Eating contests are not new. Nathan’s Hot Dog eating competition goes all the way back to 1916. Pie eating contests at carnivals and eating competitions involving green stuff ( green donuts, jalapenos etc. ) on St. Patrick’s Day go back a long, long time. Participants at such contests competed for the fun of it and winners didn’t gain much more than honor. And a bellyfull , of course.
This has all changed; eating contests are a serious business now. Sports Illustrated carries articles about them and they are even televised by ESPN. Prize money runs into the thousands of dollars , big eaters compete on a regular circuit of events and there is a governing body for the ‘sport’ — the International Federation of Competitive Eating ( IFOCE).
I think the change began with the arrival on the scene of Japanese eaters , particularly with the stunning debut of Takeru Kobayashi at the 2001 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating contest.This contest is the grandaddy of all eating contests having been held for the first time in 1916 when James Mullen downed 13 hotdogs and buns ( HDB’s) in the regulation 12 minutes. The record was upped very gradually and was still around 20 well into the 1990’s. The Japanese started entering the competition in the mid- 1990’s with Hirofumi Nakajima winning in 1997 ( 24 1/2 HDB’s) and Kazutoyo ‘ the Rabbit’ Arai in 2000 ( 25 1/2 HDB’s). Kobayashi , a 22 year old who weighed only 135 lbs., won the 2001 contest scoffing up 50 1/2 HDB’s in 12 minutes. He almost doubled the previous ‘world record’. Think of it. It would be comparable to someone running the mile in 2 minutes the year after Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute barrier. ‘ Tsunami’ Kobayashi ( love those nicknames) won the Nathan’s contest every year until this year, 2007, when he was finally dethroned by Joey ‘ Jaws’ Chestnut, a 23 year old civil engineering student from San Diego, who won by eating 66 hotdogs to Kobayashi’s 63.
Eating contests were for fun; they used to be for fun. Not any more. The winner of the Nathan’s competition used to have the honor of keeping the ‘mustard yellow’ championship belt for a year. This year, however, Joey Chestnut pocketed $10,000 for winning, Koabayashi got $5,000 for placing second. The total prize money doled out by Nathan’s was $ 20,000. Fifty thousand people watched the event live and 1.5 million saw it on ESPN.
Overall, the IFOCE distributed over $ 350,000 in prize money at various eating competitions last year. There were contests for eating conch fritters, hanburgers, butter, mayonnaise, cow brains ( ugh! ), cabbage, pulled pork, chicken wings, cheesecake, oysters, pizza,fruitcake, bratwurst, crabcakes … and the list goes on and on. Kobayashi is the unquestioned star of the circuit but Sonya (The Black Widow)Thomas is coming on strong. A petite Korean- American who weighs only 105 lbs , Ms. Thomas ( 39) is single and works in the fast food business. Some of her feats are eating 11 lbs. of cheesecake in 9 minutes, downing 80 chicken McNuggets in 5 minutes and polishing off 65 hardboiled eggs in 6 minutes and 40 seconds.Last year she earned over $ 50,000 on the eating circuit. Joey Chestnut has some impressive credentials too. He’s devoured 7 1/2 lbs of Buffalo chicken wings in 12 minutes, 47 grilled cheese sandwiches in 10 minutes and 9.6 lbs of pulled pork in 12 minutes.
These are mindboggling numbers. I ‘ll concede that eating contests are competitions and that these records are all feats of a sort. I do however draw the line at calling them ‘athletic feats’ and at designating competitive eating as a sport.
To my way of thinking , sport is played by trained athletes, is beautiful to watch and those who watch are in some way ennobled by what they have seen. None of these things apply to competitive eating.Pushing oneself to gobble up 20 hamburgers isn’t ‘training’ and watching these athletes compete is nauseating. The Nathan’s Competition rules flatly state that ” Table manners are not part of the game.” and ” Both hands may be used”. During the contest, accidents do happen as competitors (or ‘ gurgitators’ as they are known ) sometimes regurgitate as they try to force food down their gullets. The competitors are more like carnival freaks than ‘ athletes’.
At one time, it is true I used to think these contests were fun. That was when the contestants didn’t take themselves seriously and were out merely to have a good time. I remember a tongue -in – cheek article in which some American contenders allegedly complained that Kobayashi had an unfair advantage because he was using ” secret Oriental mind control techniques” to relax his stomach muscles and increase his stomach capacity. Another article spoke about their determination to bring the mustard yellow championship belt back home to where it belonged , the United States. With the advent of prize money, the fun has gone out of competitive eating .. atleast as far as I am concerned.
A greter concern is the effect these contests have on health, that of the competitors and more importantly, the general public. Eating contests used to be popular on Japanese TV in the early nineties but went of the air after a couple of deaths from overeating. It is no coincidence that the the Japanese presence at U,S eating contests occured shortly thereafter. Kobayashi started out at 135 lbs but is now listed at 165 ; some sources even have him as high as 185 lbs. To be sure, some of this is muscle as he has consciously bulked up in order to increase his metabolism but I’m sure all of this has to affect his health. One can’t routinely eat 6000 calories a day , as Sonya Thomas does, and not have any ill effects from it.
What is really of concern is the effect that all this has on American attitudes towards food and eating. Big eaters are looked up to and big portions are in. One restaurant in the Midwest features a 72 oz. steak. Eat it in a set amount of time ( 6 hours , I think ) and it’s on the house. Fast food chains offer bigger and bigger packages. We’re used , by now, to McDonald’s and BugerK ing and their super-sized meals. However , SubWay which used to pride itself as a healthy alternative , now offers an extra large sandwich and has a commercial showing the different ways of tackling it.
This week , a news article stated that the average American life span fell slightly to just over 77 years , 40th or so among all nations. One of the two major reasons for it’s decline is obesity which brings with it a host of ills including diabetes and heart disease.
I was not surprised.