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Schwingen: Everything you need to know about Switzerland’s ‘national sport’

Schwingen, otherwise known in English as Swiss wrestling, is Switzerland's national sport. Here's what you need to know.

Two Swiss wrestlers have it out on the sand in Zug.
Schwingen, or Swiss wrestling is not just about brute force. Photo: AFP

There are not many amateur sports I know that can fill a 50,000 stadium with another 300,000 people viewing from outside the arena.

This is why ‘schwingen– as Switzerland’s traditional wrestling is known – holds a unique place in Swiss sport and culture.

In fact, the Federal Swiss Wrestling and Alpine Festival (ESAF) – which takes place every three years and is next scheduled for 2022 – is Switzerland’s largest sports event.

Zug-based sports writer Charlie Inglefield gives us the lowdown on a sport which is growing in popularity in modern Switzerland. 

A sport on the up

The origins of schwingen (or ‘hosenlupf’ as its also called) date back to medieval times.

Today, schwingen’s popularity is on the rise thanks, in part, to the chiselled good looks of the 2010 winner, Kilian Wenger, as Brigitte Hefti explained to me. Hefti’s partner Rolf is a farmer and his family’s connection with schwingen goes back many generations.

“Since 2000, the popularity of the sport has soared. When Wenger won in 2010, schwingen became more saleable to the public and sponsors came on board,” Hefti said.

Not just about brute force

So what is schwingen? The easiest comparison to make is with wrestling. The rules are complex (you can read them here in German) but essentially the contest involves one round lasting between from 10–12 minutes.

The ‘schwinger’ who manages to throws his opponent onto his back (either fully, or as far as the middle of both shoulder blades) is the winner.

Wrestlers must always have at least one hand on the shorts of their opponent. For this reason, they wear special jute shorts over their trousers. These shorts have a slit at the back so that competitors can grab hold of each other.

Schwingen isn’t just about raw power, as Hefti explained: “You have to be in good condition and you need flexibility, power and technique.”

Farmers against city boys

There are two types of schwinger – the ‘sennenschwinger’ and the ‘turnerschwinger’.

The sennenschwinger traditionally come from alpine or rural areas and wear dark trousers and, generally speaking, a blue Edelweiss shirt. The turnerschwinger are traditionally affiliated with city sports clubs and wear white.

The King of Switzerland

The Federal Swiss Wrestling and Alpine Festival is hosted just every three years by one of the country’s five wrestling regions.

The competition lasts from Friday through to the Sunday and showcases traditional Swiss alpine culture and music alongside the main event, which consists of eight rounds of wrestling. 

Matthias Sempach, winner of the Swiss national schwingen competition in 2013, overcomes an opponent in the ring. Photo: Andy Mettler/Swiss-image

Every participant goes through the same rounds and the winner is crowned the ‘schwingerkönig’, or the Wrestler King (the only king in republican Switzerland).

There are no cash prizes but the winner receives a bull, which is typically valued at 15,000 Swiss francs (around €13,800). Other prizes vary from a cowbell to an oven. These prizes come from the ‘gabentempel’ – or ‘gift table’, which contains prizes worth nearly a million francs in total. Everyone wins something.

An expat’s turn

Paul Timmins, who lives in Zug and has a rugby background, got a rude awakening to schwingen when he took on Hefti’s partner, Rolf, for the first time.

“I consider myself in relatively good nick for my age but I was taken to the cleaners and picked up like a rag doll,” he told me.

Timmins is one of very few non-Swiss to have given schwingen a go. This raises the question of whether schwingen should be more open participants from other countries such as USA.

But Joe Ming, former President of the West Coast Swiss Wrestling Association, told me it was it virtually impossible to challenge the Swiss when it came to schwingen.

“There will most likely never be a US champion. Because of our geography, there are not enough of the high-level wrestlers that live in one area where they can train all the time with the good guys,” he explained.

Ming is passionate about the sport – he made it to the magic round-eight mark in Bern in 1998 – and is quietly confident that the sport can grow in the USA.

“I can see schwingen growing on the West Coast, but it will take some time. There is a grass-roots effort that the clubs have adopted and it teaches the kids many of the cultural things that make Switzerland unique – food, music, beauty,” he said.

“If the kids start liking their culture, they are more inclined to want to participate in their culture’s sport,” he added.

