Hosted in an open air arena near the Brünig Pass, which divides the canton of Bern from the canton of Obwalden – the Bernese Highlands and central Switzerland – the annual Brünig Wrestling festival brings together more than a hundred trouser-holding wrestlers to establish who is the regional strongman.
Similar to Japanese sumo wrestling, the Alpine version is partly distinguished by the outfits worn by its participants.
Wrestlers from the Bernese Highlands wear a white shirt and trousers while wrestlers from the countryside proudly adorn their farming outfits. And it is this urban-rural rivalry, between the Bernese urban component and the rural participants of central Switzerland, which defines the traditional event.
“The rivalry in the ring between the Bern contingent and the central Swiss wrestlers remains very strong,” Christoph Imfeld, the festival's head of press, told The Local. “But once the bout is over the men shake hands and return to being the best of friends outside the ring.”
This year marked a rare recent victory for the countryside contingent, as Fankhauser Erich from Lucerne took the top prize. Since 2011, wrestlers from Bern had won every year, reports local daily Luzerner Zeitung. Each year 120 wrestlers take part in the event, according to Imfeld.
The wild duels were formalized into the current festival in 1893 but only in 1916, at the height of World War I, did the festival take up residence in its open-air arena above the Brünig Pass, according to the Brünig Wrestling festival's web page.
The competition, a sort of Alpine strongman affair, originated in the 19th century (possibly earlier). Dairymen from different regions would meet in late September, once the cattle had been driven into the valleys, to test their prowess against each other. The event was later moved to the last Sunday of July.
The Unspunnen, the world's largest folk festival held every 12 years in Switzerland, is credited with having formalized the tradition of Swiss wrestling.
More than 90 metres-cubed of sawdust are needed for the four 12-metre wide sawdust wrestling rings in the arena at the Brünig Wrestling festival. The raucous event caters for 5,000 seated audience members and a further 1,000 standing, according to the festival organizers.
A match is won when the winner holds the opponent's pants, made of jute, with at least one hand and both the opponent's shoulders touch the ground. According to tradition, the winner must brush the sawdust off the loser's back after the bout.
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Each year, the prize pot totals 33,000 Swiss francs (€28,500). The festival hasn't changed much since its inception in 1893, although 1.3 million Swiss francs (€1.12 million) has been invested since 2012 to upgrade facilities, according to the festival committee.
Besides wrestling, this year's festival also included alphorn and yodeling performances – blending the ancient traditions of the region into an all-day gala.
Swiss champion wrestlers become household names in Switzerland and the Brüning Wrestling festival is afforded the kind of media coverage often reserved for sports like football or tennis. Swiss media house SRF broadcast the bouts live while several radio stations and press journalists also cover the popular annual event.
The Federal Swiss Wrestling Festival will be held on September 1st and September 2nd this year in Fieschertal, although more than half a dozen smaller Swiss wrestling events are scheduled throughout August.