To most people, the words Swiss sport and Emmental might trigger thoughts of Roger Federer eating cheese.
Yet to those familiar with the sprawling countryside and farmlands of the Swiss heartland region where the cheese originated, there’s been a traditional game synonymous with the area for centuries.
Sending projectiles hurtling through the air at 200 miles per hour, all rise – and then duck – for Hornussen.
Risk and reward
Described as a hybrid of baseball and golf, Hornussen sees two teams of 18 take turns hitting and fielding the “Nouss” or “Hornuss,” a puck named after hornets for its buzzing sound as it whistles through the air.”
Armed with a 3-meter (9.84-foot) carbon stick called a “Träf,” hitters take to a raised batting ramp in front of a playing area – the “Ries” – some 300 meters (980 feet) long and 10 meters (32 feet) wide. Their task is to strike the puck from the sloped platform, known as the “Bock,” as far as they can down the field.
Scoring starts if they reach the 100-meter line, with an additional point awarded for every 10 meters past the marker. Crucially though, points are only registered if the Nouss lands, with fielders spread at intervals seeking to block the puck from landing with bats, or “Schindels.”
The sport’s format has drawn comparisons to golf, with some even suggesting it was a forerunner to the sport’s modern incarnation.
“The similarity is that like a ball, you hit a puck, and you hit it far away, but here you want to make some goals, not holes,” said Michael Kummer, member of national championship winning team Hochstetten Hornussen.
“People from other countries call Hornussen the ‘Farmer’s Golf’, so I think there’s some similarities.”
Yet while in golf only an errant shot is likely to present any danger to others, in Hornussen, putting yourself in harm’s way is an essential part of the game. With pucks of pressed plastic whizzing towards you at speeds akin to an F1 car, stopping them is a feat as treacherous as it is tricky. Though players often wear helmets and shielding gear, some take to the field without any such protection.
“It’s really dangerous if you don’t see the Nouss or if one hits the bat and, two meters before the face, the Nouss changes direction,” Kummer explained.
“If it goes in the eyes or around the head it’s really dangerous.”
Originating in the mid-17th century in the Emmental valley and, barring brief forays into neighboring Germany, Hornussen has never left Switzerland, with few teams existing outside the west-central canton of Bern.
The need for vast expanses of open grass to contest games forms part of the reason the sport has been limited to the rural area of Emmental, Kummer explains, adding that ventures into Germany ultimately fell short when teams couldn’t find enough players.
Yet for Kummer, it is this very rootedness in Switzerland that makes Hornussen – alongside yodeling and schwingen, a form of wrestling – a pillar of the nation’s sporting culture.
“With yodelling and schwingen it’s one of the three culture sports of Switzerland and we like it,” he said.
Around 260 teams are active across a multi-league pyramid in Switzerland, with the top teams fighting it out for the Swiss Championship.
And as winners of the last five titles, Kummer’s Hochstetten are very much the Bayern Munich of the Hornussen world.
With Hochstetten boasting a number of tall, strong players, at first glance it would seem that physical attributes are hugely influential in a team’s performance. Yet Kummer insists that size matters only up to a point.
“We have some big guys, but we also have small guys and it’s one of the nice things about this sport,” he said.
“The small guys can also make a good play in the field and they can hit the Nouss as long as the big guys.”
Take Kumer’ teammate Simon Ernie; though relatively diminutive in stature compared to some of his peers, Ernie was the league’s top scorer during his team’s most recent title winning campaign.
“He is the Lionel Messi of Hornussen, and he’s also a small guy,” Kummer said. “He’s one of the smallest on our team.”