Swiss Athletic Sports

Selection copyright © 1997 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This edition may not be reproduced or redistributed to third parties without permission of the editor.


[From Our Life in the Swiss Highlands, 1892; first published in The Fortnightly Review, September 1891. Symonds began going to the Swiss Turnfests in 1884, and helped to found the gymnasium at Davos Platz in 1889. Symonds genuinely fraternized with the common man in Whitman's best democratic sense, from erotic rather than political motivation (as probably was also the case with Whitman).]


The Federal Athletic sports of Switzerland, which are celebrated triennially, under the name of Turnfest, or Fête de Gymnastique, or Festa Ginnastica (for this Republic always has to use three languages), may be called the Olympic Games of the Helvetian Fatherland. Great towns compete for the expensive honour of holding them in turns, regarding this in the light of what the Greeks would have termed a Leitourgia. In July 1891 it fell to the lot of Geneva to perform the patriotic duty. No city of the Confederation can view with Geneva in local and material advantages, whereby a spectacle of national importance may be presented on an adequate scale.

Fagged out by writing six successive chapters of a Life of Michelangelo, I resolved to take the opportunity of brain-rest offered by this festival. So I joined a group of five contending athletes from the Gymnastic Club which I have helped to found and house at Davos. In the company of these good fellows, who never even heard the name of Michelangelo, I knew that I should pass six days without the tyrannous preoccupation of my subject.

The journey from Davos to Geneva carries one right across Switzerland, from the extreme frontier of Tyrol to the verge of French territory. It can only be done with great difficulty in one day. We broke it into two days, sleeping the first night at Baden.

Early next morning our little band joined a special train for gymnasts, composed entirely of third-class carriages, and freighted with about six hundred men. We found ourselves int he midst of a club from Basel, who had on board three drums, upon which they drummed the whole day through, one fellow taking up the sticks when his neighbour put them down. What with this drumming, and the singing of patriotic songs ("O, mein Heimathland; O, mein Vaterland," etc.), and occasional interludes of bally-ragging, the journey proved lively enough. I could not, however, in spite of the noise, refrain from admiring the conduct of these hundreds of young men out for a holiday, without guide or governor to curb their spirits, yet all behaving well. No unseemly action did I notice, and no word was heard which might have brought a blush to a boy's cheek. Then they were so comradely, so brotherly, so ready to make friends; albeit some spoke French and others German, and both found it difficult to fraternise, except by the exchange of tobacco, wine, and so forth. The Swiss people are, in a true sense of the term, a law unto themselves. This their centuries of freedom, equal political rights, and gradually enlarged democracy have wrought, establishing a liberty which is not license, and fostering republican tendencies which remain conservative. Much, too, may be ascribed to that mild form of compulsory service in the army, which stamps habits of discipline upon the youth without destroying domestic or industrial virtues.

Among a mass of Swiss gymnasts you cannot say what social elements compose each club. The nation is so radically democratic that the same section may contain sons of bankers and landowners of ancient blood, mixing on an equal footing with clerks and artisans. Such a club would belong to one of the great towns. At festivals they compete with other clubs composed of peasants and Alpine herdsmen, or with lads from the Cantonal schools, or undergraduates at the universities studying to be doctors, clergymen, professors, lawyers. When they come together it is only strength, courage, dexterity, personal beauty, pleasant manners, or some other quality peculiar to the individual, which gives superiority to one man over the other. Even the undistinguished and the stupid are kindly accepted by their brotherhood. Of wealth, birth, position in the world, there is no question. What brings them together as athletes is love of sport, just as what brings them together int eh barrack is duty to the country.

There were gymnasts of all sorts, sizes, and ages in our special train, from Verlaine's Pierrot —

Corps fluet et non pas maigre,
Voix de fille et non pas aigre —

up to bruisers like Milo of Croton, brawny, thick-set men, of bone and muscle, able to fell oxen with a fist-blow on the forehead. Most people think the Swiss an ugly, ill-developed race. They have not travelled with 600 of these men on a summer day, as lightly, tightly clad as decency and comfort allow. It is true that one rarely sees a perfectly handsome face, and that the Swiss complexion is apt to be muddy. But the men are never deficient in character; and when denuded of the ill-made clothes they usually wear, they offer singular varieties of strength, agility, and grace. The nation is so mixed of Celtic, Teutonic, and Latin elements — Helvetian, Burgundian, Alemannic, Italian, Rhaetian — and these elements have been so little fused and worn down by intermarriage, owing to the maintenance of the Canton and the Commune, that when some thousands congregate on these occasions, strongly contrasted types of physique are presented upon every hand. The artist's glance may range from the willowy, white-skinned, gray-eyed dwellers on the Bodensee to the wiry, swarthy herdsmen of Ticino; from the tall gaunt peasant of the Vorder Rheinthal to the lithe and mobile Vaudois; from the bulls of Uri and the bears of Berne to the roe of Jura and the steinbock of the Upper Engadine. Of course, a train full of gymnasts, picked young men from all the Cantons, highly developed by athletics and airily attired in the costume suited to their sports, offered particularly favourable opportunities for this study of types.

