Traditional Swiss Sports Come to Pratteln!
This August, the elite of three traditional Swiss sports—Schwingen, Hornussen, and Steinstossen—gathers in Pratteln in Baselland to determine their champions at the “Eidgenössisches Schwing- und Älplerfest,” or ESAF (Swiss Wrestling and Alpine Shepherds Festival). But what are these sports all about?
“Schwingen”—the Swiss version of wrestling—has been around for hundreds of years. A picture from the 13th century in the cathedral of Lausanne shows Schwingers with the traditional way of gripping their opponents. In many parts of Switzerland, Schwingen—also called “Hosenlupf” (trouser lift)—has long been an essential part of many Alpine and other festivals, where the winners were awarded with a sheep, a piece of cloth, or other natural goods. The modern tradition of Schwingen began with the first Alpine shepherds’ festival in the town of Interlaken, near the ruins of Unspunnen castle. It was held shortly after Napoleon invaded Switzerland and had the goal of strengthening Swiss unity against the invaders. Although the festival was only moderately effective in that respect, it started a tradition that still continues to this day, with an “Unspunnenfest” held at the site approximately every 12 years (the last one was held in 2017).
The Sports and the Participants
Schwing competitions are held outdoors, on circular arenas 12 meter in diameter that are matted with sawdust. In addition to their traditional clothing of shirts and long pants, the two wrestlers wear short pants made of burlap and held up by a belt. To start the match, the wrestlers hold each other by those pants and then, as in traditional wrestling, try to trip or throw their opponents so that they end up on their backs. There are numerous throws they can use, many similar to those used in traditional wrestling or judo. The match ends when the winner manages to throw his opponent down so both of his shoulders touch the ground while holding on to the loser’s pants. At the same time, the fighters are awarded points for the throws they use, so if neither of the two manages a winning throw after a given period of time, the more active fighter receives the higher number of points. As a sign of respect for each other, the competitors shake hands before and after each bout, and the winner brushes the sawdust off the loser’s back after the bout.
When you go to a Schwing festival, you will notice that there are two groups of Schwingers distinguished by their clothing. One group is dressed in white shirts and pants; they are called “Turnerschwinger” and are members of clubs that offer a variety of sports, with Schwingen being just one department. The other groups is dressed in dark pants and traditional, typically blue shirts. These are the “Sennenschwinger” (a “Senn” is a farmer or dairymen living on small farms in the mountains during summer); they belong to clubs that are dedicated only to Schwingen. But otherwise there is no difference between the two groups. Most Schwingers are tall, heavy-set men; they are all amateur sportsmen who often work in professions requiring physical strength.
While Schwingen has traditionally been a male sport, women have also been entering the arena in recent decades. The first Schwing festival for women was held in 1980; national championships for women and girls (Eidgenössische Frauen- und Meitlischwingfest) have been held since 1989, and a national association for female Schwingers (Eidgenössischer Frauenschwingverband) was founded in 1992.
Local, cantonal, and regional wrestling festivals are held in various cantons throughout each summer, but the ESAF only takes place every three years in a different region of Switzerland, and this year it comes to the Basel area for the first time. During most festivals, each Schwinger wrestles six opponents; at the ESAF, it is up to nine opponents, but some participants will be eliminated after the fourth and sixth rounds. The matchups in all but the last rounds do not follow specific rankings but are set by a “fight court” according to some arcane rules. After the penultimate round, the two competitors with the highest number of points from all previous rounds are determined and go against each other in the “Schlussgang” (final bout) to determine the overall winner. The winner of the ESAF can call himself “Schwingerkönig” (Schwinger king) for life.
As all competitors are amateurs, they don’t receive monetary prizes for their achievements. Instead, a “Gabentempel” (temple of gifts) is set up with prizes donated by sponsors. These can range from large cow bells to chairs, tools, household goods, and so on. The top competitors typically receive live animals as a prize, most commonly a “Muni” (bull), heifer, or horse. In addition, the winner is adorned with a wreath.
Hornussen is an indigenous Swiss sport that originated in the Emmental region and is loosely related to baseball and cricket. It gets its name from the puck, or Hornuss, that when hit whizzes through the air at speeds of up to 300 km/h and makes a buzzing sound like a hornet. Hornussen is played by two teams—one that aims to bat the Hornuss as far as possible, and one that aims to stop the Hornuss with large, long-handled paddles as early as possible, but at least before it touches the ground.
To hit the Hornuss, it is placed at the end of a small ramp, and the batter tries to hit it with a 3-meters-long, flexible stick made from aluminum, fiberglass, carbon fibers or the like that has a hard wooden block at the end. The goal is to hit the Hornuss so hard that it flies deep into the playing field or even beyond it. The opposing team monitors the flight path of the Hornuss and tries to bat it down to the ground with their paddles made from wood or plastics as early as possible. Negative points are awarded for the distance that the Hornuss flies before it is hit by a paddle or touches the ground—the farther it flies, the more negative points are given to the defending team. At the same time, positive points are awarded to the batting team, also based on the distance the Hornuss flies. The winner of the match is the team with fewer negative points—that is, who allowed fewer Hornusses to touch the ground without stopping them first. If both teams have the same number of negative points, the team with the higher number of positive points wins.
Hornussen matches are played on trapeze-shaped grassy pitches or harvested fields that are 200 meters long, beginning 100 meters from the launch ramp. The matches usually involve two rounds, with each team hitting and defending once during each round. These matches last about 3-4 hours. At the ESAF, each of the participating 20 teams will have one match on Friday afternoon and one match on Saturday morning. The matches on Saturday will be set according to the rankings from Friday, with the team in first place playing the one in second place and so on.
Another common event at Schwing festivals is a “Steinstossen” (stone throw) competition, which was first held during the 1805 and 1808 Unspunnen festivals in Interlaken. At the ESAF, 72 participants selected in three preliminary qualification rounds will compete in three categories of this Swiss variant of the stone put. The first category involves a one-handed throw of a 20 kg boulder (44 lbs) with a run-up. The second category involves a one-handed throw of a 40 kg boulder (88 lbs) from a standing position.
The third and most spectacular category is the throw of the 83.5 kg (184 lbs) “Unspunnenstein”—a boulder that has been used since 1984, when the original stone that had been used since 1808 was stolen by political activists from the Jura. The current stone is stored in the counter hall of the Interlaken UBS bank. It is only used at the Unspunnen festivals and at the ESAF festivals. The Unspunnenstein is thrown two-handedly, and each competitor can decide if they want to use a run-up or throw from a standing position. During the qualifications, the leader achieved a distance of 3.90 meters with this stone.
So if you want to immerse yourself in some Swiss sporting traditions, visit the ESAF 2022 in Pratteln or one of the smaller Schwing festivals that take place throughout the summer and early fall. Although the more than 50,000 tickets for the arena at the ESAF to watch the Schwingen competitions and finals of the Unspunnen stone throw have long since been sold out, you can still enjoy the Hornussen and other stone throw competitions, marvel at the Gabentempel with the prizes, and get a glimpse of Switzerland’s cherished traditions!Share