Parkour alive and well in the land of ice and snow.

It’s 11:00 am on an icy autumn morning when I meet up with Joona Saloranta, Winston Spennert and the boys from Parkourkeskus in the car park of Helsinki’s Pasila Railway Station. The sun is shining and in the distance Valtteri Luomanaho, a 16-year-old local parkour prodigy, lands a 540 spinning back flip off a concrete parking bollard in the centre of the parking lot.

“You must be the boys I’m looking for,” I say, as I approach the group, just as Saloranta, owner and manager of Parkourkeskus Vantaa runs over to shake my hand. As we stand there chatting about the photoshoot, Spennert lands a 12-foot gap jump between a once functioning water feature and an old park bench.

I soon discover that despite its remote location, general lack of urban landscapes and otherwise traditionally uninhabitable Nordic tundra, Finland is becoming increasingly renowned in the international arena of the traditionally urban art of parkour, aka freerunning, and I’m determined to find out more.

Other than for the thrill, why parkour?

Parkour improves physical condition very diversely compared to sports like football and running, which focus on localised muscle groups or stamina. Stamina, strength, speed, flexibility and agility are trained when practised correctly. On a mental level one must face many challenges, fears and know their limits very well in life, and parkour is perfect for showing you where those limits lie.

On the run

Parkour is traditionally known as a way to train one’s body and mind to move fluidly using only the obstacles found in a traditionally urban environment. Originally called l’art du déplacement, it was based on the methods used by French military to navigate obstacle courses. From here, artist David Belle was the first to practice what we today know as parkour in the late 1980s.

Fast-forward to 2003 and freerunning offered a more personalised interpretation of parkour. Borne out of the childhood games of Sébastien Foucan and his friends in the Parisian suburb of Lice, the activity received a big boost when Foucan found himself being chased by Daniel Craig in the 2006 James Bond flick Casino Royale. But, according to Spennert and the boys, they were doing parkour well before anyone gave it a name. Spennert recalls how he and his friends would climb buildings, jump gaps and look for new ways of navigating their urban surroundings well before it was widely known under the moniker of parkour.

“Parkour is a way of life,” explains Jukka Tarvainen. “Just seeing the possibilities of movement through an urban environment can be a metaphor for moving through life.”

But freerunning seems to be much more than just a bunch of slick moves put together for high-end advertising campaigns and James Bond movies. According to this crew, it is a discipline designed to help one both mentally and physically clear all obstacles in one’s path. It’s a discipline dedicated to being free in the towns and cities designed to contain them, and with Finland increasingly becoming a centre for expats from all over the world, the popularity and prominence of the sport continues to rise.

Running into history

According to Perttu Pihlaja (aka Spidey), General Director and founder of Parkour Akatemia (Finnish Parkour Academy), parkour in Finland was first documented in a television series about weird urban sports back in the spring of 2003, and from there the first formal practitioners started training.

Shot in Paris, the documentary was more about the phenomenon in general, and didn’t focus on the budding scene in Finland. However, after seeing the documentary on TV, a handful of groups of young guys in Finland started practising the sport, seeking out more information and connections with other practitioners.

Nipping down to the shops is never simply a straight forward affair.

Freerunning, by association

“Finland is the promised land of associations,” proclaims Jaakko Junttila, Executive Director and co-founder of Parkour Akatemia Finland. By the autumn of 2003 the Parkour Association of Finland (SPY) had been established to spread information about the sport and bring freerunners together. SPY was founded by a few practitioners from Helsinki in the autumn of 2003 and very soon guys from Jyväskylä and Oulu joined in. By 2005 the discipline had gained more and more popularity, and events such as Flow Finland helped the sport evolve into what it is today.

Nowadays Parkour is practised in both guided and non-guided sessions all across Finland and has given children a new alternative to competitive sports, while still helping them to develop both mentally, physically and spiritually. “It is a discipline that one can practice without competitions, thus giving people a chance to creatively develop and express themselves by creating new movements and ways of moving through their environment,” Pihlaja declares.

The Finnish Parkour Academy is, according to Pihlaja, currently the World’s biggest parkour coaching organisation, providing parkour lessons for various age groups and skill levels across the country. The Parkour Academy currently delivers over 100 weekly classes in seven different cities, with over 2,000 participants from Helsinki to Lapland. The sport’s role in positive social development is being recognised more and more by students and teachers alike.

Parkour is increasingly being seen as a much healthier alternative to many other sub cultural activities.

“You will never see a true parkour practitioner drinking or getting involved with many of the ‘unsavoury’ elements associated with many other suburban sports and activities,” Spennert states. “Parkour is a lifestyle; it’s about eating healthy food, healthy moving, training and more importantly, the social side, meeting up with friends and other’s who do and think alike.”

Finland has hosted many international events and is in this way bringing people together from all countries across not only Europe, but the whole world. The most recent international event was the tongue-twisting “The Most Apocalyptic Supreme Parkour Armageddon: Nuclear Lightning Storm” which was held in Jyväskylä in December 2012 and did great things for global perceptions of the scene here. There are currently more that 10 full-time parkour professionals who teach, perform, organise activities and design parkour equipment for areas such as Parkourkeskus threw out the country.

Taking it indoors

According to Pihlaja, one does not need anything to practice parkour, except perhaps a curious mind and an able body. One does not need any gear or equipment and can practise Parkour practically anywhere and anytime, even outdoors in the Finnish winter, says Spennert.

Establishments such as Parkourkeskus give people an opportunity to practice around experienced individuals. Not only does Parkourkeskus provide a safe and controlled environment to train in, but it is also used as a refuge for outdoor parkour enthusiasts during the winter months.

“It is a great healthy environment for kids to come and express themselves” says Saloranta, adding that children who attend Parkourkeskus as opposed to going directly home after schools have reportedly experienced higher concentration levels and improved strength and stamina both in the classroom and during other school and social activities.

And with that the crew sets off to continue their free run around the city.



Text and photos Thomas Poole