Bill Dwarf and his father, heavyweight wrestler Bill Senior, don't mind getting thumped onto their backs 10 hours a day. The two wrestlers never sweat or get hungry, never whimper or complain and never walk away from a match no matter how tough the going gets. The Bills are actually life-size dolls, leather or plastic dummies used for the past 36 years by wrestlers all over the world to practice their holds, grips and throws.
At the University of Iowa the dummies are known simply as Swedish throwing dolls. "We use the dolls," says Hawkeyes assistant coach Keith Mourlam, "to give a wrestler a workout if he doesn't have a partner. And we use them as a conditioning tool." A conditioning tool? One wonders how challenging it could be to toss around a lifeless dummy. After all, it can't fight back. But Mourlam notes that a dummy can be a dead weight of more than 80 pounds, "and lifting it above your head and throwing it 10 times in a row can be exhausting."
The most popular wrestling dolls are manufactured in the little southern Swedish town of K‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üvlinge (pop. 6,000). There have been a few imitators and competitors since the first doll was produced by Strandh, but that small Swedish firm, which has only seven employees, is one of the leading manufacturers. Johan Strandh, 78, the company's founder, says he started stuffing sectioned mats with reindeer hair in 1928 because the K‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üvlinge club where he wrestled—and where he later served as a trainer—needed new mats. A nearby tannery used reindeer hides and "just threw the hair away." Almost 60 years later, the firm still manufactures wrestling mats (but no longer with reindeer hair), as well as mats for such sports as judo and gymnastics.
Strandh had the idea of making "toy dolls for men" in 1950, after he noticed the serious risks beginning wrestlers were taking to learn some of the throws. There were many injuries. The first wrestling doll was named for Strandh's friend and fellow wrestler, Arvid (Bill) Billstr‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ám, who helped test the prototypes.
Each year, the firm makes about 400 dummies, which come in six sizes, four for training in Greco-Roman wrestling—including the Bill series—and two for freestyle. The Greco-Roman dolls range in size from 4 feet, 42 pounds to 5'3", 85 pounds; the freestyle are 5 feet, 55 pounds and 5'3", 70 pounds. All have heads and arms, but the freestyle dolls also have legs. The dummies are hand stuffed with rubber and polyester.
Since so many of the dolls come from Sweden, it isn't surprising that they are widely used in that country. There are at least one or two of the dolls in each of Sweden's 200 wrestling clubs, according to Olle Larsson, director of the Swedish Wrestling Federation.
The dolls are not only used by beginners to practice new holds, but are also helpful in developing quickness and stamina and for practicing dangerous throws, as when you lift your opponent up in the air and slam him down. "If you make a mistake with a doll, no one gets hurt," Larsson says.
Through the years these Swedish dolls have been sold in more than 40 countries. "We recently sent 100 of them to Greece. Fifty went to Austria, which they then re-shipped to the Soviet Union," says Strandh's supervisor, Lars Johansson. "They have gone to the Middle East, and people returning from Japan tell us they've even seen our dolls there." But the U.S. is the largest importer.
Naturally, the dummies have proved irresistible to practical jokers. At Iowa, for instance, any wrestler named Bill may find his last name written on the chest of one of the dolls. And several years ago, when the wrestling department had a connecting door with the archery department, "a couple of times we found dolls with about 15 arrows sticking out of them," says Mourlam. "Once, someone stole a doll. When it was found in the basement of a house, it was all dressed up in a hat and sunglasses."
Such jokes aren't entirely amusing, however. "Those dolls are very expensive," Mourlam notes. They are, indeed. Depending on the size and style, a doll can cost from $360 to $755. They can be purchased in the U.S. through Universal Fitness Products, 20 Terminal Drive South, Plainview, NY 11803. Tell them Bill sent you.
David Bartal is a free-lance writer who lives in Stockholm.