Sébastien Foucan is built like a soccer player, possessing the kind of physique that falls somewhere between a meaty-thighed sprinter and a sinewy marathoner. The Frenchman keeps his hair shaved close, like so many of the athletes that Europeans call "footballers."
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His offensive moves, however, aren't those of a forward or a midfielder. Foucan is one of the creators of an entirely new tandem of extreme sports—or art forms, as he says—called "parkour" and "free running." Together they're redefining the way that some people interact with their physical environments.
Approximately 17 million U.S. moviegoers got a crash course in Foucan's art courtesy of the 2006 James Bond flick "Casino Royale," which opens with a jaw-dropping chase scene that has the athlete hurdling over obstacles in his path and leaping like a cat between precarious perches—including, at one point, two construction cranes.
To the uninitiated, he may resemble a mere Hollywood stuntman in computer-enhanced glory. To those in the know, however, Foucan's performance is clearly something real, raw and primal.
Mark Toorock, a Washington, D.C., resident who runs the American Parkour Web site, americanparkour.com, says the difference between a pure free run and one compiled through special effects is glaring. "Every molecule of [Foucan's] body is screaming alive," he says.
Similar video clips—usually of men aged 16 to 30—abound on the Internet. They depict human action figures who vault over and through railings, scale walls and turn flips by pushing off a vertical structure with a hand or foot. The best, like Foucan, do even more daring feats: in a film called "Jump Britain," he long-jumps across a 13-feet-wide gap in the roof of Wales' Millennium Stadium, some 180 feet above the ground.
All these risk-takers see their environment, which is typically urban, as a giant obstacle course waiting to be surmounted. The way they tackle it can vary greatly, however—a fact that in recent years has led practitioners to distinguish between parkour and free running, which began as interchangeable terms. Those who conquer turf in an efficient, utilitarian manner are said to be doing parkour and are called "traceurs." Those who add expressive, acrobatic flourishes are said to be free running.
"A lot of this stuff we've seen and has been done before for movies and chase scenes because it is so instinctual as a way to get around objects quickly," says Levi Meeuwenberg, a 20-year-old free runner from Traverse City, Michigan. "But now, it has its own background and name."
Parkour and free running emerged from Lisses, a Paris suburb where Foucan and his friend David Belle grew up. Belle's father, a firefighter and Vietnam veteran, had trained in an exercise regimen based on the methods of physical education expert Georges Hébert, which were meant to develop human strength (and values) through natural means: running, jumping, climbing and so forth.
Inspired by the techniques, Belle began playing around on public surfaces with friends, including Foucan, in the early 1990s. They called their efforts "parkour," from the French "parcours," meaning "route." (Hebert's methods also spurred the development of the "parcourse," or outdoor exercise track.)