Man against man at Schwingfest Olten, 1992.
Man against man at Schwingfest Olten, 1992. Swiss National Museum / ASL

Rural sport, or urban commercial activity?

We mentally associate ‘schwingen’, traditional Swiss wrestling, with brawny herdsmen fighting a clean fight in idyllic mountain surroundings. But it’s not as straightforward as that. Urban dwellers played a bigger role in popularising the sport than one might think.

Michael Jucker

Michael Jucker

Michael Jucker is a sports historian, head of Swiss Sports History and co-director of the FCZ Museum.

When traditional schwingen is practiced today, in its typical combination of professionalism, commercialisation and Swissness, the sport reaches audiences of undreamt-of proportions. Schwingen is now very popular among the young urban population. The media carry extensive reporting on wrestling festivals (Schwingfeste), and home stories featuring the ‘wrestling kings’ bring a down-to-earth mentality into urban living rooms. Advertising opportunities in the field of schwingen are now a highly complex business. Sponsoring no longer means local sponsors donating a ‘Muni’ (a bull), non-cash prizes or a few hundred francs; instead, multi-billion-dollar corporations and banks promote and help organise the mega-events. At the same time, schwingen still typifies cultural integrity, rusticity and alpine culture. How is it that schwingen embodies this rural nostalgia, and is simultaneously a product consumed by townies? The theory that schwingen as a consumer product has been repeatedly appropriated by the urban population needs to be followed up here with a look at the past.
Schwingen match in the city of Neuchâtel, late 19th century.
Schwingen match in the city of Neuchâtel, late 19th century. Swiss National Museum
The origins of schwingen probably lie in the medieval countryside. The extent to which the sport is a specific development out of standard wrestling, which was also common at that time, is disputed in the research. The first pictorial sources, however, come from the city. There’s a 13th century carving in the cathedral in Lausanne, for example – but this could just as easily show standard wrestlers competing. There are also other image sources from urban areas. The first mentions of competitions in official sources are found for the 15th century. The written sources are more numerous in the 16th century – a circumstance which is also associated with the advent of laws regarding moral conduct (Sittenmandaten) and higher penalties for holding schwingen matches. In the Alps of Central Switzerland, herdsmen’s festivals (Hirtenfeste) and contests at which fighters probably engaged in schwingen have taken place since the late Middle Ages. Remarkably, however, such competitions were also held in medieval towns. In 1385, for example, the Stadtwerkmeister of Lucerne is supposed to have received the order to set up a festival site for a major wrestling and schwingen festival; he had a meadow at the foot of the Gütsch strewn with sawdust and tanning bark.
Schwingfest in Zurich, 18th century print.
Schwingfest in Zurich, 18th century print. e-rara
Contests were often also held at church consecration festivals and at various fairs and festivals known as Alpfesten, Kilbenen, Stubeten or Alpeten. Often, there were violent confrontations. For the church dignitaries in particular – both Protestant and Catholic – these sporting entertainments were a thorn in their sides, because they believed the events prevented the young men from attending church regularly. From the 16th century onwards, schwingen and wrestling were increasingly regulated in urban laws regarding moral conduct, or banned entirely. Since the clergy’s influence on politics was much greater then than it is today, there was a close connection between ideas of morality and political measures in the pre-modern era – particularly where it was thought the divine order was being threatened by rebellious peasants. In contemporary discourses, a perennial fear of riotous assembly where large numbers of attendees gathered is clearly evident.

