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Deep Tradition, Modern Touches Mark Swiss Sports Festival

August 26, 1989

STANS, Switzerland (AP) _ Switzerland has never been ruled by monarchs, but it regularly crowns a king: the man who steps victorious from a ring of sawdust at the end of the Swiss-style wrestling championships.

Schwingen, as the sport is called in German, headlines a deeply Swiss celebration of folklore and other national sports, such as boulder-throwin g.

Held every three years on a summer weekend, the Schwingen festival is living Swiss history. New trends, particularly a champion’s temptation to cash in on fame, recently sparked controversy in the conservative Federal Schwinger Association.

This year’s feast, whose guests of honor included top national politicans and eight army generals, was set against the Alps in the lush heart of Switzerland. Close by are Lake Lucerne and the place where the Swiss confederation was originally founded in 1291.

On a hot, sunny afternoon last week, a record 42,000 fans jumped up when Adrian Kaeser, an 18-year-old mason’s apprentice, whipped finals opponent Eugen Hasler’s shoulders into the sawdust to become the youngest-ever Schwingerkoenig (Schwingen king). He walked off with the traditional first prize, a pedigreed bull.

Kaeser’s unexpected win against a heavier opponent showed that technical finesse can outweigh brute force even though the wrestlers easily weigh 220 pounds.

A Schwinger’s trademark are the khaki-colored shorts buckled over a pair of long pants. One hand must always stay on the opponent’s shorts, usually around the waist, for a hold or throw to be valid.

The rules, simpler than in Olympic-style wrestling, are designed to promote crowd-pleasing wrestling by virtually equating a tie with a loss for both competitors.

Yodelers in traditional embroidered costumes, alphorn players and flag wavers periodically entertain the crowd. Most of the 289 Schwingers selected by their regional associations for the championship came from German-speaking Switzerland. But nine Swiss living in the United States also entered.

Joey Ming, 20, of Sacramento, Ca., had two Schwinger uncles who taught him everything. There is Schwingen in the United States, where his family emigrated 30 years ago, but ″at a big fest you get 500 fans at best, mostly family,″ he said.

Amateur ethics are an integral part of Schwingen, which literally translates ″Swinging.″ Matches start with a handshake and winners wipe the sawdust off the loser’s back. Advertising is banned from the stadium.

That homey feel is under challenge in a time when championship sports usually means big money.

Harry Knuesel, who failed to defend his 1986 title at Stans, raised a storm in Schwinger circles when he demanded $175 dollars for pre-championship newspaper interviews.

A traveling salesman for farm and manure equipment who espouses free enterprise, Knuesel said the fee offset lost business revenue.

But federal association chief Otto Braendli, 60, threatened sanctions and said he’ll fight commercialization regardless of ″influences and temptations,″ as well as long hair and jogging pants in the ring.

While the roots of Swiss national sports reach at least to the Middle Ages, competition above regional level began with an 1805 festival of Alpine herdsmen near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland, an area still known for Schwinger prowess.

The gathering was intended to reassert Switzerland’s identity in the chaos of Napoleon’s Europe.

A boulder used in the stone-throwing contest was named after the site, Unspunnen.

The original 184-pound stone was stolen in 1984 from a museum where it was being stored and has not resurfaced.

At Stans, Josef Ambauen, a square-shouldered, bearded farmer, set a record by throwing a new Unspunnen Stone 12 feet 4 1/2 inches). Throwers lift the boulder above their head, run and hurl, taking care not to step over the board. Each competitor brings the stone back for the next one.

Finally, the festival featured Hornussen, a sport of medieval simplicity related to baseball and cricket.

Hitters use flexible rods to hit a puck off the end of a holder, where it is stuck with clay. An opposing 18-member team defends a strip 100 to 280 yards from the hitter, holding or throwing up wide wooden paddles to intercept the puck in the air. The objective of the game, played with minimum or no protective gear, is to keep the puck from falling inside the strip.

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