Alpine Wrestling festival spotlights brawn, Swiss pride

Sun Sep 1, 2013 7:50pm EDT
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By Caroline Copley

BURGDORF, Switzerland (Reuters) - Matthias Sempach, a 27-year-old farmer and butcher, knew exactly what he had to do to earn his title on Sunday of "King of the Alpine Wrestlers": hang onto his opponent's shorts.

Sempach was one of the "baddies", as Switzerland's best wrestlers are known, who pitted it out in a two-day contest that drew more than 250,000 people to the cheesemaking region of Emmental for the Swiss Wrestling and Alpine Herdsman Games.

For Sempach, the prize was a bull. For many of the thousands who came to watch, the games were a chance to take pride in their nationality.

The age-old Swiss sport of Alpine wrestling, or Schwingen, has undergone a renaissance in recent years amid a rising tide of globalization and increased immigration.

The sport's popularity also taps into a broader revival of "'Swissness", which includes other customs such as yodeling and the Alphorn, said Urs Huwyler, author of the 2010 book, "Kings, Confederates and Other Wickeds - a Folk Sport Becomes Trendy."

"There's no better expression of Swiss tradition than Schwingen," he said.

Although the sport's origins are unknown, it is believed its roots trace back to medieval Alpine shepherd festivals.

The first organized event took place in 1805 in the village of Unspunnen in an attempt to resurrect national pride, bruised by the Napoleonic invasion and the occupation of the Swiss Federation at the end of the 18th century.   Continued...

Swiss Alpine wrestler Matthias Sempach gets the crown after winning the Federal Alpine Wrestling Festival (Eidgenoessisches Schwing- und Aelplerfest) in Burgdorf September 1, 2013. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich