Thursday, July 7, 2011

I'll have 62nds, please

The World's Greatest Athlete?
This past Monday on America’s 235th birthday, the world’s leading competitive eaters descended on Coney Island, NY for the 96th annual Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. Joey Chestnut captured his fifth straight title eating 62 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. Also, for the first time ever, Nathan’s included a woman’s competition before the main event, which was won by Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas with 40 dogs.

Like the last time I stepped outside the 4 major sports to write a post (my candlepin bowling post), I am sure you all have a bunch of questions, including:
  • Why is X Mark talking about a hot dog eating contest?
  • Are you trying to tell me that competitive eating is a sport?
  • Isn't it just a bunch of fat guys trying to cram food into their holes?
  • Wait, what? Women do this too?
To answer your questions...

Why is X Mark talking about a hot dog eating contest?
Today, 5 cents still gets you a french kiss from the Rat Lady
In the summer of 2006 I got a job working for the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Single A Short-Season affiliate of the New York Mets. It was my first job out of college and my first in professional sports. It was also my first real taste of Brooklyn, the quirkiest of all the New York boroughs (though it’s shifted from “quirky” to “annoyingly gentrified” since it has been overrun with rich white kids called “hipsters” who in their ultimate quest to be different all turn out exactly the same). Our stadium was situated right on the Coney Island beach and boardwalk next to one of the oldest amusement parks in the country and the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand. As a picky eater, hot dogs are one of my staples so I made frequent trips to Nathan's for a couple dogs and some crinkle cheese fries.

On July 4th that year, the Cyclones were playing out of town so I was lucky to have the day off. With most of my friends out of town to be with their families, I decided to go to Coney Island for the day, completely forgetting about the hot dog eating contest. When I got off the subway that morning, I stepped into a sea of freaks. It was like a food Mardi Gras with a patriotic twist and all eyes were focused on a giant table next to the Nathan’s hot dog stand. A short time later the competition began and I witnessed one of the most impressive and disgusting displays of human ability I have ever seen.

About 20 people stood on stage in front of massive plates of hot dogs and buns and over sized cups of liquid (which I found out later was water). When the MC started the eaters, the meat started to fly. Dogs were shoved in mouths two at a time as the competitors heads bobbed back and forth to slide the street meat down their gullets. Following the double dogs were water soaked buns. It was hard to tell at points if their bodies were shaking to promote healthy digestion or if they might actually explode. There were plenty of cheers and chants, but mostly stunned silence.

In the middle of it all was hot dog eating legend Takeru Kobayashi. He had won the previous 5 contests and held the world record with 53.5 dogs. As the ’06 contest progressed, the dog counters showed Kobayashi in the lead pretty much from start to finish. However, standing stage left was Chestnut in his second ever Nathan’s competition. Every dog that Kobayashi ate, Chestnut was only a couple behind and as the clock ticked down and the crowd chanted his name, it looked as though he may have a legitimate shot to catch the legend. When the clock hit zero, both competitors “chipmunked” an extra couple dogs (“chipmunking” is the legal act of packing your cheeks full of food before time expires without swallowing). The crowd stood with bated breath as we hoped Chestnut could keep it in and prayed for a “reversal of fortune” from Kobayashi (“reversal of fortune” is throwing up which results in a disqualification). Alas, both competitors swallowed their chipmunked dogs and Kobayashi captured his 6th straight title. Despite the narrow defeat, a star (Chestnut) and a fan (me) were born.

Are you trying to tell me competitive eating is a sport?
These guys take carbo loading to a whole new level
Absolutely. Not to sound like a 10th grader writing a research paper, but Wikipedia gives a good explanation of what constitutes a sport: “A sport is an organized, competitive, entertaining, and skillful activity…in which a winner can be defined by objective means. Generally speaking, a sport is a game based in physical athleticism.” Let’s take a look at how competitive eating fits into each of these criteria:
  • Organized: Did you know there is a governing body for competitive eaters called Major League Eating (MLE)? All participants in the Nathan’s contest must actually sign a contract with MLE in order to compete. Most eaters have complied with this rule except for the world famous Kobayashi. At last year’s hot dog contest, Kobayashi refused to sign with MLE and was barred from competing. He showed up to the event anyway wearing a “Free Kobi” shirt and bum rushed the stage after the contest where he was arrested after a brief scuffle with police security. Seriously. If that’s not organized, I don’t know what is.
  • Competitive: If you watched the video from earlier of Chestnut and Kobayashi fighting to keep those last bits of skin bags tucked into their cheeks then you understand how competitive this sport is. If you want more proof that it’s competitive, you should know that both Chestnut and Thomas, the women’s winner, received $10,000 for their victories at Nathan’s, and other winners receive similarly large purses in other competitions. For ten grand I would swallow my own face so I can definitely see why their competitive fires burn.
  • Entertaining: Much like NASCAR, there is a serious car crash element to this sport. While it is great to see a close match like in Nathan’s 2006 or at more competitive food contests, competitive eating finds its niche in the “why am I watching this” category. As we watch a 350 pound man shove fistfuls of baked beans into his mouth with the residue smeared on his face and running down his arm, we turn into 5 year olds watching The Exorcist for the first time putting our hands over our eyes and spreading our fingers so we can still see. And in the off chance a car crashes (competitor vomits)? Well that’s just gravy baby.
  • Skillful: Quick story. In 2007 when I was living in Florida, I spread the gospel of the hot dog eating competition. I was able to convince a couple of my friends and co-workers to do our own hot dog contest while we watched it on ESPN on the 4th. We boiled 12 hot dogs apiece and stacked them on plates. As the MC on Coney Island counted down so did we and when he said go we went. With my love of hot dogs, I labeled myself the favorite, even over my 6’8” roommate. From what I remember, I was competitive for the first 3 dogs, but then at the fourth I hit a major major wall. I ended up only finishing 5 and a half, coming in dead last (the winner had 8) even behind my roommate’s fiancé. I felt like I was going to die a meaty death. And in those same 12 minutes of my own personal hell, Joey Chestnut shattered the world record with 66 dogs for his first career victory. I don’t care what anybody says, that was the toughest thing I ever put my body through and this guy did it 11 times as well. That is some serious skill.
  • Defined winner: He or she who eats more food wins. Let's move on.
  • Physical athleticism: This leads me to my next question...

