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Analysis Little Switzerland basks in big-league sporting success

Nico Hischier

Swiss Nico Hischier was the first overall pick in NHL 2017 draft and will play for the New Jersey Devils team


Switzerland is going through a golden age of sports. But, like so many things in the small Alpine country, you would be hard-pressed to know the details.

No one yells from the top of the Matterhorn, “We are the greatest.” And yet, in three major sports, a relatively small pool of eight million residents has turned out some remarkable athletes. Countries with similar populations – Tajikistan or Papua New Guinea for example – are not in the same class. Even fellow Alpine Austria lags far behind, except in skiing.

Just last week, 18-year-old Nico Hischier became the first Swiss-born hockey player to be selected number one overall in the National Hockey League (NHL) draft. Although Switzerland has a most competitive hockey league of its own, to have the number one choice in the prestigious NHL draft adds to the remarkable fact that at least ten Swiss players are already skating in the top international league. 

Dr. Daniel Warner is Assistant Director for International Relations at DCAF, the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces. He joined DCAF in 2011 after a long career at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

(courtesy of the author)

Swiss tennis results are better known. With Wimbledon approaching, tennis fans are eager to see if Roger Federer can duplicate his Australian Open victory with an eighth Wimbledon title and 19th Grand Slam. Following a long layoff after his victory in Melbourne, Federer seems rested and ready after his convincing victory in the Gary Webber Open in Halle this weekend.

Certainly the best player of his generation, if not the best of all time, Federer has been the standard bearer of Swiss excellence since the top skiers have struggled in recent years in what has been the major Swiss sport.

What about Stan Wawrinka? The recent French Open finalist and three-time Grand Slam winner is also a top seed at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Although grass has never been his best surface, Warwinka has settled into a top five ranking and if it weren’t for Federer’s brilliance, he would be the major Swiss story each time he plays.

And basketball? No one would associate basketball and Switzerland. The typical street game has never been played on the tarmac of mountain passes. One could not imagine Heidi shooting hoops with her beloved grandfather or William Tell going all or nothing on a foul shot instead of a bow and arrow. And yet, two Swiss players are currently active in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Clint Capella is a rising star with the Houston Rockets and Thabo Sefolosha has had a solid career with three NBA teams.

Switzerland is a highly decentralized country. Much of the nation’s authority resides within the 26 cantons, as it should under federalism. While the various sports governing bodies are technically under the Federal Department of Defense, Protection of the Population and Sport, there is no overall dominating federation which can claim credit for these impressive results.

The athletes mentioned have had some support from national bodies, but Capella played much of his basketball in France, Hischier skated in North America before being drafted and Federer has had private coaches for most of his successful career. There is no one formula for these impressive results. But, yes, there is much to yodel about these days.

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