Schwingen wrestling: The ultimate in Swissness

Updated 15 September 2013
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Schwingen wrestling: The ultimate in Swissness

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.


China dog meat fest opens as South Korea goes the other way

Updated 57 min 16 sec ago
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China dog meat fest opens as South Korea goes the other way

  • The annual Yulin dog meat celebration opened without a hitch on Thursday
  • Eating dog to mark the summer solstice is a tradition in China’s Guangxi region

YULIN, China: As South Korea moves closer to banning dog meat, diners tuck into bowls of stewed canine in southern China, where activists are rethinking their tactics to counter a notorious festival that butchers thousands of dogs.
The annual Yulin dog meat celebration opened without a hitch on Thursday, a day after a South Korean court announced it had ruled that the slaughtering of dogs for meat was illegal.
Activists say the ruling could pave the way for the outlawing of dog meat consumption in South Korea, but there is less progress in China where advocates fear their tactics have been counterproductive.
Eating dog to mark the summer solstice is a tradition in China’s Guangxi region, where the festival has been held since 2009 to mark the occasion in the town of Yulin.
Despite rumors last year that Yulin authorities would ban dog meat sales altogether, many restaurants advertised the controversial offering this week with the veiled moniker of “fragrant meat.”
Carcasses were on display for purchase in the city’s open-air markets — though there were fewer of them than in previous years, locals said.
The Dongkou wet market downtown bustled with shoppers meandering past piles of dogs laid out atop butcher stalls for them to inspect. Others hung from hooks, their faces locked in a rigid grimace.
Market workers pulled in cartfuls of dead dogs while sweaty men blow-torched the fresher carcasses to remove any remaining fur. On the street, a man transported two live mutts in a cage on the back of his scooter.
As police patrolled outside the market premises, one woman bought a full dog for 662 yuan ($102), saying she would eat it with her family to celebrate the summer solstice.
“It’s very tasty,” another local surnamed Chen said, insisting “they’re all strays — strays and pets are different.”
Chen did not consider it cruel to consume the meat during what the Chinese zodiac system deems the Year of the Dog, quipping: “don’t you eat chicken in the year of the rooster, and pork in the year of the pig?”
But vendors were more discreet than usual.
They cooked in narrow alleys or inside their restaurants instead of preparing dog dishes in front of patrons, ushering diners inside and not serving outdoors.
Thousands of dogs are butchered during the event, the animal protection organization Humane Society International estimates — a fraction of the more than 10 million consumed each year in China.
Animal rights activists have typically attended the festival to purchase ill-fated dogs and save them from slaughter, said Qiao Wei, an activist from the Si Chuna Qiming Animal Protection Center.
But now they feel that working to establish a general ban on the dog meat trade would be much more effective.
“We have no hope that we can bring change just by going to Yulin,” he said. Simply buying dogs “doesn’t help.”
International animal rights groups concur, saying that focusing so intensively on dog meat consumption in just one city at an annual event risks becoming counterproductive.
“It would be far better to have a holistic campaign that works collaboratively across the country, engaging the government and public to acknowledge animals as our friends, not food,” said Jill Robinson, founder of the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation.
Chinese leader Mao Zedong had banned dog ownership for being bourgeois, but the ranks of China’s rising middle-class are now full of proud and loving dog owners.
This year, the foundation set up an online portal where Chinese citizens can report restaurants that operate illegally.
Tipsters have already flagged some 1,300 restaurants in 153 cities, with over 200 of them shut down, forced to stop selling the meat, or issued warnings, said Robinson.
Before the festival, animal protection groups from around the world submitted a letter with 235,000 signatures to Beijing, calling for the event’s abolishment.
The tide appears to be turning against dog meat consumption elsewhere in Asia, and Chinese animal lovers like Zhang Huahua, a 62-year-old retired lecturer-turned-activist, sense change is in the air.
Zhang came to Yulin all the way from her home in the southern province of Guangdong to submit a letter with recommendations to the local government.
Her hope is to save dog lives by changing the system itself.
In South Korea, where one million dogs are believed to be eaten annually, a court ruled that meat consumption was not legitimate grounds for killing canines, after an animal rights group accused a dog farm operator of slaughtering dogs “without proper reasons” and violating building and hygiene regulations.
Last April, Taiwan banned the consumption, purchase and possession of both dog and cat meat, with offenders facing a fine of up to Tw$250,000 ($8,170).
But many in Yulin viewed the news with a shrug.
“They can do what they want,” said a resident surnamed Huang, who nonetheless wasn’t fond of the taste of dog himself.