Last week, I came across an action video on Facebook. The participant’s smooth movements on a hazardous course – clearing obstacles, climbing walls in a jiffy faster than Spider-Man, traversing walls by jumping from one to another, jumping down from heights with ease, etc., just amazed me.
Parkour, the art of motion, is a holistic training discipline. The term “Parkour” derives from the French phrase “parcours du combattant“, the classic obstacle course method of military training proposed and developed by Georges Hébert, a pioneering French physical educator, theorist and instructor.
Georges Hébert (April 27, 1875 – August 2, 1957)
Before the First World War, Georges Hébert was an officer in the French Navy. In 1902, when stationed in the town of Saint-Pierre, Martinique, a volcanic eruption occurred in Mount Pelée. Hébert coordinated the rescue of about 700 people from the catastrophe. This incident reinforced his belief that courage and altruism must go hand in hand with athletic skill.
Georges Hébert traveled far and wide throughout the world. He was impressed by the movement skills of indigenous peoples living in natural surroundings in Africa and elsewhere.
When Georges Hébert returned to France, he became a physical education tutor at the college of Reims for the French marines in Lorient. He defined the principles of his own system of physical education, the “méthode naturelle” (natural method). He created ten fundamental exercises: walking, running, jumping, quadrupedal movement, climbing, balancing, throwing, lifting, self-defense, and swimming.
“Être fort pour être utile” (“Be strong to be useful”) became his personal motto.
“The final goal of physical education is to make strong beings. In the purely physical sense, the Natural Method promotes the qualities of organic resistance, muscularity, and speed, towards being able to walk, run, jump, move on all fours, to climb, to keep balance, to throw, lift, defend yourself and to swim.”
Here is how Georges Hébert defined the guiding principles and fundamental rules of his Natural Method:
“With regard to the development of virile qualities, this is obtained by the execution of certain difficult or dangerous exercises requiring the development of these various qualities, for example, while seeking to control the fear of falling, of jumping, of rising, of plunging, of walking on an unstable surface, etc.”
Hence, Georges Hébert is considered one of the proponents of “parcours“, an obstacle course, now the standard in French military education and training. His teachings and methods of instruction spread between and during the two World Wars. This further led to the development of civilian fitness trails and confidence courses.
Georges Hébert was critical of the physical inactivity imposed upon women by the contemporary European society and was an early advocate of the benefits of exercise for women and criticized the fashion of women wearing corsets.
Modern day Parkour
Modern day Parkour, the holistic training discipline using body movements was developed in France, primarily by Raymond Belle, David Belle, and Sébastien Foucan during the late 1980s. The name of their method was eventually changed to “le Parkour“.
Now Parkour includes running, climbing, swinging, mantling, vaulting, jumping, rolling, quadrupedal movement, and the like, depending on what movement is deemed most suitable for a given situation.
A practitioner of Parkour called a traceur (feminine: traceuse) aims to move from one place to another in the most efficient way possible to using body movements and the surroundings for propulsion. The traceur trains to maintain as much momentum as possible while still remaining safe.
Raymond Belle, a French soldier and firefighter, is considered one of the originators of Parkour. He was born on October 3, 1939, to a French doctor and a Vietnamese mother. His father died during the First Indochina War. Raymond got separated from his mother during the division of Vietnam in 1954.
The French Army in Da Lat took Raymond Belle into its care and gave him a military education and training. He trained himself harder than everyone else to become strong to survive and never be a victim. At night, when others were asleep, he would sneak out of the dormitory to run, climb trees, and use the military obstacle courses without the knowledge of the officers. To test his endurance, strength and flexibility he created exercises on his own.
When the Battle of Dien Bien Phu came to an end, Raymond was repatriated to France, where he completed his military education in 1958.
At age 19, Raymond joined the Paris’ regiment of sapeurs-pompiers (military firefighters). With his unique physical fitness and athletic ability, he became the champion rope-climber of the regiment. He was inducted into its elite team composed of the unit’s fittest and most agile firefighters. The peerless elite team members were often called upon to take on the most difficult and dangerous rescue missions.
Noted for his undaunted courage and keeping cool in any circumstance Raymond was lauded for his spirit of self-sacrifice.
He played a key role in the first ever helicopter-borne operation of the regiment of sapeurs-pompiers. His many rescue exploits earned him a large number of medals and a reputation of being an exceptional pompier. He inspired the next young generation of firefighters.
Raymond Belle dedicated his life to physical well-being. He followed the teachings and the disciplines laid out in Georges Hébert’s book “Méthode Naturelle“. He used climbing, jumping, running, balancing, etc., for his personal advancement in athletics. He referred to his interpretation of Hébert’s methods as “le Parcours” to encompass all his training methods.
Raymond learned how best to overcome obstacles in a fluid manner in a natural environment. His extraordinary athleticism and physical ability was nothing less than a ‘force of nature‘. He was a role-model for athletes, especially to his son David Belle and Sébastien Foucan.
Raymond died in December 1999, but his memory and the record of his many acts of bravery live on, just as valid now as they were in his heyday. With his charisma and his human qualities, he left his mark on his comrades. Raymond Belle will forever embody the iconic ideal of the military firefighters of Paris.
Now, thanks to David Belle (son of Raymond Belle) and his friend Sébastien Foucan, Parkour as a sport has spread around the world. It has both a great number of male and female adherents in many countries, among the young generation.