* * *

At last we reached Geneva. The young men marched off to the barracks provided for them by the town, while I retired to my inn-room overlooking the swift outflowing of the Rhone. We were not separated for long, however. I came as a member of a Swiss gymnastic club, and enjoyed the privileges appertaining to that quality. That is to say, I was free to go whither I liked upon the exercising grounds, to mingle with the athletes at their sports, to sit in the circles formed by men around the wrestling spaces, and to eat and drink at their tables. Every club had its own riband, metal clasp, and other distinguishing points of costume. Wearing these, one ceased to be an individual from the common herd; and there were men with grayer heads than mine who appeared upon the field in a like capacity. The clubs carry banners also, which are set up above the common boards in the dining-hall; and round their flag the members gather, as a rallying-point in the enormous crowd. Four thousand active gymnasts are said to have been present at Geneva. To these must be added their friends, and the public of spectators.

* * *

I do not propose to attempt a detailed account of the athletic sports. They include, of course, those general exercises in which every gymnast is bound to qualify, and for special excellence in which prizes may be won by the competing sections. After these the gymnastics divide themselves in Switzerland into two distinct branches. The one, called "National," embraces stone- lifting and stone-putting, wrestling of two kinds, and leaping. The other, called "Artistic," has principally to do with the parallel bars, the trapeze, and the suspended rings. Specialities, like running, boxing, fencing, swimming etc., are provided for; individuals present feats of strength or agility, studied apart from the customary course; whole sections exhibit elaborate dances, exercises with clubs or iron bars or balls, pyramids bringing masses of men into strangest combinations. Most of these latter shows, being eminently scenic, were given after supper while the band was playing. Under the electric light and effect was something superb, and the vociferous applause elicited seemed well deserved. It will be readily conceived, with so many men in competition, and such a variety of sports, that a little army of umpires were required and kept in almost continual activity.

For my own part I took the greatest interest in the wrestling. In Switzerland wrestling is of two kinds. The one which is called "Ringen" does not differ in any essential respect from that practised by us English. The point about the other is that the combatants wear loosely-fitting drawers of canvas over their ordinary breeches, with a powerful clasped leather belt. Grip is got by each man grasping the girdle behind his antagonist's back with the left hand, while the other takes firm hold of the loose end of the canvas drawers above the left knee. This is called "Schwingen," because it often happens, with the grip described, that one of the wrestlers lifts the other in the air and whirls him round. In the course of the struggle the grip changes, and every conceivable form of clasp or grasp may be observed. When two vigorous fellows of equal build and strength are paired, say a couple of herdsmen from the Bernese Emmen-Thal or rustic Appenzell, wrestling of both sorts is extremely exciting and not without an element of danger. It is in some respects even more interesting when a young giant, without much practice in the sport, happens to be mated with a dexterous opponent brute force and weight matched against nimbleness and science. Victory not unfrequently crowns him who looked but mean and contemptible beside the heroic form of his rival. Though very rough handling has to be expected in the wrestling-ring, nothing like bad blood or resentment ever came beneath my notice. The victor and vanquished shake hands and drink a cup of wine together; and after a desperate encounter, in which blood has been drawn and each lies panting on the ground for minutes, you will see the two men rise together, link arms round waists, and walk across the field to take their rest. I asked a friend of mine — a staglike youth from Graubüuden, tall and sinewy, like young Achilles on a fresco at Pompeii — how all the gymnasts in this country came to be so brotherly. "Oh," he replied, "that is because we come into physical contact with one another. You only learn to love men whose bodies you have touched and handled." True as I believe this remark to be, and wide- reaching in its possibilities of application, I somehow did not expect it from the lips of an Alpine peasant.

As this young fellow is a good specimen of the Swiss gymnast, I will try to describe him. Twenty-one years of age, he stands six feet two in his stockings. He has the legs of the Apoxyomenos, the breast and arms of an Apollo. Poised above his strong full throat and broad square shoulders rises a head which might be carved upon a gem or stamped upon a medal. It is a head of noticeable beauty; small in proportion to the stature of the man, crisped over with dark massive curls, the features finely cut in profile down from a low white forehead to the firm round chin and full curved lips. It would be a head for a sculptor, were it not that it owes much of its grace to an ever-laughing light of gladness in the black eyes, a smile in the friendly mouth, and a warmth of colour which only Giorgione could do justice to. His clothing was a pair of tight-fitting flannel drawers, black woven stockings clasping the calves, a thin jersey leaving the arms bare, and a girdle of broad red silk wound firmly about the loins. Thus clad, the young Achilles moved unconscious of his charm across the stage, against the screen of distant trees, under the flooding sunlight; detaching his triumphant manhood from the atmosphere and breadth and verdure of the plain, which seemed to fall into their proper place as framework for the noble form and godlike presence of the youth.

