I was apprehensive when I first heard about the finger pulling fest. Like most children who grow up in America, I have been duped by a father’s odor releasing ploy (I may have even carried on the tradition with my own kids). Envisioning a fest tent bursting with leder hosen clad, sauerkraut and beer fueled Bavarian farmers releasing nauseating fumes by pulling each other’s fingers is, undoubtedly, cause for some alarm. Still, it is billed as a fest. So, when in Bavaria, go to where to beer flows.
Upon arriving at the Finger Wrestling Fest in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, my fears of a foul smelling fest tent were quickly laid to rest. Not only was the tent well ventilated, the only thing wafting in the air was laughter and competitive tension. Staged in Bavaria and parts of Austria, Finger Wrestling is a sport whose closets cousin is probably arm wrestling. It is not entirely clear how this sport started, but most origin stories claim that finger wrestling was used as a means of dispute settlement. Now it has been organized into a regulated sport where the size of the table, leather strap and even the stools have been standardized.
A test of strength, individual competitors square off from each other across a solid wooden table. Using only one finger, each competitor holds tightly to a ten centimeter long leather ring. A referee stands behind the table to make sure that each bout starts fairly and to declare a winner. Behind each opponent sits a catcher. The importance of the catchers should not be underestimated because competitors frequently fall backwards off of their stools.
At the beginning of each bout, competitors sit on their stool and steady themselves. Most wrestlers place one shin against the side of the table for a bit of leverage. With their free hand, they place their fingers in a vice grip on the edge of the table top. After locking themselves in with their leg and free hand, some competitors will try to gain a bit more leverage by almost laying sideways on their stool. When the referee is satisfied the each wrestler is in a legal position and has a good grip on the ring, he allows the bout to begin. A bout ends when the hand of one wrestler is pulled across the opposite side of the table. Most bouts are over within seconds, but some fierce duels can last almost a minute. Frequently, the force of the winning wrestler is so strong that his opponent is pulled up onto the table.
The competition lasts most of the day as the wrestlers tug their way to the finals of their weight class. Injuries are not uncommon and the tugging can be warlike, but the brotherhood and sportsmanship displayed between competitors run deep.
Meanwhile, the rest of the tent is full of revelry, feasting and, of course, beer. Like all other folks fests, a local band plays and dirndl wearing women snarkily heft liters of beer to the party goers. It is a great way to spend an afternoon among friends.