I cannot title this piece “Foxcatcher Revisited” because I have not seen it yet. I have read a lot about the movie. I know the story. I know one of the wrestlers who was there, on the estate, when the shooting happened. I have talked to him on several occasions about the details.
I am also a wrestler. Once a wrestler, always a wrestler. All five of my boys wrestled at some point. Two of them were state placers and All-Americans. One of them wrestled at the Olympic level. I know wrestling.
If you know wrestling, you know the Foxcatcher story. I do not necessarily mean that you know the movie story; you know the story behind the story.
The story behind the story is that wrestling, the world’s oldest sport, a sport of character and real life heroes, is under appreciated, relatively unknown and misunderstood, existing in the shadows of more popular and popularized sports. Wrestling is like the orphan or the widow of the sports world. It is fitting then, that one of wrestling’s true heroes, Mark Schultz, grew up fatherless with his brother, Dave Schultz, who are the protagonists in this Cannes award winning production.
Actually, Dave Schultz is the hero. He was a father figure to his 18 month younger brother. He was the face of wrestling in the US, like Dan Gable was in the previous generation. He was an ambassador of wrestling, receiving a hero’s welcome in foreign countries like a dignitary. He was better known in the Soviet Union and Iran than in his own country.
Unlike wrestling in those countries, there is minimal support for wrestling in this nation of overabundance and wealth. In the Foxcatcher days, Olympic athletes were still required to be amateurs, which was really a joke considering how foreign athletes were completely supported by their governments. For US wrestlers, it meant they had to live like beggars.
In that atmosphere, a pasty white, doughy, junkie, reclusive millionaire with bizarre, egocentric delusions of grandeur seemed like a savior. I am describing John DuPont, of course. He is the real life antagonist in the Foxcatcher movie. The Olympic athletes, including, perhaps, the greatest wrestler of his generation, had to put up with the egomaniacal paternalism of John DuPont, who would be despised in the company of street urchins, as the price for continuing to follow their Olympic dreams. The other option was living at the poverty level. They had all done that already.
This movie really hits home for the amateur wrestling world because nothing much has changed. While the average baseball, football or basketball player makes millions of dollars as rookies, most of the very best wrestlers this country has to offer live at the poverty level. Olympians are no longer constrained by the ruse of “amateur” status, but that only makes the present reality a more biting irony.
Only one wrestler at each of the six (yes only six!) Olympic weight classes can represent the country. World cups in the off Olympic years offer a generous eight spots. Three wrestlers at each weight are considered the “world team” and are supported by USA Wrestling. By supported, I mean they get a stipend of $5000 to $15.000…. a year.
Of course, they can live for free at the US Olympic Center in Colorado Springs, but most of them do not (and that is another story). Those same World Team Members and some select others may be sponsored by The New York Athletic Club or Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club. That might add another $3000-$5000 to the coffers and get tournament entry fees, plane tickets and hotels paid. Other clubs come and go, but there are never enough sponsorships to go around.
My son tore a tendon in his shoulder off the bone right after he was offered to be sponsored by Sunkist. There was no sponsorship after that. I had to pay for the surgery to put in a cadaver tendon and the ten (10) months of rehab. That was the first of two major shoulder surgeries along with the plane tickets and hotels I paid for.
In off Olympic years, a world gold medal will earn $50,000 from the Living the Dream Medal Fund, a world silver medal nets $25,000, and a world bronze medal gets a robust $15,000. A WORLD bronze medal provides a poverty level income for a family of two. (US Dept. of Health & Human Services) In Olympic years, an Olympic bronze medal will generate a $25,000 prize, silver a $50,000 reward, and an Olympic Gold Medal is rewarded with $250,000 – all from a fund that has been created by wrestlers through donations provided by wrestlers. There is no other support.
The Foxcatcher movie, in my opinion, is about the sorry state of support for the sport of wrestling in our country. Olympic gold medal winners cannot support themselves and their families without begging for scraps from benefactors. The NYAC and Sunkist are benefactors. John DuPont was a benefactor – a schizophrenic, delusional, homicidal benefactor.
If Olympic wrestlers have to stoop so low to have the opportunity to be the best in the world, what about the number 2 and number 3 guys at those weights? What about the five other number 1 guys at the other weights who are not quite THE BEST IN THE WORLD? Maybe they are 5th best, or 7th or 15th best. What about the guys, like my son, who spent six years climbing the Olympic ladder and maybe just breaking into the top ten in the country before injury ground that climb to a halt? Or maybe the money runs out, or the grind of working harder everyday than most people have ever trained on their best day for little reward just gets old.
Pasty white lunatics start looking like gods from certain angles. That is what Foxcatcher is about. I have not even seen it yet, but I will.
The Movie has been acclaimed. The actors, Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and others, give award winning performances. A comparison of the real life facts and people to the movie shows how “real” and true to life the movie is. (History Hollywood) For a wrestler’s critique of the movie, see this Forbes article.
There have been many articles and reviews. Many of them focus on the exemplary acting and hauntingly real portrayals of the characters. Many of the facts are changed and condensed, but they reveal the essence of what happened. I have read reviews finding supposed political messages and squeezing social commentary from story pulp, but to me it is simply a sad story about the sport I love – the sport that saved me from myself and that has built real character into innumerable lives of men – and women –who need real heroes to inspire them.