Photo from the very early days of the Sportschule Magglingen in the canton of Bern, 1940s.
Photo from the very early days of the Sportschule Magglingen in the canton of Bern, 1940s. Swiss National Museum

Youth and sport: in the service of your country?

Public health, educational and military lobbies have all influenced sporting pursuits since at least the 19th century. The state-sponsored sport promotion programme ‘Jugend+Sport’ and its preceding initiatives testify to that.

Simon Engel

Simon Engel

Simon Engel is a historian and is responsible for public relations work at Swiss Sports History.

Why should people do sport? The (male) Swiss population voted on this philosophical question on 27 September 1970. With a 74.6% majority, the electorate approved the addition of a new article to the Federal Constitution whereby the Confederation was to promote “sport, especially education in sport” under the name Jugend+Sport. The Federal Council specified exactly what that meant in a dispatch one year before the vote: “The promotion of fitness training and sport is [...] to be detached from the exclusive purpose of national defence and broadened to include both sexes. […] This is for public health and educational reasons.” The approval of the new constitutional article in 1970 marked a watershed in terms of the demilitarisation of state-sponsored sport in Switzerland. Prior to that, federal sporting initiatives had been under the auspices of the military: from 1874 the Confederation ordered the cantons to hold a mandatory gym class at school for all boys aged ten and above to give them the best possible preparation for military service. On completion of their mandatory schooling, the boys were to undergo basic military instruction to prepare them for military training school.
Gymnastics class in Basel, 1897.
Gymnastics class in Basel, 1897. Swiss National Museum
Closer examination shows that the legally-enshrined promotion of sport among the Swiss youth was mainly for military purposes, while efforts were made to combine education with military training. After all, physical education at school was designed and taught by civilians, not drill masters. And although marching and military training exercises were part of the curriculum, they were increasingly superseded by athletics and other sports that were popular with the public. The Second World War sparked a short-lived revival of military considerations: football and traditional Swiss wrestling, for example, were to train toughness and endurance. After the Second World War, education and public health gained ground on the school curriculum, “education in physical performance and resilience” was only mentioned in the introduction to the Eidgenössische Turnschule, a core curriculum for gym and sports teaching, of 1960.
Basic military training in Reiden Lucerne, 1898.
Basic military training in Reiden Lucerne, 1898. Swiss National Museum
Even the envisaged obligatory pre-military training was never consistently implemented as the armed forces would have liked. Under the Militärordnung (military policy) of 1874, shooting practice and marching was supposed to take place as well as 50 hours of physical exercise. This met with resistance from educators and employers: the former opposed an excessively military orientation, the latter wanted their apprentices at work instead of doing sport. The envisaged preparatory training never actually took place due to financial constraints (insufficient federal funds) and structural issues (not enough sports fields and teaching staff). Only individual cantons and communes had voluntary preparatory training conducted by officers. The Confederation assumed the material costs.
The canton of Zurich had basic military training. Certificate with distinction from 1899.
The canton of Zurich had basic military training. Certificate with distinction from 1899. Swiss National Museum
This practice was rolled out from 1909: the Confederation gave financial support to gymnastics, sports and shooting associations, which voluntarily provided physical or weapons-based preparatory training and physical training for young men. From 1941, the instructor courses were delivered centrally by the Confederation. Apart from a few further minor revisions, the 1909 ordinance formed the legal framework for the advancement of sport in Switzerland by the federal government and it remains the basic principle underpinning Jugend+Sport today: the Confederation and cantons both contribute financially to physical training for the people, the associations at the grassroots level provide the training in return. The associations were initially only paid for specific preparatory training courses. However, as it was impossible to keep these courses separate from regular training, the state funds were subsequently also officially used for general physical training.
The sports school in Magglingen, 1940s.
The sports school in Magglingen, 1940s. e-pics
The basic physical training initially comprised different disciplines, for example marching, running, jumping, shot put, climbing and games. In 1941, optional exams and courses were brought in for swimming, biking, skiing, rowing, apparatus gymnastics plus military communications and pontooning. All completed examinations and courses were also noted in a type of service record book. The military courses, however, disappeared from the curriculum in 1947, arms training – physical education in combination with learning how to shoot – was already gone by 1934. The definitive demilitarisation of sport promotion thus predated the introduction of Jugend+Sport: the programme was officially renamed ‘turnerisch-sportliche Vorunterricht’ or basic instruction in physical education, in 1959. The course participants didn’t feel they were involved in a major military-political project. Historian Jean-François Martin remembers, for example, how he was able to attend a ski camp as part of his preparatory training: “It was very cheap and we were able to borrow skis. My family and I didn’t ski, so that was fortunate. A colonel came on the first day who thanked us for our preparation in defence of the country. Then he left and we skied. I recall that the leaders were preparatory training instructors because they received extra money for that. I never felt I was being militarised , although I had a very military service record book.” The civilian nature of it was unmistakeable in spite of the military setting.
Advertising for basic physical and sport training. Advert by Peter von Arx, 1966.
Advertising for basic physical and sport training. Advert by Peter von Arx, 1966. Swiss National Museum
What prompted the definitive demilitarisation of sport promotion from around the mid-1960s, leading to the establishment of Jugend+Sport in 1972? During these relatively peaceful times, the civilian aspects of sport were quite popular, as they aligned with socioeconomic developments after the Second World War: the modern industry and services economy offered more opportunity for sporting pursuits, not least because people were generally less physically active than in earlier times when the economy was more agricultural. Health considerations are still the main driving factor behind participation in sport. The social upheaval in the late 1960s also contributed to greater involvement of women and girls in sport. And finally, the promotion of grassroots sport provides a breeding ground for the elite athletes who represent the country on the international stage. The absence of medals at the Innsbruck games in 1964 prompted Switzerland to place more emphasis on sport. The military aspect has not entirely disappeared from sport: as people battle it out on the sports field and at competition venues.

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at

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