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Swiss Schwingers Tops

March 27, 1988|STEVE CHAIKIN | Chaikin is a reporter for the Turlock (Calif.) Journal and a free-lance writer .

CHARMEY, Switzerland — The Swiss countryside is a peaceful place, particularly on Sundays, but once a year the pastoral calm is elbowed aside to make way for the grunts and groans of competitive wrestling.

The ancient sport is called schwingen and the rustic tournaments are friendly, spirited events.

They lack much of the big-budget hype associated with many of today's sporting events, but there is no lack of energy as contestants try to flip each other onto their backs.

I was introduced to a schwingen contest in mid-July during a weekend bus ride from Fribourg to Interlaken.

There were few cars on the road as the bus wound past villages, dairy farms and orchards in the French-speaking region.

But as the bus climbed toward the town of Charmey, a traffic jam happened when farmers in traditional costume and others blocked the two-lane road.

Sawdust Rings

Their destination was a small field with four sawdust rings. Spectators sat on bleachers or on boards laid across plastic crates.

My bus ticket was good for a day's travel, so I bounded after the crowd.

Schwingen, a national sport, evolved from other forms of wrestling in the 16th Century. Contestants wear canvas shorts over long pants to be able to grab each other better.

The object of the game is simple: Get your opponent down and pin his shoulders to the sawdust. The more skillful the pin, the more points are awarded. The man with the most points at the end of the day wins.

The best pin involves grabbing an opponent, often by the regulation shorts, lifting him up and slamming him, back first, onto the sawdust ring.

That's worth 10 points and a round of applause.

Less spectacular pins are awarded fewer points during the six-minute matches.

No Weight Classes

There are no weight classes for schwingen; all contestants must be prepared to wrestle anyone else. But weight is not as important as technique.

Sawdust is not the best floor for wrestling. In addition to sticking to contestants' clothing and hair, it clogs their eyes, noses and ears. Some of it gets eaten.

Nor is it the softest of cushions. I saw more than a few bloody noses, bloody lips and scraped elbows during matches at Charmey, a town of about 1,500 set beneath towering mountains.

But the simple cushion is the source of a friendly ritual. Winners are supposed to help brush the stuff off the losers after helping them up.

The tournament took on the festive air of a county fair as more family and friends arrived. Toward the end of the day, as the final matches approached, between 500 and 600 spectators were on hand.

Some men wore the traditional costume of the canton of Fribourg: a jacket with puffed shoulders and pants made of a rough denim-like cloth with white yarn trim. The most complete outfits included a black pill-box hat with gold thread and a tassle and a black cummerbund with colorful, embroidered patterns.

Kids Get Into Act

During intermissions the crowd was entertained with flag-twirling exhibitions and alpenhorn playing. This also gave children a chance to try a little wrestling of their own.

Schwingen contests are held around the nation, typically on Sundays, between May and October.

The tournament at Charmey was called an alpfest, one of the smaller wrestling contests. There are also cantonal contests and every three years there is a national championship.

About 100 schwingers competed at Charmey, including rural farmers in blue work clothes and city club members dressed in white. The event even drew Gabriel Yerly, a short, burly man considered to be one of Switzerland's best, who has competed around the world.

Winners at Charmey won no big prizes this year. The winning schwingers chose from cowbells, wood cabinets and similar offerings.

One schwinger said the prizes were irrelevant. He travels widely to enter contests because he loves the sport and because it is a healthy way to vent his aggressions.

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Charmey has seven hotels, some of four-star quality. Top of the line is Hotel Cailler, a short walk from town. In high season a single goes for $70 and a double with a private bath costs $118. Breakfast is included.

In the center of town is the two-star Hotel de l'Etoile, single $26 and double $40. Rooms share baths; the price includes a light breakfast.

Three buses a day run between Fribourg and Charmey. The trip takes about 45 minutes. A one-way ticket costs about $13.

For information about schwingen tournaments and other events, get the annual events calendar published by the Swiss National Tourist Office, 250 Stockton St., San Francisco, 94108, phone (415) 362-2260.

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