Schwingen wrestling in Switzerland: The unusual Swiss tradition that's taken very seriously

There's a certain sound that a human body makes when it's thrown hard onto a pile of sawdust. It's a deep thud, a smack that reverberates through the grandstands today, drawing a wince from the crowd. 

Smack. Another torso hits the ground as the wrestlers in front of me grapple for position, hands locked onto trousers, arms rippling, faces contorted, shoulders raised centimetres just above the sawdust. People watch on, mesmerised, making barely a sound.

Soon one of those grappling hands fixes itself into position, the right leverage is applied, and shoulders are forced against the ground. The bout is over. The tension is released. The two wrestlers pick themselves up, the winner wipes sawdust off the vanquished, and the pair walk off into the crowd. 

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the sport of schwingen. It's tough, it's rural, and it's serious. You might picture it taking place in Central Asia, somewhere such as Mongolia or Kazakhstan. It seems like a tradition you'd find in one of those hardy countries where life is tough and combat sports are held in such high esteem.

But it isn't. Schwingen is a deeply respected tradition of none other than Switzerland, a country you might think you knew well, until you drive up high into the rolling green alps of the Emmental region, walk over a ridge seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and then take a seat on a wooden bench to watch this tournament of traditional wrestling unfold. 

So much of true Swiss culture, far away from the chocolate bars and secretive bankers and glitzy ski resorts we know so well, is represented at this little festival today, high in the mountains in a small village called Luederenalp. 

The event began with a church service held by the local minister, with hundreds of wrestlers and spectators pausing respectfully as Sunday mass was observed. Then out came the alpenhorns, those almost comically long woodwind instruments, for a band to play traditional tunes. A choir sung hymns. And then the real action was ready to begin. 

To the rest of the world, schwingen doesn't even exist – to the Swiss, however, it's very real, and very serious. There's a national championship each year that is watched by millions of people. There are multiple regional championships, too, like this one, held around the country, in which wrestlers hone their skills and progress up the rankings towards the top.

Most of the best schwingen wrestlers are country folk, farmers who train simply by doing their jobs. The guys gathered in Luederenalp today fit that description, ruddy faced, dressed in checked shirts and trousers, with the look of the young and enthusiastic. These are merely amateurs, I soon find out, locals competing in a minor event where the grand prize is a large ceremonial bell.

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At the bigger events the trophies will usually be "live" – good wrestlers can score a sheep, or a cow, or even a bull if they're declared the winner. That's even more important to these farmers than the huge bell that will hang outside their home.

Out in the Emmental alps today, two large circles of sawdust have been laid on the ground, wrestling rings with a backdrop of stunning mountain scenery. There's a crowd gathered around the circles, but there are also plenty of people standing around the raffle wheel nearby, and even more piled into the refreshments tent, where hunks of ham and sausages and local beer are being served. 

This may seem a completely foreign environment, but consider the combination: beer, sausages, sport and gambling. That's a concept not altogether unknown.

Few of us, however, will immediately understand the rules of schwingen, though they're relatively simple: you have two wrestlers who begin each bout standing in the middle of the ring, with their hands gripped on each other's hessian trousers. To win, one wrestler must force his opponent onto the floor, and pin his shoulders to the sawdust. The opponent doesn't have to be held there for any length of time – just the lightest touch will do. 

And so this festival of schwingen begins, the crowd around me showing very Swiss restraint by keeping largely silent as the local farm boys step into the rings and attempt to hurl each other to the floor. The choir yodels in the background. The strain shows on the faces of the wrestlers. 

Soon that "smack" of bodies hitting sawdust rings out across the stunning alpine scenery, and slowly but surely I begin to feel like I understand just that little bit more about schwingen, and, even more importantly, just that little bit more about Switzerland.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

myswitzerland.com

GETTING THERE

Qatar Airways flies from the east coast of Australia to Zurich, via Doha. For bookings go to qatarairways.com. From Zurich, trains run to Bern, from where it's possible to access the Emmental region by local train. See myswitzerland.com/rail.

STAYING THERE

In Bern, the Allegro is a four-star property that's walking distance from the city centre. See kursaal-bern.ch/hotel.

SEE + DO

For information on schwingen, including where future events will be held and how to get there, go to myswitzerland.com.

Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism

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