Turning to nature helps schwingen

The bans imposed by the urban authorities failed to make schwingen disappear, but in the 18th century the sport could be practised only under tight restrictions. That was to change in the 19th century. With the urban citizens’ newfound interest in the countryside, flourishing tourism and a general resurgence of enthusiasm for alpine nature, there was a revival of alpine sports culture. The city elites’ passion for all things alpine manifested itself not only in Tell monuments, pseudo-alpine chalets and the concept of ‘homo alpinus’, but also in the appropriation of alpine customs and traditions. This meant these alpine contests were, in a way, reinvented by the urban elite.
In the 19th century, schwingen and nature became more and more closely associated. Print by Johann Hürlimann.
In the 19th century, schwingen and nature became more and more closely associated. Print by Johann Hürlimann. Swiss National Museum
At the same time, local customs were made national. It was educated townspeople around 1805, and in the decades following, who brought local rural sports into the cities and promoted them there as Switzerland’s national sports. In actual fact, traditions were newly established, presented to the public and highly organised. The first Unspunnenfest of 1805, intended to showcase schwingen and Steinstossen (stone putting), but in particular also to foster a national sense of belonging and pride in traditional folk costumes, was initiated by the Bern Schultheissen (mayor) of Mülinen and other Bern members of the public. The first Eidgenössische Schwinger- und Älplerfest (Federal Swiss Wrestling and Alpine Festival) was also launched in a city: under the aegis of Professor Erwin Zschokke, pastor’s son and veterinarian, the festival was held in 1889 in Zurich, which was very industrial in character. Here too, traditions such as yodelling, Alphorn blowing and flag-throwing were showcased alongside the sporting events.
The 1805 Unspunnenfest, in a graphic print by Niklaus König.
The 1805 Unspunnenfest, in a graphic print by Niklaus König. Swiss National Museum
Portrait of Erwin Zschokke, around 1914.
Portrait of Erwin Zschokke, around 1914. Wikimedia
It was also the event in Zurich that prompted the establishment of the Eidgenössischer Schwingerverband (Federal Swiss Wrestling Association) in 1895. A decisive factor in the success and the renaissance of schwingen at the end of the 19th century was the sport’s close alliance with gymnastics, another urban activity. Both types of sport were supposed to help toughen up the nation. Foreign influences were seen as a nuisance. The sport of schwingen must be kept ‘pure’ and schwingen must be placed at the service of the nation, believed the Association’s founder Erwin Zschokke: ‘A people that does not honour its own unique characteristics loses its nationality’. The first edition of the Schwingerzeitung magazine also made it clear that the main thing was the purity of the tradition: evidently there was ‘speculative schwingen in taverns’, that is, bets that were placed on schwingen bouts in taverns and ale-houses that were to be ‘fought’. The lead article in the first edition of 18 August 1907 took an unequivocal stance against modern sporting disciplines. Cycling in particular was an irritation for the ‘schwingers’: ‘Our people have always loved and practiced national sports such as schwingen and Hurnussen [sic!]’, and there was also talk of ‘native soil’ and ‘strong earthy smell’. The supposedly ancient, traditional sport of schwingen was defended against ‘imported sport of not always unquestionable value’ and played off against ‘wretched hunchbacked figures on their velocipedes’.
For Schwingerzeitung magazine, cyclists were ‘wretched hunchbacked figures on their velocipedes’.
For Schwingerzeitung magazine, cyclists were ‘wretched hunchbacked figures on their velocipedes’. Swiss National Museum
Even in predominantly rural Central Switzerland it could be seen that the urban middle class was bringing rural customs into the city and restyling them into a consumer product with a long tradition. For example, Lucerne canton’s first Swiss wrestling and alpine festival in 1893 took place not on an Alp, but in the middle of Lucerne. It’s no coincidence that the wrestling festival was held in front of the Grand-Hotel Europe. The aim was to make the schwingen festival popular among the tourists. It was organised by resourceful people from the Turnverein Luzern (Lucerne gymnastics club) with the help of the Verkehrskommission Luzern, Vierwaldstättersee und Umgebung (transport committee for Lucerne, Lake Lucerne and the surrounding area). The festival took up the idea of the first Unspunnenfest of 1805, of bringing the restorative mountain environment closer to the visiting aristocracy. But this time it was about money and tourism. While schwingen was a thorn in the side of the urban authorities in the pre-modern era, in the 19th century the townspeople appropriated the sport and made it saleable to the public. Influenced by discourses of fear of foreign influences, the townies romanticised the rural idyll and the bucolic life of farming folk: they made schwingen a cradle of native authenticity and long tradition, at the same time making it attractive as a marketed consumer product. A connection that continues to this day. So, there’s more of the city in schwingen than you might think.
Review of the Eidgenössische in Zug, 2019. YouTube / SRF

Swiss Sports History

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