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.
Unease about the growing number of foreigners in Switzerland may have played a role in the recent surge in the sport’s popularity, said Mario John, chairman of the Swiss Schwingen Association.
Net immigration to Switzerland, which has a population of 8 million, has run at around 80,000 annually in recent years.
“I‘m not a particular fan of the wrestling, but I’ve been coming to Schwingen festivals for years because it’s typically Swiss,” Walter Iggenberger, 74, from Grabuenden in eastern Switzerland, said at the games in Burgdorf.
Regula Von Ah, 21, an assistant at a medical practice from Obwalden in central Switzerland also enjoys the tradition.
“I like the atmosphere, there are no fights and the people are really friendly,” said Von Ah, clad in a traditional light-blue Edelweiss shirt, bright yellow sunglasses and a straw hat.
In Schwingen duels, wrestlers grab hold of each other’s burlap shorts, rather like two bulls locking horns, and seek to hurl their opponent onto his back using a variety of throws.
The winner is the wrestler who succeeds in pinning the other man to the ground in a sawdust ring, while still keeping a grip on his opponent’s shorts. After the bout is over, the victor respectfully brushes sawdust off his competitor’s back.
There are no weight categories or divisions. The wrestlers are amateurs and typically work as farmers, cheesemakers and lumberjacks. Size counts and the top stars typically weigh in excess of 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and stand over 190 centimeters tall (6 feet, 2 inches).
While Switzerland is best known as a prosperous international banking hub and a base for some of the world’s biggest companies, it is also a country firmly attached to its farming past with a proudly egalitarian culture
The top Schwingen stars count among the nation’s most popular athletes, and there is even a calendar of pin-ups.
The number of spectators in the games’ wrestling arena has risen to 52,000, up from 33,000 in 1980, making it Switzerland’s biggest sporting event. Organizers were expecting visitors to guzzle 210,000 liters of beer and consume 23,000 kilograms of meat.
The buzz around the sport has attracted big business, keen to support the ancient tradition as a way of polishing up their “local” credentials.
Christian Stucki, a 28-year-old forest manager who weighs 150 kg and lost to Sempach in Sunday’s final, appears in adverts for German discount retail Lidl.
“They don’t want to be perceived as a German company that is infiltrating Switzerland, but as a company that is supporting an ancient Swiss sport,” said John, of the Swiss Schwingen Association.
Switzerland’s biggest bank, UBS, whose reputation was bruised following a government bailout during the financial crisis, is one of the main sponsors of this year’s event.
Other backers of the games - which are considered the Schwingen Olympics - include brewer Feldschloesschen, Japanese car maker Toyota and Swiss supermarket chain Migros.
Some die-hard fans complain the growing hype, increased sponsorship and presence of VIP tents at festivals risk crushing the sport’s egalitarian spirit. A ticket to watch the wrestling in Burgdorf cost 225 Swiss francs ($240).
Moreover, as the most successful Schwingers rake in more money from sponsorship deals, they may be able to work less, and train more, giving them an unfair advantage. John concedes that this could become problematic, but says it is hard to regulate.
“I don’t know of a single wrestler who doesn’t work. But there are some that may have cut back their working hours to prepare for the festival,” he said.
Editing by Leslie Adler