Schwingen – the Swiss form of wrestling – has experienced an upsurge in recent years, a revival that started with herdsmen more than 200 years ago.
Schwingen is very popular in Switzerland. Schwingen is fought as a duel between two physically powerful competitors and has its own rules, grips and throws. The nationally-acclaimed Bösen (‘wicked ones’, the best wrestlers) from throughout Switzerland pit their strength at Schwingen festivals. The champion wrestler is chosen at the national wrestling and Alpine festivals held every three years; the next event will be held in in 2016.
Schwingen differs from competition wrestling inasmuch as all the grips are fixed and the wrestlers wear jerseys or shirts and long trousers over which short wrestling pants made of jute are worn. The legs of these pants are rolled up to form a handle.
History: From herdsmen to elite sport
Schwingen’s origins are hard to place an exact date on. There is an early depiction in the cathedral of Lausanne dating from the 13th century and it shows one of the typical grips.
In Central Switzerland and the Mittelland, the Hosenlupf (trouser lift) has formed an integral part of festival culture. At many Alpine and tavern celebrations, wrestlers wrestled for a piece of trouser cloth, a sheep or some other kind of natural object. The glory of victory was more highly valued than an actual award.
The first Alpine shepherd’s festival at Unspunnen in 1805 marked a revival of the sport of Schwingen at a time when Switzerland was suffering under French rule. The aim of this festival was to explicitly strengthen the Swiss national consciousness. In the 19th century, Swiss wrestling was introduced to the cities through wrestling festivals and by sports coaches. Hence, from this original herdsman’s and farmer’s pastime a Swiss national sport was created. There are many customs and traditions that are closely linked to Swiss wrestling and the wrestling festivals.
How to win a match
At the beginning of a match, the Schwingers respectfully shake hands. A bout is ended when a wrestler touches the ground with his back, either completely or as far as the middle of both shoulder blades (from the head or buttocks, from the left or right side) at the same time. The result is only valid if both shoulder blades lie within the circle of sawdust The regulations also require that each winner wipes the sawdust from the shoulders of the loser.
Wrestlers wishing to successfully use a wide variety of tactics need to master a range of throws and their combinations. Originally there were only a few throws in use but today there are around 100 throws detailed in the wrestling manual. The five major throws are the Brienzer, Bur, Hüfter, Kurz and the Übersprung.
The judge panel
Before each bout, the judges organise the competitors. A special feature of Swiss wrestling is that after each bout a fresh decision is made as to who competes against whom. There are three to six judges depending on the occasion. The match is overseen and evaluated by a referee on the sawdust and two judges at the table. A bout lasts five minutes.
Elite sport for amateurs
The wrestling king and his fellow wrestlers do not receive any prize money, but they are awarded a wreath and receive prizes from the ‘gift table’: a Muni (young bull) as well as cowbells, rustic furniture and other natural objects. Swiss wrestling is an amateur sport with strict rules about sponsoring and an advertising ban at the wrestling venue.
Organised throughout Switzerland
The associations and the Eidgenössische Schwingerverband (Swiss Schwingen Association) founded in 1895 organise the sport and raise standards by integrating regional differences, providing instructional materials and training lessons, and by setting modern tournament rules. The association now has more than 5,000 active wrestlers, of which almost 2,000 are young people. It is divided into five regional associations, 23 cantonal associations and six district associations.
Women’s wrestling was first introduced in 1980. Despite its expansion into urban areas, Schwingen is still most popular in the tradition-conscious rural German-speaking areas of the Alpine foothills.
Unspunnen stone throwing
Closely associated with Schwingen is the sport of stone throwing. The so-called Unspunnen stone, a 83.5kg rough glacial boulder, is thrown with a running jump for the longest possible distance.
In August 2004, Markus Maire achieved a new record by throwing the stone, which is so heavy that ordinary mortals can hardly even move it, for an entire 4.11m and thus improved Roland Stählin’s previous record by 14cm.
The stone is named after the village of Unspunnen in Interlaken, where, after the departure of the French in 1805, the first major Alpine herdsmen’s festival was held. Information can be found at www.steinstossen.ch.