A growing number of Chinese parkour practitioners and other extreme sports enthusiasts are riding a wave of individualism, but obstacles remain, as Sun Xiaochen reports.
At this former factory site in Beijing, old industrial boilers are corroded among containers piled high within crumbling walls.
But the dilapidated complex belied the buzz of activity from a group of daredevils practicing their extreme sport.
During the recent 2014 Red Bull National Parkour Championships in the 751 D-Park art zone, more than 30 participants brought the abandoned site to life with their sets of breathtaking moves－leaping over parapets, somersaulting off platforms and performing handstands on ledges to the beat of electrifying hip-hop music.
Parkour practitioners overcome obstacles, usually in urban spaces, by climbing, jumping, flipping and other movements to get from one point to another. The term is also known as “free running”. In China, parkour is called pao ku, which literally means “running cool”.
By pushing their physical limits through these moves, the practitioners, or traceur for men and traceuse for women, also expect to hone their mental toughness while demonstrating their distinct personalities, a quest that has inspired a growing number of urban youth to take up the rising trend of extreme sports amid the fast-paced development of Chinese cities.
“Parkour is about climbing over obstacles on your way to certain places. We just want to translate the spirit of overcoming difficulties featured in the sport to life and work. It seems like a physical challenge but it also exercises your mind,” Sun Jie, individual champion of the tournament and a senior Chinese traceur, told China Daily at the 751 D-Park. Sun, 34, used to train as a professional gymnast.
Parkour, which arrived in China in 2006, has attracted about 200,000 regular participants while spearheading the younger generation’s pursuit for individuality and freedom, organizers said.
An extreme sports performer lifts his bicycle over a man during a pregame show at the National Parkour Championships.[Photo by WEI XIAOHAO/CHINA DAILY]
Tu Fenghao, one of the co-founders of Beijing’s Urban Monkey parkour club, said the sport helps alleviate urbanites’ pressure of working and living in concrete jungles.
“We live in metropolises just like how monkeys live in forests. By practicing parkour, we can achieve the freedom that the monkeys do by making their way through the jungle, and improve our fitness by doing so,” Tu said of the original purpose of establishing the club with Sun in 2008.
The club has recruited more than 100 members, who train in two sessions every weekend at Beijing’s Madian Park and regularly perform stunts in commercials and films.
Still relatively unknown outside the sporting mainstream, parkour is gaining popularity online with video highlights attracting many people who would otherwise be unlikely to try out the adrenaline-pumping activity.
Abudulsalam, a 22-year-old college student from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, is one of them.
Abudulsalam began practicing parkour in 2007 after being inspired by the video highlights of David Belle, a French stuntman who is widely considered the sport’s father. The student established the region’s first parkour club, the Dangerous Sport Boy, with 40 members in southern Xinjiang’s Kashgar prefecture.
“Practicing parkour relieves pressure and we enjoy it, although we have few resources living in some remote areas of the country,” the sophomore at Kashgar Normal College said.
According to the Chinese Extreme Sports Association, more than 150 grassroots parkour clubs have been set up across the country in recent years.
A parkour practitioner jumps over obstacles during an event of the 2014 Red Bull National Parkour Championships on Nov 1.[Photo by WEI XIAOHAO/CHINA DAILY]
The hot scene at the recent parkour championships in Beijing offered a slice of the popularity of extreme sports, including skateboarding, BMX cycling and rock climbing, which have appealed to a wider audience in China through various events.
At the FISE (Festival International des Sports Extremes in French) World Chengdu event in October, more than 100,000 people watched 90 athletes from 30 countries and regions, including nine from China, compete in BMX, extreme roller skating, skateboarding and mountain biking in the capital of Sichuan province.
“The huge crowd was truly beyond our imagination as extreme sports are in their infant stage in China,” said Wang Ruoyang, chairman of the Chengdu Extreme Sport Association.
In August, the Sports Lab, an all-in-one venue built in the suburbs of the Jiangsu provincial capital of Nanjing to showcase four extreme sports, attracted more than 1,000 visitors every day during the 2014 Nanjing Youth Olympics.
Still, many in the field say the high risks involved, lack of coaching and insufficient facilities have held back the growth of extreme sports in the country.
“My mum, she hates it that I do (extreme sports). She calls me every day, asking me to be careful or persuading me to do ‘girls’ stuff’ like piano and ballet,” said Chen Yanni, the sole female contender at the parkour championships in Beijing.
Chinese extreme sports enthusiasts certainly risk injury and their lives by following their passion.
Wang Zijian, a traceur from Luzhou in Sichuan, died in April 2013 when he apparently misjudged the height of a bridge and jumped from it.
Wang’s death fueled negative impressions of extreme sports as a foolhardy pastime.
Yu Yang, a Beijing skateboarder who used to practice at the St Joseph’s Church square near the capital’s landmark Wangfujing shopping street, is finding it hard to locate another training venue.
“We’ve been constantly coming up against square maintenance staff and some visitors, who find our activities annoying and dangerous. We are really in desperate need of safer training facilities,” the 25-year-old said.
With extreme sports yet to be included in the country’s State-run sport management system, Urban Monkey’s Sun Jie said amateur clubs should jointly set up a grassroots group to organize training and competitions consistently and in a more orderly fashion.
“Only by doing so can we progress from seemingly ‘disorganized street stunt men’ to extreme sportsmen, and attract funding from sponsors at the same time,” Sun said.