Isn't it just a bunch of fat guys trying to cram food into their holes?
Maybe we should all be eating 50+ hot dogs per sitting
The man pictured above is MLE enemy number 1 Takeru Kobayashi. He was at once considered, and still may be, the best competitive eater in the world. He has a better body than you.

Being a successful competitive eater is not the same as being a successful fat ass. Fat people tend to eat a lot of food lethargically over the course of the day because they do everything lethargically which is why they are fat (no it’s genetics!). As we’ve already discussed, competitive eating takes a lot of skill and tons of body control. You need to be able to push the food into your body and get it down to your stomach without choking so you have to have a strong throat and digestive tract. You also need to make sure that you have enough room for your stomach to expand in order to fit the massive quantities of food you are asking it to hold. To do this, you cannot have a large layer of fat on your belly pushing your stomach in. Looking at Kobayashi above, it seems as though having strong abs are useful in expanding your stomach.

Kobayashi isn’t alone in his non-fatness. Look at MLE’s top 10 ranked eaters (yes this list exists), and you see a bunch of reasonably weighted and even skinny people. The average (listed) weight of the top ten is 193 pounds and there is really only one person I would consider fat, 4th ranked Bob “The Notorious B.O.B.” Shoudt. There are certainly plenty of fat athletes in the sport (15th ranked Eric “Badlands” Booker checks in at a whopping 400 pounds), but the cream of the crop tend to be in decent shape. And for those that think this is just another disgusting show of American gluttony, consider the case of Japanese Kobayashi and three Chinese men who flew in for the competition this week. It’s only a matter of time before it’s in the Olympics.

Wait, what? Women do this too?
This is not actually a Sexy Burger

I had about 15 different pornographic jokes leading off this section before I realized how hackey that is. If I am going to promulgate competitive eating as a sport, I can’t be putting down the women who star. This isn’t the WNBA after all.

The idea for this post came when’s Patrick Michels penned (typed?) an article on Sonya “The Black Widow”* Thomas the week before the 4th. This is where I first learned that there would be a separate women’s competition this year. In the article, Thomas expresses happiness that they separated the genders for this competition because she “’cannot eat 60 hot dogs in 10 minutes, no way. Fifty is difficult. So I’m never going to reach No. 1’, Thomas says. ‘I have a chance to win now.’” Thomas had more than a chance this year as she beat runner up Juliet Lee 40-29.

*If competitive eating weren’t fun enough, check out all these awesome nicknames. Black Widow. Tsunami. Badlands. Eater X. Deep Dish. Notorious B.O.B. Erik The Red. Megatoad. Wing Kong. Crazy Legs. Yellowcake.

Something about this separate competition bugged me though. I remembered Thomas from watching previous hot dog contests and she was competitive every year. From 2003-2010 here are her finishes: 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 5th, 6th, 4th. Granted, the closest she ever got to winning was 12 hot dogs, but she can clearly compete. Thomas is ranked 5th on MLE’s Eater Rankings. She holds the official world record in 24 different competitions including baked beans, chili cheese fries, cheese cake, hamburgers, lobster and tacos. In other words, my wet dream. Why did this woman need a separate competition?

Competitive eating is definitely not overflowing with female eaters. Thomas ranks 5th on the list, Lee is 12th and only one other woman ranks in the top 50. I can see the argument that having the separate competition raises the profile of the sport for the gender showing women that it is ok and even sexy to stuff so much sustenance into you in a short period of time. But if you look closer, isn’t this just another instance of men declaring their superiority over women? There are so few sports where women can physically compete with men that are naturally taller, faster and stronger. Golf could be one such sport if course lengths were reduced, but besides that there are few sporting arenas where men and women can star together. Kobayashi and other male stars prove that size is no advantage in competitive eating, which inspired Thomas and her fellow ladies to throw their hats into the rings. Now the powers that be are declaring that these strong bellied beauties are not good enough to share that ring with their male counterparts.

I say we protest. I say we take this all the way to Coney Island in 2012. We demand that man and woman chow wieners with equality. End the hypocrisy. If Sonya Thomas can eat more meatballs than any man ever has, why can’t she or some other woman eat more dogs than the great Joey Chestnut? On July 4th of next year I vow to march on Surf Avenue calling for the reunification of the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating competition. Who’s coming with me? Hey hey! Ho ho! This penis party’s got to go!

Raise your hand if you expected a post about hot dog eating written by me to turn into a rallying cry for women's rights?

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