Our Breton wrestling friends have a crisis on their hands

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Our Breton wrestling friends have a crisis on their hands. La Fédération de Gouren appeared in court in Brest this week charged with animal cruelty. Many in the public gallery were dressed in the canvas wrestling jacket of Breton wrestling, prosecution lawyers were met by sheep noises from the crowd, and petitions were signed.

'Le Serment' or oath-taking by Breton Wrestlers before the bouts start. Matthieu Le Dour with the winner's trophy on his shoulders, 'le maout'. Matthieu is not only a champion in Gouren wrestling and Judo, but he has made a big impression on his visits to the UK. The close links between our wrestlers and the Bretons is illustrated by the fact that Andrew Carlile and David Atkinson were invited to Matthieu's wedding recently.

An action had been brought by StéphaneLamart, supported by the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, to stop an ancient tradition of the main Breton wrestling tournaments, le maout, when the winner is presented with a live sheep, which he carries round the ring on his shoulders.

I have seen a drawing of le maout dating 1837 and witnessed the tradition when I visited their big summer event at St Kadou many summers ago. The same tradition is even mentioned in this country in the Prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales when the Miller, full bigge he was of brawn and eek of bones . At wrastlynge he wolde have awey the ram.

The nub of the matter is that most Bretons see le maout as an ancient tradition which is integral to their culture, whilst the prosecution regard it as animal cruelty. The court decided to deliberate and make a decision on February 8th. But the final words of the judges give hope to the prosecution: "Le respect de la tradition n'exclut pas le respect de l'animal et du progrès" The respect for tradition does not override respect for an animal or for progress.

In Cumbria no sheep are under threat from wrestlers, although they can be good hiping and twisting practice in the sheep pens, but we should have some sympathy with our Breton friends. Our Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling, ancient though it is, has to conform to the modern world of health and safety, child protection, insurance and qualified coaches. Usually, it comes down to common sense, but we must always be alert to bureaucratic threats which could endanger the continuation of the sport as we know it.

Our wrestlers have again been invited to take part in the Breton Back-hold Championships in Guipavas, on the outskirts of Brest , on Saturday, 27th February. In early April the Espoirs European Championships and the Women's European Championships will be held in St Brieuc in Brittany , and again our wrestlers are invited to participate.

In Currock House last weekend a healthy gathering of wrestlers and supporters saw an excellent slide-show of wrestling photographs taken during 2009 and now available on CD. Several images show Richard Fox buttocking opponents so high that their feet are more than seven feet above ground level. And the Bretons are there, too, muddied but cheerful during the Grasmere monsoon week. (Anyone who wishes to have a copy of the CD should contact me on 016974 73559 for details. All profit to the Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling Association.)

Written by © Roger Robson. Photographs by © Roger Robson, Julian Richardson or Linda Scott (February 10th 2011)

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