AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
Published — Monday 9 September 2013
Last update 15 September 2013 9:14 am
Battling to the last with sweat pouring from his brow, the wrestler winced as he lost his footing, the crowd roared and his rival flattened him in the sawdust.
In an Alpine nation that holds its traditions dear, it doesn’t come more Swiss than this, as the cowbells ring and the alphorns echo in a 52,000-seater stadium.
“Schwingen” is an ancestral form of wrestling unique to Switzerland, where hulking athletes in sackcloth shorts fight for crowns of oak leaves and prizes ranging from bulls to power drills.
“It’s like a pure extract of Swissness,” said Markus Walther, 45, his gaze locked on the seven sawdust circles in the center of the temporary stadium’s grass.
Little known abroad, Schwingen is iconic in Switzerland.
The triennial national championships — where around 300 top-level wrestlers vie for the title of “Schwingerkoenig,” or King of the Schwingers — are the country’s largest sporting event.
This year’s edition was expected to draw 300,000 people, overwhelmingly from the country’s majority German-speaking regions which are Schwingen’s heartland.
The 2013 event started Friday and wraps up late Sunday in Burgdorf, a picture-perfect community in the Emmental valley, home of the eponymous cheese.
The region’s hotels were booked solid, and demand was sky-high for stadium tickets priced at between 165 and 225 Swiss francs ($177-242) for a two-day pass.
The remaining fans watched outside on big screens, or soaked up the atmosphere with the help of some of the 80,000 sausages and 210,000 liters of beer expected to be wolfed down.
Like football supporters in their team’s replica kit, many in Burgdorf sported peasant-style shirts in the colors of their home regions.
Swiss national television broadcasts the bouts live, and top-level Schwingers are big names, with 2010 champion Kilian Wenger, 23, and rival Matthias Sempach, 27, both big crowd-pullers.
“These are young guys, and real idols,” said Fabio Lorenzet of the championships’ organization team.
Star-struck youngsters dream of emulating their success.
“I’d love to be the King myself one day,” said 13-year-old Pascal, who, like Wenger, has been wrestling since he was nine. Other fans admire them for different reasons.
A typical Schwinger, Wenger weighs 106 kilos, is one meter, 90 centimeters tall and is as fit as a firefighter.
“Of course I like it because it’s a great part of our tradition. But also because of these are really manly men, not pretty boys,” said Seraina Derungs, 25, as she chuckled at suggestions that Wenger was the David Beckham of Schwingen.
The comparisons with stars of global sports like football also fall short because Schwingers are amateurs, do not receive cash prizes, and must give a cut of any sponsorship back to their club.
There are ways and means to get by, however.
For example, selling the Burgdorf bull would rake in 22,000 Swiss francs, and the big-name wrestlers are often tapped by advertisers.
“You can’t live from Schwingen, but I know a handful of them don’t have to work so much in their day jobs,” said Lorenzet.
Despite the star power and smartphone apps for fans, Schwingen has its feet rooted firmly in the past.
It emerged among mountain herders and woodsmen centuries ago, and has been seen as a national sport since featuring at gatherings held in reaction to French rule during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s.
It took off big time after Swiss-wide rules were set down ahead of the first national championships in 1895.
The basics include having to grip the opponent’s Bermuda-length Schwingen shorts with at least one hand throughout a bout, and to bring his shoulders to the ground within six minutes in order to win.
“It’s a test of physical strength plus quick thinking and composure,” said Walther, who competed at the 1995 championships and runs the Schwingen federation of Mittelland, a region near the Swiss capital Bern.
Unlike boxing, there are no weight categories.
A bout between a 142-kilo, two-meter Schwinger and one who weighs 49 kilos less and is 24 centimeters shorter might seem a lost cause, but turning a rival’s apparent advantage against him is part and parcel.
“It’s a complete sport, because you use not only your strength but also your technical skills to offset drawbacks,” 26-year-old competitor Vincent Heiniger told AFP.
“The goal is to beat your opponent. But there’s also a huge amount of respect, and that’s part of the tradition too.”
Championship Schwingers may well be nicknamed “Boesen,” or bad guys, in a nod to their toughness.
But that label is belied by their behavior: the winner always helps his defeated opponent up and brushes him clean of sawdust.