Friday, July 3, 2009

July 4: The Super Bowl of competitive eating

For the fringe sport of competitive eating, July 4 is the biggest day of the year. It’s when Nathan’s Famous holds its annual hot dog eating competition at Coney Island, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Last year’s winner, Joey Chestnut of San Jose, Calif., downed 59 hot dogs and buns in a 10-minute regulation match, tying Takeru Kobayashi of Nagano, Japan. Chestnut then beat Kobayashi by seven seconds in a five-dog overtime match.
The Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest has been held each year since 1916.
In May 2008, I attended a regional qualifying event for the Nathan’s competition in suburban Chicago. As a spectator sport, hot dog eating is pretty gross. Contestants soak their hot dog buns in water, Gatorade or other drinks to make them easier to swallow quickly. The resulting mess is disgusting. As the contestants (known as “gurgitators”) stuff dozens of hot dogs down their throats, there’s also a chance that they could throw up. And paramedics are standing by in case they choke.
The Nathan’s hot dog eating contest is the premier event for Major League Eating, the professional franchise set up by the International Federation of Competitive Eating.
In addition to Nathan’s hot dogs, competitions have involved Krystal hamburgers, Jimmy John’s sandwiches, Pizza Hut P'Zones, fried calamari, ribs, gryos, clams, sweet corn, chicken wings, burritos, waffles, potato wedges, and just about every type of food imaginable.
I spoke with George Shea, chairman of Major League Eating, in May 2008 when I considered writing an article on competitive eating. He said Major League Eating had ramped up from 20 or 30 events a year several years ago to about 85 a year now.
The Nathan’s Fourth of July event gets a tremendous amount of news coverage, he said. It’s broadcast on ESPN.
“The growth in media coverage has been truly remarkable,” he said. “Essentially it’s a contest with a lot of pageantry and humor leading up to it. It’s funny and kind of dramatic.”

Top: Joey Chestnut receives his mustard yellow belt for winning the 2008 Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating competition in New York.
Bottom: Qualifying event for Nathan’s hot dog eating contest held May 17, 2008, in Matteson, Ill.

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