The time has come for the parkour community to admit something.
David Belle is not a god in human form. David Belle is not superhuman. Most importantly, David Belle is no longer the leader of the parkour community.
The Philosophical Reason
David Belle is one of the first in the world to formalize the practice we now know as parkour. People have been doing the purest form of parkour since the beginning of time, when the first man needed to escape a predator. Many “modern” parkour moves have been around since at least the 1920’s and ’30s. Many of the principles behind parkour were expressed in Georges Hébert’s Méthode Naturelle. Parkour itself, the fastest and most efficient way to move, is not new. Its formalization is, and David Belle was at the forefront of it. Whether or not he is the genuine founder remains unknown. He says he is. Some of the Yamakasi, his training partners, maintain that he is not. Will this debate ever be resolved? I don’t know, though I will be ecstatic if it is. But that’s not the point.
Let us assume, for the sake of expediency, that David Belle is the sole, unquestionable founder of parkour. Even if you don’t believe it, assume it is so for a few minutes. What has he done?
David Belle did little to promote parkour. He made and distributed his famous Speed Air Man video in 1997 – though he failed to mention that not everything in it is parkour. The Speed Air Man video is not a parkour showreel. It is a David Belle skill reel. He wanted to show movie makers what he could do, so that he could get acting gigs. Speed Air Man succeeded at that. David starred in several movies of his own and was brought on as a stunt coordinator for several more.
As a parkour video, Speed Air Man failed on a grand scale. Yes, it inspired many of today’s greatest traceurs. However, it completely destroyed David’s own definition of parkour – fast, efficient movement. The flips, spins, and fancy movement in Speed Air Man led to a confusion over the meaning of parkour. To compound the mess, David Belle disappeared from public view for the next 14 years. He did not guide the budding worldwide parkour community, instead letting Sebastien Foucan and the Yamaksi (via Parkour Generations) lead in the UK, and let the rest of the world sort itself out. Even during the height of the Urban Freeflow controversy and the parkour vs. freerunning debate, David never said a word. As a result, the community had problems within itself over parkour vs. freerunning until everyone eventually managed to work things out among themselves. No one really cares that much anymore; it’s not a major issue, everyone’s tired of the debate.
In 2011, David Belle decided to return. “Managed” by the increasingly questionable Adam Dunlap of Take Flight, David decided that it was time for him to return and impose some order on us unruly teenagers. Worse yet, we are apparently not worth the time it takes to make a video so that we can hear it straight from his lips. Instead, we are forced to listen to him via his Take Flight-approved Facebook and Twitter accounts. Are they actually managed by David Belle? It’s unproven, but likely. The important thing is that someone is using David’s name and he is aware of it.
While we have never heard anything directly from David’s mouth, it’s a safe assumption that he either approves or doesn’t care about what Adam Dunlap is doing. It’s laudable that David cares so little about the opinion of others, but as the (claimed) founder of parkour, he has a responsibility to lead. He has said:
If the people have wanted to spread the real Parkour then they would have come to see me instead of doing things in their corner as if I was dead. I gave a free sport to the world and now trying to put it in a cage.
He seems to want authority without responsibility. That’s not how leadership works.
If David Belle is the father of parkour, he owes some serious child support.
The Practical Reason
There is another side to consider. It has nothing to do with philosophy and everything to do with realism.
In the 90’s through the early 2000’s, David Belle was the most powerful, most skilled, and most visible traceur in the world. This is no longer the case. He’s gotten older as the awkward 14 year olds turned into Daniel Ilabaca, Ryan Doyle, Tim Shieff, Pip Andersen, and other high-level traceurs. Compared to the traceurs of today, the only thing that that stands out are Belle’s huge drops – and even his signature jump, the Manpower Gap, has been done by – among others – Jason Paul, who surpasses him in speed and flow.
While Jason Paul is one of the few to risk the Manpower Gap, there are plenty of other traceurs whose are just as strong. Daniel Ilabaca is scarily fast, Tim Shieff is a herculean handbalancer, Ryan Doyle has incredible acro skill, Pip Andersen jumps like a flea, Toby Segar does enormous vaults, Daniel Arroyo exudes power with every move he makes.
The point of this is not to compare David Belle to current generation traceurs.
That would not be fair; the current generation has had the benefit of the first traceurs’ experience and teaching. The point is that at during his time period, David was the obvious role model. He knew the most. He was the best out there.
This is no longer the case. There is no longer a single “best” traceur. There are hundreds of fantastic traceurs out there from whom to choose role models. A beginner can choose who to emulate. Whether you’re into rail precisions, huge vaults, wallrunning, tricking, handbalancing, twists, flips, or any other aspect of movement, there’s somebody out there who’s a master of it and not afraid to make videos.
Allow me to paraphrase an oft-repeated line of Take Flight’s: “Respect David Belle. Give him what he is due.”
Yes. Give David Belle respect, because that’s what he’s due. And that’s all. He hasn’t done anything productive for the parkour community in a long time. Yes, he is the founder / one of the founders, but he doesn’t deserve any more respect than any of the original Yamakasi who have been actively trying to spread parkour. Even some of the later generation like Stephane Vigroux command equal respect. David Belle doesn’t deserve unquestioned obedience. He doesn’t deserve worship. He’s not a god. He is the man that was heavily involved in the founding of parkour, and that’s all.
We’ve been putting it off for a long time, but it is time for the parkour community to begin to move beyond Belle.
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Update in response to some of the comments below:
The point of this article was not to start another debate over the definition of parkour or who founded it. Both of those issues have been thoroughly chewed over before, and they are irrelevant to the point I’m making. For the sake of expedience, assume that Belle was the sole founder and parkour had never existed in any shape or form before him.
The point I was trying to make is that David Belle is not the leader of the parkour community. Nor is he some kind of superhuman. I’m not saying that he’s worthless or that he needs to be forgotten. I respect him for who he is, but I do not believe that he has the right to exert or claim authority over the parkour community at large.