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Gymnastics - more than a sport

Celebrating a Swiss tradition - the gymnastics festival takes place every six years

(Keystone Archive)

The federal gymnastics festival currently underway in Basel is more than just a sporting spectacle.

It is also a showpiece for Swiss traditions and in particular the central role clubs and associations have played in the history of the country.

Belonging to an organisation is a particularly Swiss phenomenon, and many associations continue to have an important role, not just socially, but also politically and economically.

There are an estimated 100,000 clubs and associations across the country. The Swiss gymnastics association - one of the oldest - has between 400,000 and 500,000 members.

Founders of a modern Switzerland

The federal gymnastics festival started in 1832 - 16 years before the founding of the modern Swiss state. A group of liberal Zurich students gave the first gymnastics demonstration in Aarau. Their goal was to create a national movement celebrating "the exercise of both the mind and the body" among a younger generation.

They saw themselves, says Max Triet, director of the Swiss Sports Museum in Basel, as "the creators of a modern Switzerland - a modern nation."

The gymnastics association was a unifying force. Its early members were less interested in the idea of gymnastics as a sport than in it being able to improve the mind and the body.

"The movement grew out of Zurich," says Triet. "And within 10 years it was being embraced among the middle-classes in other cities."

"Every year there was a festival and what had initially been an association of students gradually opened itself up and found its way into local communities."

The festival mirrored social developments in Switzerland. In 1922 in St Gallen, Jewish groups participated for the first time, and after the Second World War gymnastic Catholic and working-class associations entered the fold.

Political importance

When democracy in Switzerland was first established in 1848 it was associations that filled the urgent need for an educated male population, fully aware of its political obligations, according to historian, Lynn Blattmann

"One man one vote meant the need for a politically-aware class and that's exactly what the more established associations such as gymnastics and shooting were able to do," she says.

The political importance of associations is still very much in evidence today.

"The Swiss state depends a great deal on volunteer work especially in the fields of social welfare and childcare," says Blattmann.

"And associations are involved in a lot of that voluntary work, having moved on from a purely patriotic role in the past."

While associations are by their very nature conservative - a trend that has given rise to the belief that Switzerland would be politically more progressive without them - Blattmann believes they are also a cohesive influence.

"They make the gaps smaller between politicians and the rest of the country, and they often function as a kind of go-between."

Economic backbone

Associations also have a very important economic role in Switzerland. Blattmann says they are often involved in the consultation process when the government is planning to draw up reforms.

"Manufacturing associations, business federations and trade representatives are drawn into the process of finding a compromise which will be acceptable to different interest groups," she says.

And the larger business associations have had a vital role to play in resolving potential labour disputes.

Beyond the Röstigraben

It is perhaps the role associations have played in helping shape and maintain a national identity that marks their biggest contribution to Swiss life.

Traditionally they have brought together people from different social and religious backgrounds, language groups and parts of the country.

"The federal gymnastics festival is just like Switzerland," says Triet. "It's a united movement where divisions exist, but it gives people the chance to feel part of a bigger group even if their loyalty is to the local community."

The festival now takes place every six years and gives gymnastics associations the opportunity to get together for a celebration of what unites them and what makes them different.

"They come together for 10 days," says Triet "and then they go their separate ways - it's part of the charm of the festival."

And in a unique way, national associations also bridge the linguistic divide, adding an overall "Swissness" to four culturally different regions.

"They are not dominated by German speakers," says Blattmann.

"They also have branches in the Italian, French and Romantsch-speaking parts of the country, and typically rotate their presidents so that they represent every region."

by Jonathan Summerton


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