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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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Simone Biles, her name sparkling, extends 6-year win streak

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Simone Biles has long stood out for her gymnastics, but on Saturday she competed with her last name sparkling in silver beads on her World Champions Centre leotard for the first time. The gym’s other athletes had “WCC” on the back.

Biles lived up to the billing, extending her six-year win streak to 19 straight all-arounds, capturing the U.S. Classic, a tune-up for next month’s U.S. Championships.

Biles, the four-time Rio Olympic champion, scored 60 points in Louisville at the meet where she made her comeback last year after nearly two years off from competition. She prevailed by a comfortable 2.1 points over Riley McCusker, her largest margin of victory of her four U.S. Classic titles.

“I’m very satisfied,” she said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “I’m a little sad that I went out of bounds on floor [exercise], but overall I feel like there are improvements to be made.”

Full results are here.

Biles is prepping for nationals in Kansas City in three weeks, when she eyes a sixth U.S. all-around title to tie Clara Schroth Lomady‘s record from the AAU era in the 1940s and ’50s.

Then come the world championships in October in Stuttgart, Germany. Biles could win a fifth all-around to move one shy of Kohei Uchimura‘s record.

The world’s other top gymnasts may be her countrywomen.

Biles was outscored on balance beam on Saturday by 2018 World teammates Kara Eaker and McCusker and beaten on uneven bars by 2017 World all-around champion Morgan HurdSunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and McCusker. Biles swept all the gold medals at last year’s nationals.

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Geraint Thomas struggles; Julian Alaphilippe ups Tour de France lead

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LA MONGIE, France (AP) — When the team of Geraint Thomas was in its pomp at the Tour de France, a time trial followed by a big mountain stage would have been playgrounds for Sky — now in new colors as Ineos — to take cycling’s greatest race by the scruff of the neck and leave everyone else fighting for second place.

Not this year.

Thomas, the defending champion, cracked on Saturday on the Tour’s first encounter with a climb to above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), exposing unprecedented weaknesses in his team that has won six Tours in the past seven years.

The time trial on Friday and the climb up to the legendary Tourmalet pass on Saturday seemed primed for Thomas to reel in Julian Alaphilippe, the yellow jersey-holder from France who is setting the Tour alight with his punchy riding and determination to keep the race lead, filling French fans’ heads with dreams of a first homegrown winner since 1985.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

But instead, Thomas has seen Alaphilippe only get further and further away. In two days, the Frenchman has put 50 seconds of extra daylight between him and the Welshman. His lead — up to 2 minutes, 2 seconds — is becoming large enough to start realistically envisioning Alaphilippe in yellow in Paris next weekend as the first French winner since Bernard Hinault.

Fueling the ecstasy of delirious crowds that lined Saturday’s steep uphill finish, French rider Thibaut Pinot won Stage 14, putting him back in the picture to fight for the podium after he lost mountains of time on Stage 10.

Thomas rightly pointed out that the Tour is far from done, with six more ascents to above 2,000 meters still to come.

But his inability to stay with Pinot, Alaphilippe and other title contenders at the top of the Tourmalet — he was eighth, 36 seconds behind Pinot — was a mini-earthquake for the Tour dominated by his British team since 2012 — with champions Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and, in 2018, Thomas.

“Not the best day. I just didn’t feel quite on it from the start. I was quite weak,” Thomas said.

“At the end I knew I just had to pace it. I didn’t really attempt to follow when they kicked. I just thought I should ride my own pace rather than follow them and blow up on the steepest bit at the end. It’s disappointing. I just tried to limit the damage.”

Having taken cycling to a new level since 2012 with its vast budget and attention to the minutest of details, the team run by David Brailsford has been hit both by misfortune and by the inevitability that, eventually, other teams would start to close the gap.

A horror crash in training for four-time winner Froome, now recovering from career-threatening broken bones, robbed the team of its ace. Thomas’ own preparations were hampered by a crash at the Tour of Switzerland last month.

And Egan Bernal, being groomed by Brailsford to succeed Froome and Thomas, looks increasingly unable to compete for the title this year. Bernal was fifth on the Tourmalet and is fourth overall, 3 minutes behind Alaphilippe.

Pinot, now sixth overall and 3:12 behind Alaphilippe, is showing remarkable grit in bouncing back from his Stage 10 misfortune, when he was part of a group that got separated from other title contenders in crosswinds.

“I have this rage inside me, because in my opinion it was an injustice,” said Pinot, a podium finisher in 2014.

“Since the start of the Tour I had this stage in the back of my mind. The Tourmalet, it’s mythical,” said Pinot, who has three career stage wins at the Tour.

French President Emmanuel Macron, on hand at the top of the Tourmalet to see Pinot win and Alaphilippe extend his lead, gushed about the “two fantastic riders.”

“They attack and they have heart,” Macron said.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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