On a hilltop deep in the Swiss countryside an insurance clerk is fighting a farmer. The big man hunkers low to defend his position; the bigger man lunges forward, sensing retreat and shoulder crunches breastbone. Sweat drips from beaded brows, gritted teeth are bared and sawdust flies. They’re broad, these men: 130kg of heft, muscle and Emmentaler breakfasts worked off on the sheer hillsides of Graubünden and Zug or, indeed, the smoked-glass offices of Axa in Winterthur.
Next to them a delivery driver is grappling a welder while a carpenter turns and throws a fireman. A brewer offers a brawny hand to help up a felled tree-surgeon, brushing sawdust from his Edelweiss-patterned shirt as he goes.
Welcome to Brünig, the town cut in two by the cantonal boundary between Bern and Obwalden, but most of all welcome to Schwingen. To what? Schwingen – named after the winning move of swinging and throwing your opponent to the ground – is traditional Swiss wrestling; a Ruritanian, buttoned-up take on the classic, Greco-Roman, naked sort. Dating from the 13th century and codified in the 19th, Schwingen isn’t quite as old as the hills but it suits them very well.
It’s 07.30 on a Sunday in July and the sun is burning off the cloud beneath the Brünig Schwingplatz. We’re a mere 1,000 metres above sea level (do the land-locked Swiss think like this?) but there’s mist in the valleys below. Two hours ago those valleys and the snaking passes of the foothills were stacked bumper to bumper with the Schwingen cognoscenti in packed trains, hot coaches and crammed cars; up with the lark and up for an Alpine roughhouse, they are eager for rustic exchange.
By 08.00 the chatter and bustle of finding your seat, settling in and meeting your neighbours in the grandstands becomes a murmur of expectation as the day’s sport is prefaced by the Brünig yodelling choir: flump of fetlock, fine of voice and resplendent in the leather tabards, feathered caps and ruddy complexions of yore. “Can you believe it? All this for the Schwingen!” says Edi Ritter, honorary member of the Eidgenössischer Schwingerverband (a Schwinger union), through his rococo moustache. “It’s been a sell-out for a year!” We’re up in the gods, in a specially constructed camera-gantry-cum-studio built by Swiss national broadcaster SRF, which has cleared its schedules to relay every swing, toss and crunch live, all day, on SRF zwei.
At the brilliantly lit pundits’ table, former Schwingen König Jörg Abderhalden and Thomas Sutter muse on what might be running through the wrestlers’ minds as the day’s play looms. Former fighter Jörg Käser is providing tactical analysis while Stefan Hoffmänner, as solid as a Henry Moore in an orange puffa jacket, is acting as summariser. With more than 60 staff, 20 cameras and hundreds of miles of cable on the job, this is serious outside-broadcast expense. Who knew Schwingen was so big? “Ten years ago Swiss people would say, ‘Oh, that?’” says Ritter, while showing us the commentary crow’s-nest. “Now they all say, ‘Ah, this!’” Ritter has a point. Schwingen always had a reputation for being farmhands fighting for the entertainment of farmers. But with the trades of the countryside having changed, now logistics operatives, office workers and gym staff are just as likely to get down and dirty in the sawdust as men that work the land. There’s that and there’s something between patriotism, nationalism and inter-cantonal rivalry that has fuelled the renaissance of Schwingen.
“It’s all about Swissness; it’s in here,” says Ritter, thumping his fleece where his heart would be. “With all the problems of the world, people are interested in returning to their roots. It’s about pride.” He leads us down SRF's clanking scaffolding staircase to the picnic area below where an hour or two into the swing of things, packed lunches are being delved into well before time as trays of cheli are doing the rounds. This stuff will work you up an appetite, being – as it is – a little very weak coffee and a lot of very strong bätziwasser schnapps. We all slug one back and toast the spotless day that’s broken through the mist and the famous Ritter’s off, shaking hands with Schwingen aficionados and having his picture taken with fans.
Looking out across the 6,500 who’ve travelled to cheer on their boys in the arena and out over the Brünig Pass – a chocolate box picturesque enough that it was painted by Turner in 1848 and the natural and psychological border at which men from central Switzerland would wrestle the Bernese to win regional sporting supremacy – a wonderful moment happens. That moment achievable at sporting events and music festivals when a crowd first feel the strength of the sun on their skin, the first beer of the morning has worked its way to the brain’s spirit land and the cheers of the throng say that everyone’s very happy they came, despite the early start. Hell, maybe even because of it.
Ringside it’s less serene. The four Schwingplätze have witnessed a constant turnaround of hard-fought bouts by late morning. There are only occasional breaks for the raking detail to comb the regulation 15cm depth of sawdust evenly across the stipulated 12-metre diameter wrestling area. This is to the satisfaction of the uniformed judging panel, who score both the matches and the levelness of the playing field. In their red-piped tabards and breeches they assent with a sniff and a curt nod.