The future of the sport

The ESAF organising committee has a budget of 32 million francs to make the event a success. With record numbers attending, and sponsors including John Deere and Zuger Kantonalbank, questions are now being posed about where the sport can go in future.
Wrestler Diey Puye (R) celebrates after winning against Robin Straub during the first day of the 2016 Federal Alpine Wrestling Festival. Photo: AFP
Schwingen at the national festival is a very male-dominated sport, despite women taking up the sport in droves. There are now cardboard cutouts of the 2018 Champion, Sonia Kälin, alongside the men in Zug’s shop windows.  
Times are a changing within schwingen and just maybe in 2022 (Basel) there could be women taking part or we might see a foreign champion.

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For members


EXPLAINED: Which pets can’t be kept alone in Switzerland?

One of Switzerland’s most unique laws is a prohibition on keeping ‘social’ animals alone as pets. But which animals does this rule apply to?

EXPLAINED: Which pets can’t be kept alone in Switzerland?

Most people get pets to counter their own loneliness – but what happens if the pets themselves get lonely? 

Like the clown who entertained the village but was never able to laugh or smile, the lonely pet is a sad tale. 

Fortunately in Switzerland, loneliness among pets has been outlawed – or at least minimised, through a series of 

Certain animals which are considered to be ‘sociable’ cannot be kept alone, nor can they be kept in small cages or enclosures.

Under Article 13 of Switzerland’s Animal Protection Ordinance (TSchV), these animals must be accompanied by another animal of the same species, i.e. providing them with the company of another animal – or that of a human – will not be sufficient.  

Which animals does Switzerland consider to be ‘social’?

Working out which animals are considered social and which are not can be difficult, especially as the section itself does not lay out an exhaustive list. 

In practice however, there are several animals which are considered social and must be kept in pairs as a minimum. 

These are guinea pigs, mice, gerbils, rats, degus (Chilean rodent), chinchillas and ferrets. 

READ MORE: The 12 strange laws in Switzerland you need to know

Rabbits can be kept alone only after they are eight weeks old, as younger rabbits are considered social animals. 

Hamsters on the other hand can be kept alone – in fact, ‘gold hamsters’ are loners and should be kept alone, according to the Swiss Veterinary and Food Safety Ordinance

Dog owners are recommended to allow their animal to have contact with other dogs, however this is not mandatory. Cats can be kept alone but should be allowed outside regularly. 

The list isn’t limited only to mammals, however. 

Goldfish must also be kept in pairs, along with budgies, lovebirds, Japanese quails, macaws, cockatoos, parakeets, parrots, canaries and finches. 

Where one animal dies, you are required to quickly replace it, so that the one which remains is not lonely

If you cannot, the Swiss authorities ask that you give your animal to a home or another pet owner, so it won’t be lonely for too long. 

There’s also Zurich’s ‘guinea pig rental’ service, whereby you can get some temporary company for your pet in times of need. 

While it may sound like a laughing matter to some, more and more is being understood about how animals interact and deal with stress. 

Animal behaviour such as plucking out feathers or scratching fur is now being understood as a consequence of loneliness. 

“The law reflects our perception of how animals are kept in a species-appropriate manner,” Jean-Michel Hatt, Professor of Zoo, Home and Wildlife Medicine at the University of Zurich, told Germany’s Welt newspaper when the law was passed in 2008. 

“Especially with budgerigars and guinea pigs, the legal obligation to keep at least two of them is really the minimum.”

What happens if you break the rules? 

Generally speaking, you will receive a caution and an explanation about the rules at first instance, as presumably many would be unclear about the laws and how they apply. 

However, there are some relatively harsh penalties for those who continue to refuse to observe the rules. 

Persistent violations could see you receive a fine of up to CHF20,000, which is a lot more expensive than an additional budgie. 

At worst, you could even find your own loneliness increasing exponentially, as animal neglect carries with it a maximum jail term of 180 days in Switzerland (at which point you’ll probably begin to understand how the guinea pigs feel). 

What other rules should pet owners consider? 

In addition to reflecting animals’ social nature, it also seeks to protect their privacy. 

An animal enclosure must allow for space where the animal can retreat in private wherever it likes. 

So if you’re thinking of building something and want to stay consistent with Swiss law, try and construct something like a share house for your pets, with both a common area and a place where it can get some well-deserved privacy.