For most people, the words Swiss sport and Emmental might conjure up thoughts of Roger Federer eating cheese.
However, for those familiar with the vast countryside and farmland of the central region of Switzerland where the cheese originated, there has been a traditional game synonymous with the area for centuries.
Sending projectiles lightning through the air at 200 miles per hour, they all rise – and then close – for Hornussen.
Described as a hybrid of baseball and golf, Hornussen sees two teams of 18 take turns hitting and throwing the “Nouss” or “Hornuss,” a disc named after hornets for its buzzing sound as it whistles through the air.
Armed with a 3-metre (9.84 ft) carbon pole called a “Träf”, hitters head to an elevated batting ramp in front of a playing area, the “Ries”, about 300 meters (980 feet) long and 10 meters (32 feet) wide. Their task is to hit the puck from the inclined platform, known as the “Bock”, as far as they can down the field.
Scoring starts if it reaches the 100 meter line, with an extra point for every 10 meters beyond the marker. Crucially, however, runs are only scored if the Nouss land, with fielders spread out at intervals seeking to prevent the puck from landing with bats, or ‘Schindels’.
The format of the sport has drawn comparisons to golf, with some even suggesting that it was a precursor to the modern incarnation of the sport.
“The similarity is that, like a ball, you hit a puck, and you wax it far, but here you want to make some goals, not holes,” said Michael Kummer, a member of the national championship winning team Hochstetten Hornussen.
“People in other countries call Hornussen the ‘Farmer’s Bay’, so I think there are some similarities.”
However, while in golf only one missed shot is likely to present some danger to others, in Hornussen putting yourself in danger is an essential part of the game. With discs of pressed plastic streaming towards you at F1 car-like speeds, stopping them is a feat as treacherous as it is tricky. Although players often wear helmets and protective gear, some take the field without any protection.
“It’s very dangerous if you don’t see the Nouss or if one hits the bat and, two meters before the face, the Nouss changes direction,” explained Kummer.
“If it goes to the eyes or the head, it’s really dangerous.”
Originating in the mid-17th century in the Emmental Valley and, apart from brief forays into neighboring Germany, Hornussen has never left Switzerland, with few teams existing outside of the west-central canton of Bern.
The need for large expanses of open grass to play games is part of the reason the sport has been limited to rural Emmental, Kummer explains, adding that forays into Germany were cut short when the teams could not find enough players.
However, for Kummer, it is this rootedness in Switzerland that makes Hornussen, along with yodeling and schwingen, a form of wrestling, a mainstay of the country’s sporting culture.
“With yodeling and schwingen it is one of the three cultural sports in Switzerland and we like it,” he said.
Around 260 teams are active in a multi-league pyramid in Switzerland, with the best teams fighting 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 and strong players, it seems at first glance that physical attributes have a huge influence on a team’s performance. However, Kummer insists that size only matters up to a point.
“We’ve got big guys, but we’ve got little guys too and that’s one of the good things about this sport,” he said.
“The little ones can make a good play in the field, too, and they can hit the Nouss as long as the big ones.”
Take Kumer’s teammate Simon Ernie; although relatively diminutive compared to some of his peers, Ernie was the league’s top scorer during his team’s most recent title-winning campaign.
“He’s the Lionel Messi of Hornussen, and he’s a little guy too,” Kummer said. “He’s one of the smallest on our team.”