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The Kings of Schwing

27 November 2016

From farmers’ pastime to a national phenomenon capturing the imagination of a country, schwingen is the greatest sport you don’t know about.

In the heart of Switzerland’s Fribourg canton the hills are alive with the sound of grunting, as grown men wear giant sackcloth shorts and tussle in clouds of sawdust. This is not your average alpine scene, and we are not in some bucolic village in the Swiss hinterland – although there is a cheese-maker, several sheepherders, a lumberjack and a few farmers in the vicinity. Rather than going about their daily business, these 200-plus pound men are squaring off against each other to a raucous crowd of 52,000, in a bid to become the ‘Schwingerkönig’ (King Of The Schwingers) at Switzerland’s tri-annual Federal Wrestling And Alpine Games Festival.

The national sport of schwingen may be largely unknown outside of Switzerland, but the ancestral form of wrestling is practically a religion here, woven in the fabric of society like baseball is in the US. Reigning champion Matthias Sempach (a butcher-slash-farmer from Berne) has become a David Beckham-like figure in Switzerland since winning the 2013 championship in Burgdorf. And while wrestlers may be regarded as amateur sportsmen on the global stage, the top schwingen stars are revered as inspirational athletes in their home country – the most ‘bose’ (wicked ones) even starring in their own pin-up calendar. These really wicked schwingers can have careers lasting up to 25 years.

Although the big event only comes around once every three years, schwingen fever kicks in around May, with local and regional competitions taking place all over the country up until October. Of the quarter of a million visitors who have managed to get much sought-after tickets to the 2016 Estavayer-Le-Lac championship, around 30 to 40 per cent are female (and not all dirndl-wearing women). Its upsurge in the last decade is remarkable. In 1980 there were just 33,000 spectators – a figure that has swelled to some 52,000 today. And despite its roots being traced back to the 13th century, the popularity of wrestling amongst Switzerland’s millennial is growing. Folk sport is getting a makeover and swinging is the new sexy. There is even a schwingen app you can download – proof that modernity has found its place alongside the traditions of this ancient folk sport.

Size Matters
A cool CHF25 million (US$26 million), 4,000 volunteers (together with some help from the Swiss army) and the largest temporary grandstand ever built for a three-day event is what it took to pull off the 44th Swiss Wrestling And Alpine Games – a festival that has been held regularly since 1895. Between the beer guzzling and sausage eating, 275 qualified wrestlers from Switzerland vied for the title of ‘King Of The Schwingers’ in eight rounds of wrestling held over two days in Payerne’s military air base, 7km from Estavayer.

Folk for Everyone
It isn’t just wrestling that draws in the 16 to 61 year olds – the event is one giant folk festival, with yodel choirs, flag throwers and alphorn players reinforcing the Swiss culture, to which wrestling is intrinsically linked.

Water weigh-in
While the wrestlers may not always need to weigh-in, the schwingen water fountain made of ausgehohlten tree trunk – that wrestlers use to wash in before and after a match – must meet strict requirements, and hold precisely 95 litres of water.

The Middle Man
A schwingen referee keeps an eye on the action. A match is normally judged by three refs, with one standing in the circle of sawdust, or platz. One of his jobs is to approve the start position (which looks a bit like an awkward hug), before shouting gut (good) to initiate the wrestling.

Rule of Thumb
The schwingen technique may have evolved over the years, but the rules are still circa 16th century. The idea is to hang on to your opponent’s shorts, whilst trying to hurl your fellow wrestler onto their back. The first to pin his or her competitor’s shoulders to the ground wins. However, it would be disingenuous to label this all about brute force. Like gymnastics, it’s not just beating your opponent that counts; it’s how you win. The best score is 10, awarded for a Platt throw (when both shoulders hit the floor at the same time). But even losers get points (between 8.25 and 8.75) that they can carry through to the next bout. Between three and six judges organise the competitors and decide who fights who.

The Burlap
The wrestlers’ burlap breeches (which look more like oversized underwear) are actually crafted by tailors from Emmental, who are typically saddlers by profession. Made from tough jute fabric and with a special slit in the back to enable the opponent to secure a grip on the looped leather belt, schwingers pull up the shorts over their cloth trousers, which are casually rolled to the knee.

Another One Bites The Dust
The average schwingen match lasts around five minutes, and in that time wrestlers can flex up to 100 different throws, but in reality the best schwingers, or die bosen (bad guys), only use about 10 different moves, such as the uberschwung (overdrive), hufter (hip check) and wyberhaken (lady-hook).

Ritual and Regulation
The victorious schwinger wipes sawdust from his opponent’s shoulders – a gesture that is not only respectful, but also a regulation in Swiss wrestling called Dressing. Many of the competing wrestlers are friends and will also practise good sportsmanship with a classic pre-match handshake.

Wardrobe Essentials
One way to pick out the cattle farmers from the city boys is to pay attention to their wardrobe in the ring. Wrestlers from farming stock or the hinterland, known as ‘Senn’, usually wear dark pants and peasant-style shirts. Meanwhile, if you see a schwinger dressed all in white, and who’s gymnast-trained, then they’re from the town. You can refer to them as a ‘Turner’.

Cash Cow
The young bull, Clement or ‘Mazot de Cremo’ (900kg of prime beef), is paraded around the 52,000 all seater-stadium. This is what the champion will take home, and it’s worth an estimated US$22,250. The Schwingerkönig can exchange Clement for the money after his three-year reign as King, during which time he must give a cut of any sponsorship deals back to his club.

King of the Sheepherders
Eight heats and two days of sweat and sawdust later, 30-year-old sheepherder and underdog Matthias Glarner from Heimberg in Bern, defeats fellow sheepherder, 21-year-old Armon Orlik from Graubünden, in a gripping 16-minute grand final. There is no silver or gold in schwingen – just 44 oak leaf garlands, or kranzas, awarded to the top 20 per cent performing wrestlers called Federals, who also get to pick out power drills, hot tubs and a year-long supply of Shorley (a sparkling apple drink) from an unconventional prize table.

Words / Images: Sarah Freeman

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