JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia has its first academy dedicated to parkour, the urban sport that developed from military obstacle course training, with children as young as four learning to run, jump, land, climb, tumble and roll in a safe environment.
Flite Freerun in Jeddah has a six-level system that is color coded. Each level unlocks new skills and challenges, with students starting at yellow. More advanced practitioners perform daring tricks and flips, showing off their agility and knowledge as they make their way around the academy and its obstacles.
Parkour coach Ali Abdulrahman said he became interested in the sport through movies, and took it up when he found a local group in the streets of Jeddah.
“I started practicing in the streets when I was around 19,” he told Arab News. “I started learning and practicing with this group step by step and dove deep into this sport. It is a beautiful and fun sport. The popularity of this sport is growing fast in the Kingdom, mostly through YouTubers and social media. Saudis want to learn this sport.”
Fellow coach Mohammed Khayat said there was growing interest in parkour among Saudis and he encouraged people to explore it.
“It’s everywhere in Europe” he told Arab News. “It is a new concept here but is continuing to gain popularity. Many of the youth are very interested in picking up the sport. I advise absolutely everyone to pick up parkour no matter your age. I’m 30 years old, and I recently started my journey with the sport. It is very fulfilling, freeing and encouraging.”
The academy’s co-founder Jon Dean said the original idea behind parkour was helping troops to become more efficient at moving.
“If you go back to about a hundred years, the French military came up with the original idea of parkour, which is called the natural method, and it was a system of basically helping the military become more efficient at moving, because in the military you need efficiency if you want to go and fight,” he told Arab News. “You don’t want to run out of energy. So the idea is to learn how to move fast with useful strength, if anything gets in your way you can overcome those obstacles.”
The discipline’s main goal for practitioners — who are known as tracers — is to move from one point to another by running, jumping, swinging, rolling and more using only their bodies. Dean said that the natural method system was later used by French emergency services.
“In the early 1980s a man by the name of David Belle and his father Raymond Belle, a fireman, used that natural method. His son adapted what his dad taught him, took it and made it into this movement and practice that was used in the streets. He didn’t want to join a football team or other sports so he was looking at a way to stay active, strong, youthful and he started playing around with what his dad taught him and that became what we know pretty much as the original parkour.”
Dean and his group introduced the program to young children between five and nine years old in Jeddah in 2017 before officially launching the brand last June.
“Families told other families and more and more kids joined. So in the last three years, we’ve seen the growth shoot up. In the first year, all we did was explain what parkour is. The second year, we hardly ever had to do that because people knew what it was, people came to us. The understanding was there, the attraction is there and when people try it, they keep coming back for more. It’s become popular.”
He said that there was a bright future for Saudi children in terms of parkour and other sporting activities, adding that authorities and the education sector had been supportive and cooperative.
“Kids here are as athletic as anywhere, they just haven’t had the right opportunities to train so now what we’re seeing is very good communication with the General Sports Authority. Whatever they’ve done internally within that system, they’ve got really good people on board. It was difficult sometimes working with organizations here in the past, we’re getting more opportunities to start to develop competitions locally, to do more public events. We piloted this program in four schools, two male and two female. The results were good, a hundred percent enjoyment from the students, PE teachers were happy with the simplicity of the program and the actual school administration loves the idea because everything is made in Saudi — the coaches, the equipment, and the program.”
Dean said that Saudis had the right attitude for parkour as they were hardworking and could push their limits. “The Saudi mentality of competition is very alive, it just needs to be harnessed.”