Switzerland’s next King?

June 10, 2013

Geneva, Switzerland

By Denis Balibouse

Prince Willem-Alexander was crowned King of the Netherlands in April, following the abdication of his mother, Queen Beatrix.

You might be wondering which country will be next to install a new monarch: England, Denmark or perhaps Sweden? I’ll give you a tip: it will probably be Switzerland, a country better known for its direct democracy, banks and chocolate than for having ‘royals’.

In fact, Switzerland has both a reigning King and Queen, although they are both quite different. Let me explain…

The Queen is a cow, from the Herens breed. This breed has a fighting nature, which is used to determine the herd’s ‘leadership’. The aggressive and feisty temperament of these cows can be witnessed every year in a tournament known as the ‘Combat de Reines’ (Battle of the Queens). In the competition, cows are pitted against each other (horns are filed down to prevent injury and cows that don’t want to fight are never forced to), a new queen is crowned with flowers once she has forced other cows to retreat.

The King is a wrestler. This year’s king will be crowned on September 1, 2013 during the Swiss Federal Alpine Festival, a triennial competition that is the biggest in the country. It includes three sports:

• The Unspunnen throwing contest, in which contestants lift and throw the 83.5kg (184 lb) stone
• The Hornuss tournament; a team sport not unlike a mix of golf and baseball
• The wrestling component, which is the oldest sport in Switzerland

This year’s tournament will feature Dieylani Pouye, a 26-year-old Senegalese man from Dakar who wants to be Switzerland’s next king. He is currently in Geneva attempting to qualify for this year’s event.

Pouye is no stranger to wrestling, as he has competed professionally since 2007 in the ‘Laamb’, a traditional sport of Senegal. It’s like wrestling with a bit of boxing.

He discovered Swiss wrestling (known as Schwingen) in 2011, when he was part of a documentary made by filmmaker Mohammed Soudani about wrestling in Senegal and Switzerland. After his first try in 2012 he returned with the help of compatriot Papis Amadou Konez, who lives in Geneva and also competes in both types of wrestling.

Switzerland is divided into five regions, each has a quota of wrestlers to qualify for the final. Pouye needs to be one of the 27 of the Western Switzerland region. The first 15 in the ranking of the weekly fights (which start at the end of April and continue until July 14) qualify automatically. A technical commission then selects another 12 participants and three substitutes. Pouye believes his chances are good and that he trains well enough to be among the 280 fighters who will enter the arena on August 31, 2013, hoping to be crowned as King the following day.

Pouye has a lot going for him at 190cm tall and 105kg (231.7lb), but size and strength aren’t everything says his trainer and four-time participant Marc Haldi of the Geneva Wrestler Club. Technique plays a huge role. Pouye’s strong point is that it’s difficult to make him fall, although he is not used to fighting on the ground, as Swiss wrestlers are. In Senegalese wrestling, when you fall, you lose.

Here the fights can be long on the ground, with both fighters lying in the sawdust attempting to force their opponent’s shoulders to touch the ground in order to win. The first evidence of wrestling can be found on a fresco dating from the 13th Century, on the wall of the Lausanne’s cathedral. During the 19th century the rural sport entered the Swiss cities and the art of Schwingen spread, gaining popularity with all levels of Swiss society. This year’s finals will be watched by 50,000 spectators.

Die Bösen (the bad guys) wear shorts made of jute. The fight starts with both opponents holding each other by their shorts. The winner is declared by the three referees when an opponent’s shoulders touch the sawdust in the 10 meter (33 ft) diameter round ring. There is no pre-determined order of fights. A jury composed of three to six men will plan each round after the other. Each fight is six minutes long on the first day and eight minutes for the last four rounds.

Respect for the opponent is key. Fighters shake hands before the start and the winner has to wipe away the sawdust off his opponent’s shoulders after victory. The king receives a 2-year-old bull named “FORS vo dr LUEG” as first prize. Of course, in today’s digital age, the bull has its own website and Facebook page.

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Great photo essay. I’m looking forward to hearing about him at the Schwingfest this month.

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