Sunday 22 September 2019

A fascinating tale of wrestling, murder and obsession

Book review


Every so often a true story comes along that seems stranger than fiction. One such tale involves a pair of American wrestling brothers and an unhinged billionaire, a tragic story so bizarre you would be forgiven for thinking it was dreamt up by Hollywood script writers.

This true story is dealt with in 'Foxcatcher - A True Story of Murder, Madness and the Quest for Olympic Gold', written by Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, which is part sports book, part murder thriller.

Inevitably, a story this good would end up on the silver screen, and this book laid the foundation for the current major motion picture 'Foxcatcher' starring Channing Tatum and Steve Carrell.

The book begins with a bang, literally, as in the opening chapter former Olympic wrestling champion, Mark Schultz, describes how his brother and fellow Olympic wrestling gold medallist, David, is murdered by John du Pont, heir to the Du Pont fortune and financial backer of the 1988 U.S. Olympic wrestling team.

From this explosive opening, Mark then rewinds the clock to the 1970s, and charts his rise through the wrestling ranks, beginning in high school and on through the ultra-competitive environment of U.S. college wrestling. Mark followed his older brother's footsteps into the world of wrestling and by the time the author was in college had established himself as one of the top wrestlers in the country.

The first half of the book details purely Mark's growth as a wrestler, and the author goes into a lot of technical detail about the sport. The Olympic sport of wrestling is huge in American schools and colleges (not to be confused with the TV-driven entertainment business that is WWE). On this side of the Atlantic, there is no great tradition for Olympic wrestling, but Mark gives a good account of the intense training and dedication required to excel at the sport.

Both Mark and David won Olympic gold at the Los Angeles games of 1984, becoming national heroes in the process. Enter billionaire John du Pont, who decided to assemble the greatest wrestling team ever known on his Foxcatcher estate, with a view to taking the 1988 Seoul games by storm.

Unfortunately, this is where the book starts to disappoint. 'Foxcatcher' is a riveting true story, but Mark Schultz is not a riveting storyteller. Mark saw first-hand how Du Pont grew paranoid and controlling and how his catastrophic break from reality led to tragedy. Rather than Mark writing it in the first person, the book would have benefited from an experienced fiction writer taking the lead and writing in the third person.

As a sports book, it gives a good account of a sport that has no real following in Ireland. It is clear that both brothers were supreme athletes; Mark used his incredible size and strength to overcome opponents, while David made up for his smaller size by being a technically gifted wrestler.

But what makes this story so fascinating is the Du Pont factor. The deranged billionaire became increasingly obsessed with the Schultz brothers, an obsession that ends with David being shot dead in the back before a two-day siege played out at Du Pont's Foxcatcher mansion, watched by millions on American news stations. It is just a pity that a more experienced writer was not on hand to describe the gripping story in all its tense, bloody detail.

Darragh Clifford

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