There’s just a chance that this most Swiss of Swiss events – this portal into the mists of time of the nation that keeps time for the rest of the world – might not be running quite on schedule. The fights have been attritional, butting right up to the 12-minute limit for the three allotted rounds, the equivalent of a glut of five-set tennis matches at a grand slam. There is a surfeit of good wrestlers this year but with some key favourites out through injury there are dozens of beady eyes on the prize, all spying a chance of glory. At an official level, sleeves are rolled up and watches surreptitiously glanced at and later collegiately consulted. This sport, that hasn’t changed a jot here in Brünig in 122 years, needs to get a move on.
In the garderobe the fighters don’t care: any delay gives them more time to think about tactics and moves, assess the opposition and measure their luck. Here in the backstairs, the wooden benches of the changing rooms are a mess of discarded tracksuits, water bottles and the odd copy of today’s bestselling Sonntags Blick. “Duell der bösen Bubis” (“Duel of the Bad Boys”) cries the sport pull-out – except the baddest boy and defending Schwingen-König Joel Wicki announced his withdrawal from injury just yesterday, just as the Blick’s ink was drying in Zürich. A TV plays SRF ZWEI’s swing-by-swing coverage. Backs are slapped and grunts exchanged as fighters push in and out. In the corridor we ask for photographs. Where surfers, say, squint subtly to an imagined horizon even when sitting in a closed room, fighters look down and inward; what they are sizing up is always inside them. Smiles and eye contact are less forthcoming now. At lunch it’s all to play for.
“Save Milk. Drink Beer” is a T-shirt slogan that could only exist in Switzerland so we follow its wearer, obviously a local, to line up for some hearty siedfleisch stew with vegetables, a hunk of bread and a bottle of Eichhof, the local brew. The great hordes of Schwingen-fanciers have descended upon the trestle tables all at once; fleeces are flung aside, knitwear discarded and money-pouches carefully loosened around the waist as the crowd get to grips with the midday meal (this isn’t Spain; lunch is when the clock hands are aligned). The wine list is good and short: dôle is the red, fendant is the white; there is cider, there is schnapps. And, under the warm tarpaulin of the dining tents, aided and abetted by an Alpine four-piece doing a groovy line in sideburns and oompah, an industrial-strength rural bonhomie breaks out. It is roaring, ruddy, hot, loud and it hardly cares what time it is. Sausages are ordered; “Zweimal, bitte!”; “More bread!”; “Sechs bier hier, bitte!” The band are toasted, the wrestlers are toasted, Bern folk shout the punchlines to Zug folk’s jokes, cigars are lit – more beer over here! A sombrero with a feather in it is passed around. Today, much milk has been saved.
While it’s hot in the beer tent, it’s feverish on the pitch. Benji von Ah, representing just-down-the-road Giswil, is the local favourite but his progress at this year’s Brünigschwinget has been solid but fireworks-free. The crowd cries “Benji!”, egging on this bearded bear of a man, this white knight, to dispatch his opponents with the consummate ease afforded by his trademark throws: the classic Brienzer, the snazzy Hüfter and the show-stopping Übersprung. Big Matthias Glarner looks to be a rock, Andreas Henzer a hard place; and who is this Bernhard “Bärnu” Kämpf, exactly? By 16.30 the men have been sorted from the boys and the men that remain are bigger and better; back slaps have become nods, fans and neutrals breathe a little shallower, wives and girlfriends cross fingers and smile tightly, the lunchtime drinks have worn off.
The announcer, most of the way through his day-long exhibition of tea-sipping professionalism, now has the inevitable task well known to any public announcer at an English county show: “Will the owner of a silver Subaru Forester with a Bern licence plate please move their vehicle as they are unfortunately blocking an access road.” Hoots of derision and clucking spring from the crowd, like cool rain after days of buzzing humidity. A Mexican wave starts and even the SRF staff join in. The rakers have their shy smiles returned by the scorers. Tension. Relief. But now? Now it’s crunch time. Time for the Übersprung to speak, or forever hold its peace. Whither art thou, Benji von Ah?
All eyes, hopes and fears are on Schwingplatz vier but before Benji von Ah and Matthias Glarner face-off to decide if it is one of them or points-leading Bernhard Kämpf who will become king, it’s showtime. The yodelling choir, barrel-chested and proud with palms on hearts, sing beautifully, mournfully; the alpenhorn and their liveried players, cheeks puffed like Nidwalden jazzmen, offer a Last Post to the day’s sport; cantonal standard-bearers toss and unfurl their flags to polite applause. Then, like a scrum, like bulls of big game clinging to their mating rights, the big men fight.
Sweat, sawdust, strain; nostrils flare like riveted chimneys on steam trains, shuddering with work as the engine digs its heels into the hill. A pin drops in the Alps and is gone. Young Bärnu has won on points. The sawdust is brushed from his broad back as he is held aloft and tossed a little on a sea of appreciative arms, cheers, singing, interviews for TV, rueful smiles. Ah, the lad from Sigriswil’s practically a local. He’ll get a prize bull later and a cheque. Where on Earth have we been? We’ve been Schwingen, way beyond the chocolate box.