Schwingen, a New King is Born


Picture: Peter Bruhin

The national schwingen and folk festival is in a different location every 3 years. It was the weekend of August 27th and 28th in the French speaking Estavayer this year (2016). It was especially hot and tickets were expensive, so we did the next best thing to being there. We watched it on TV.  I’ve been in Switzerland for a while and figured it was time to sink my teeth into this national sport. So I could see what all the commotion was about.

So what is schwingen? Schwingen translates into “swing” and has nothing to do with music or dance. The Swiss also call it “Hosenlupf” which in English is something like “breeches-lift”.  It is also known as Swiss wrestling  or Alpine wrestling because that is where it originated. Basically it is a type of wrestling where you swing, trip or lift your opponent. These actions result in him landing on the sawdust covered ground on his back. I guess sawdust makes for a softer landing.

The Beginnings

Schwingen started as a traditional men’s sport for farmers and is now a very Swiss national sport. At least for the German speaking part of Switzerland it’s a big deal. Although the national festival this year was held in the French speaking part, they really haven’t gotten into the groove.

There are other national sports which fall into the category “only in Switzerland” too. They are Hornussen (my husband calls it farmer’s tennis) and Steinstossen (stone put). The history of all these sports goes so far back no one really knows exactly when they started. There is a picture of schwingers in the Cathedral of Lausanne from the 13th century! A pastor Franz Josef Stalder wrote a set of rules for schwingen in 1797. It really gained popularity when it was included in the Unspunnenfest in Interlaken (held every 12 years or so) in 1805. That’s a festival where the contestants throw an 83.5 kg stone for fun.

Schwingen Rules

The modern rules forbid advertising in the arena area. Good. So there is nothing there to deter your attention. They also say what the schwingers are allowed to wear (dark, long pants, colored shirt, usually light blue). The men wrestle within a 12m circle covered in sawdust and as far as I can tell, the event is usually held outside. They wear special shorts called breeches with a leather belt over their long pants. That way their opponent has something to grab onto to throw them to the ground.

There are no weight or special categories or classes, it is one competition. You win when your opponent has both shoulder blades  in the sawdust. At the same time you must  hold onto your opponent’s shorts with at least one hand. It sounds easy enough, but nothing is ever as easy as it sounds.

Techniques and Scoring

As with all sports, the techniques they use have names. You never just “throw” you opponent to the ground. No, you use a “kurz”, “ubersprung”, “wyberhaagge”, “gammele” or “brienzer”. I understand if you know judo you would probably recognize one or the other tosses. Something called the “hüftler” (hipster) is almost identical to “koshi guruma”, so I’ve heard.

Scores are given for the correctness and technical variations. The referees give the scores and there is no discussion allowed with either the schwingers or the audience.

  • won: 9.50 – 10.00
  • draws: 8.50 – 9.00
  • lost rounds: 8.25 – 8.75


I would call it a gentleman’s sport because there is absolutely no nastiness. In spite of the fact that these are big men with tree trunks for necks.  Before they start they shake hands. Then they get into the start position, shoulder to shoulder, each hanging on to the other’s belt. Next, they start pushing, moving slowly one way or the other. Both looking for the right moment to get the other to the ground. A round lasts for 8 minutes, if no one wins then it’s a draw. The winner helps the loser get up and brushes the sawdust off his back.

The final round is between the two men with the most points after 7 rounds and lasts 16 minutes. The winner is the man with the most points.

The winner of the national tournament is called king (a life-long title). Although the king doesn’t win any money, depending on how business suave he is he can earn upwards to 2 million Francs. The top 15% of the schwingers in a tournament win a Cesar-like wreath. The king also wins a bull, a cowbell and I believe a car. They used to win a bull and a washing machine (how times change).

It was interesting to watch the event on TV. The commentators always called the wrestlers by their last name then first. Always. I did do a double take when the commentator in his excitement said something like “that was a world class move”. Really? World class?

The King

This year the Bernese Glarner Matthias won. They called the last round the old verses the young, after all, Glarner Matthias is 30 years old. His opponent, Orlik Armon is only 18. It was fun to watch, after about 13 minutes and many close calls Glarner Matthias turned an attack from his opponent to his advantage. Orlik Armon landed on his back and that was that, it was over. The winner didn’t jump up in the air to celebrate (I think he was too exhausted to do that anyway). He went over to his opponent who was still laying in the sawdust and asked him if he was okay. He then gave him a hand up. Then Glarner Matthias brushed the sawdust off his opponents back and they walked off the circle. All the while to a cheering crowd in a sold-out stadium of 50’000 people.

It was fun to watch, who knows, if there is a tournament near here maybe I’ll go see it live.

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