in the 1990s, and skiing became the international federation for snowboarding.

“They want to codify it, they want to monetize it,” Minogue says of FIG. “It’s about money, about influence, about power, about control. It’s about having a seat at the table.”

Another concern is that FIG-organized competitions could denature parkour’s “let’s play” philosophy and endanger parkour athletes by encouraging them to try overly dangerous, crowd- and judge-pleasing tricks.

“The one thing I hope is that gymnastics does not condone risk-taking and that it doesn’t glorify an elite. Because we’ve been fighting for 20 years against young people chasing clicks, filming themselves doing acrobatics and taking risks with the aim of becoming famous and finding a sponsor,” says Sacha Lemaire, president of the France-based Federation de Parkour.

“We’re afraid that glorifying competition will feed this phenomenon and that we’ll bear the brunt for that.”

FIG insists that parkour and gymnastics are far more of a natural fit than its critics acknowledge. As an example of how the sports can coexist, it points to Sweden, where parkour joined the gym federation in 2014 and where traceurs/traceuses often train in gymnastic facilities to avoid the Nordic weather.

In response to emailed questions from The Associated Press, FIG’s secretary general, Andre Gueisbuhler, said its competitions would not reward risk, would not be “about jumping furthest and highest” and would help make parkour safer.

FIG “offers an infrastructure which has all necessary means to develop the sport worldwide within a short time,” Gueisbuhler wrote.

Belle, who teaches what he still calls the art of movement, says he struggles to see convincing parallels between the activity dreamed up by the Yamakasi in their youth and what he regards as the codified, rigid world of gymnastics.

“Parkour has become a merchandise now,” he said. “At the beginning, it was free.”

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MORE: Olympic medalist no longer on USA Gymnastics suspended list

World Cup Alpine season opener gets green light

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After checking the snow on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria, FIS officials announced Thursday that the traditional World Cup season opener is set to go ahead as planned Oct. 26-27 with men’s and women’s giant slalom races.

Current conditions at Soelden show a solid 30 inches of snow at the summit. The race finishes at an altitude of 2,670 meters (8,760 feet), far above the currently snowless village.

The first races of the season are never guaranteed to have enough snow, though last year’s men’s race at Soelden had the opposite problem, being canceled when a storm blew through with heavy snowfall and high winds. 

France’s Tessa Worley won the women’s race last year ahead of Italy’s Frederica Brignone and U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who would go on to dominate the rest of the World Cup season.

The Soelden weekend is followed by three dormant weeks until the season resumes Nov. 23-24 in Levi, Finland. The World Cup circuits then switch to North America. The men will run speed events Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Lake Louise, Alberta, then head to Beaver Creek, Colo., for more speed events and a giant slalom Dec. 6-8. The women run slalom and giant slalom Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Killington, Vt., and head to Lake Louise the next weekend.

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Olympic marathon and race walk move from Tokyo to Sapporo draws some pushback

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In the wake of a dropout-plagued set of world championship endurance races in Qatar, moving the 2020 Olympic marathons and race walks from Tokyo to the cooler venue of Sapporo is a quick fix for one problem, pending the potential for untimely heat waves.

But the move has drawn some opposition for a variety of reasons.

First, many organizers and politicians appear to have been caught by surprise. Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, was “taken aback” and Sapporo’s mayor, Katsuhiro Akimoto, learned about the move from the media, Kyodo News reported. Koike even sarcastically suggested that the races could move all the way northward to islands disputed by Russia and Japan.

South African sports scientist Ross Tucker suggested that running in heat and humidity poses an interesting challenge for athletes, some of whom may be able to catch up with faster runners by preparing for the conditions.

British marathoner Mara Yamauchi made a similar point, saying the move was unfair to those who already were preparing for the heat, humidity and other conditions.

Belgian marathoner Koen Naert said he will make the best of the change but complained that some of his preparation and every runner’s logistical planning would no longer apply.

The angriest athlete may be Canadian walker Evan Dunfee, who placed fourth in the 2016 Olympic 50km race and nearly claimed bronze as a Canadian appeal was upheld but then rejected. He says runners and walkers can beat the conditions if they prepare, which many athletes did not do for the world championships in Qatar.

“So why do we cater to the ill prepared?” Dunfee asked on Twitter.

The move also takes athletes out of the main Olympic city and takes away the traditional, tough less frequent in modern years, finish in the Olympic stadium.

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