Saturated with Michelangelo, I roamed these fields in search of his characteristic type. I wished to detect in some forms there — not David; that was sufficiently rendered for me by the young Achilles — but those Genii of the Sistine and that Bound Captive of the Louvre: the peculiar shape of male, in short, which stands for seal and signature of Buonarroti's sense of beauty, and yields the keynote of his temperament. This type I did not discover in the brawny Bernese wrestlers, with their gently-sloping shoulders and bossy muscles on the thorax, fore and aft. I did not find it in iron-thewed, uncouth herdsmen from Glarus and Uri; nor in supple Italians, where hip and thigh outbalanced the masses of the torso; nor yet again in those dying-gladiator kind of men, who come from Thurgau, flexible and dreamy, like captives on the Arch of Constantine. Everywhere I sought; and in the search I became aware how singular and beautiful the type must be. At last I ran it down in one young fellow from the Jura. There was the small head, rising from a thick and sinewy neck, extending into ample shoulders; the lines of the body giving wide girth for chest and flexible back, descending to narrow flanks, extending into length of thigh-bone, and contracting to find articulations in the knees and ankles. Large hands and powerful feet for the extremities. Here, then, I caught my master's scheme of the male form, the note preferred by him from all the symphony of living human beings. Then I compared nature with the uses to which my master's art turned what nature gave him, for the production of vast decorative architectural effects: Titanic forms, suspended for ever as symbols of human energy and loveliness upon aerial ceilings or in works of sculptured marble. The young man from the Jura seemed more simply beautiful; and I thought how Raphael would have seized the vigorous grace of him, just as he lounged there. At the same time the conviction pressed upon my brain that, so seized, so taken au vif, this model might have passed almost unnoticed in the crowd of Saints and Popes, Sibyls and Prophets. It was necessary to accentuate the broader aspects of the type. This Michelangelo did by adding weight to the shoulders and the thorax, increasing the volume of the arms and thighs, exaggerating the leg in its proportion to the torso, while keeping the relations of head, throat, hands, and feet. The beauty of life, alive there in a man,m was felt by him acutely. But when it came to decorative work, he enforced the rhythm of that beauty, and maintaining relative form-values, converted them to monumental and abiding visions of the truth he had perceived.

Thus comparing the living men before me with Michelangelo's superhuman race of Titans, I began to learn much which has an important bearing on his preference for complicated attitudes. It is not probable that he would have derived instruction from the Turnfest at Geneva. He knew everything which nature has to teach and science to discover in the region of design. But his disciple learned, by watching all those models in vehement action or in indolent repose (especially the straining wrestlers and the ring of recumbent athletes round them), how truly the boldest violences of Michelangelo are justified as possibilities of transitional or momentary pose. Whether we ought to regard them as justified, when translated into the stationary fact of marble, is another matter. Nevertheless I am certain that not one of his most questionable postures could not have been verified upon the wrestling-ground. For arriving at this critical conclusion it was an immense advantage to have so many hundreds of unconscious models always posing together in groups, and without premeditation. From the habit I acquired of fixing on my mental retina some movement which illustrated a corresponding problem of the master's design, I became sure that he possessed an eye as rapid and a memory as retentive as the lens and film of a detective camera for arresting and recording transitory phases of corporeal action. It might be argued that he worked out these strained attitudes schematically, from his knowledge of bony and muscular structure in the human frame. But, even if he did so, it is certain that in many most difficult cases he could only have verified the product of his science by referring to the model in a posture lasting but a fraction of a second.

The crowning event of the Festival, for an aesthetical spectator, was when the thousands of the gymnasts stood drawn up in ranks and sections to perform their general exercises. These consist of various movements, bringing each limb by turns into activity, and displaying the whole muscular resources of the body. The wide field was covered with men, every one of whom moved in concert with the mighty mass, rhythmically, to the sound of music. The show lasted for half an hour, and finer drill was never seen. It had not the overwhelming effect produced by the marching past of an army, or the wheeling of columns and forming of squares on a review day. But for plastic beauty, for variety of posture, for melodic cadence in the lithely swaying figures, it surpassed anything which I have known. A German, who had come from Munich for the Festival, happened to stand beside me on the platform, whence we surveyed the spectacle. He burst into tears, exclaiming: "Ach, wie rührend!" [How moving! How stirring!] I confess to having shared his sentiment; and when the whole elastic multitude dispersed, a shadowy vision of the life of men swept through my soul, obscuring thought. "Creatures of a day; what is a man, and what is a man not?" The mysteries of the universe and the eternities are prisoned in a single man; and here there were men by thousands rejoicing in their health and strength. Yet man is but a dream about a shadow, a flower that perisheth, a blade of grass that falls beneath the scythe. And all those thousands with their souls mysterious, their bodies beautiful and vigorous, must pass away. After but half a century, how few of them, decrepit gray-beards, will be crawling on the earth they now so lightly spurn with heels like those of feathered Hermes?


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