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Wednesday, July 3, 2002
Updated: July 4, 7:20 PM ET
Competitive eating a man-eat-dog world

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Editor's Note: Takeru Kobayashi won the world hot dog eating contest on the Fourth of July, breaking his own world record with 50½ hot dogs -- but the victory did not come without controversy. Check out Darren Rovell's full report from Coney Island.

The blue whale is the largest animal on Earth. A newborn calf weighs three tons and drinks 100 gallons of its mother's fat-rich milk per day, gaining as much as eight pounds an hour. During summer feeding seasons, the adult blue whale eats 8,000 pounds of shrimplike krill per day to maintain its 70-ton weight.

Amateur.

Takeru Kobayashi
Takeru Kobayashi revolutionized the hot dog eating world with his "Solomon" technique.
If you really want to see an impressive eater, check out the Nathan's Famous world hot dog eating contest on the Fourth of July at Coney Island. Begun in 1916, the contest is to hot dog eating what Augusta is to golf, bringing together 20 champion hot dog eaters from around the world. Think your Uncle Ned can put away an embarrassing number of hot dogs at your Fourth of July picnic? Two years ago, Kazutoyo Arai ate an astounding 25½ hot dogs in 12 minutes to set the world record. Can you imagine that? Twenty-five and a half hot dogs in 12 minutes? More than two hot dogs a minute? Most people could barely believe it.

And then Japan's Takeru Kobayashi won the contest last year when he ate 50.

"It was mind-boggling and a little scary and like something from another dimension," said George Shea, the president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating. "I could not process it. I never thought anyone could eat 50 hot dogs. But I've come to accept it. He's gently, slowly stretched his stomach and that's all there is to it."

Welcome to the world of competitive eating, a growing competitive field where Homer Simpson-like gastro-athletes eat unimaginable quantities of almost anything. Here are just a few of the world records set recently:

In addition to the 50 hot dogs, Kobayashi ate 17.7 pounds of cow brains in 15 minutes (though not on the same day -- I mean, be serious). Jed Donahue ate 152 jalapenos in 15 minutes. Bill Simmons (not Page 2's Bill "El Wingador" Simmons ... at least we hope not) ate 137 chicken wings in 30 minutes. Eric Booker ate 15 burritos in eight minutes and 38 hard-boiled eggs in 10 minutes. Crazy Legs Conti ate 168 oysters in 10 minutes. And Don Lerman ate seven quarter-pound sticks of butter in five minutes.

Seven sticks of butter in five minutes? Good Lord. I cannot imagine a more nauseating sight than watching someone eat seven sticks of butter in five minutes.

"Oleg Zhornitskiy ate four 32-oz jars of mayonnaise in eight minutes," Shea said. "And mayonnaise is tough. I like to say he was using the spoon God gave him. He was spooning it out of a bowl and licking it up with his tongue."

Trust me, you do not want these guys in the buffet line ahead of you on All-U-Can-Eat night.

Competitive eating is rooted in state fairs and food festivals, where eating contests were a natural connection to the main event. But it has swelled like Alec Baldwin in recent years. There is a competitive eating federation and a world-wide circuit extensive enough that Shea says Kobayashi ate his way to $150,000 last year. Fox even aired something called the Glutton Bowl, which featured eight different eating events, including butter, hot dogs, mayonnaise and beef tongue.

American
The American hot dog eaters are still trying to keep up with the Japanese imports.
(For some reason, as I write these things I keep getting this image of the Monty Python skit where the waiter convinces the impossibly obese Mr. Creosote to finish off his visit to a restaurant with a "wafer-thin mint," which causes the man to explode.)

Competitive eating took off in Japan about a decade ago, followed by this country about five years later. Even with U.S. obesity at alarming levels, we're still playing catch-up. No American has come close to matching Kobayashi's 50, though promising talent is out there.

Shea, who got his start in the IFOCE when he was hired to publicize the hot dog contest, recently came across a rookie at a Las Vegas contest who ate 20 hot dogs his first time out. "He immediately earned the nickname, 'The Locust,' because he's from the desert, and the way he eats, his hands resemble mandibles."

Naturally, three obvious questions come up when it comes to competitive eaters. The first is how do they do it? The second is why would they do it? And the third is what happens after they finish eating? (I'll only go into the first question, because the second can be addressed simply by asking why people pay money to see Adam Sandler movies -- the answer is people will do anything, especially when there is a TV camera involved. And the third question is simply too nauseating to consider. As Shea said, "Cookie Jarvis said when you eat mayonnaise there's a Jiffy Lube effect, and that's as far as I'm willing to go on that.")

  Naturally, there are three obvious questions when it comes to competitive eaters. The first is how do they do it? The second is why would they do it? And the third is what happens after they finish eating?  
  

For years, the assumption was that bigger was better, that your champion eaters should resemble some monstrous breeding experiment between John Goodman and Rosie O'Donnell gone horribly awry. Then along came Hirofumi Nakajima in 1996, when he set the hot dog record at 24½ despite being so trim he makes Ichiro look like he's on steroids. "People speculated he had two stomachs or was taking drugs," Shea said.

But when Kobayashi (who weighs a mere 131 pounds ... that's right, 131 pounds!), Arai and Zhornitskiy came along with similar builds, it led to a completely different view about what a champion eater should look like.

"There's a lot of speculation about this," Shea said. "First, everyone said the big guys are better. Then the Japanese come in, and they're all thin, and they're all better. Then the theory is that if you're too fat, it blocks the amount your stomach can expand. I now think size just doesn't matter."

At least not as much as technique. The Japanese introduced the wiener-dunking method, where eaters separate the hot dog from the bun and eat the dog while dipping the bun in water to make it go down easier. Then Kobayashi won with what was dubbed the "Solomon" technique, where he broke the hot dogs in half to speed his eating.

Kobayashi trains by eating cabbage and drinking water, which expands his stomach, but Shea stresses that he doesn't endorse any particular training method. The IFOCE's official safety standards state that "speed eating is only suitable for those 18 years or older and only in a controlled environment.''

"There very much is a 'Don't try this at home' element," Shea admitted.

Frankly, when it comes to the mayonnaise-eating contest, I don't think that's much of a concern.

Competitive eating certainly holds an odd fascination, but is it a sport? I mean, Babe Ruth supposedly once ate 12 hot dogs and drank eight bottles of soda between games of a doubleheader, but does that make competitive eaters athletes or just gluttons?

Eric Booker
For Eric Booker, a champion eater of burritos and hard-boiled eggs, bigger is better.
"I do think it's a sport," Shea said. "All kidding aside, there is a parochial and elitist attitude in sports. But in what way is this not a real sport?"

Ummmm, well, it doesn't involve a ball or a goal or hand-to-eye coordination or conventional athleticism or defense or fantasy leagues. But other than that ...

"Look, you have tennis guys running around with a racket and shorts," Shea said with disgust in his voice. "Pick any sport. Mini-golf, which is in the World Games, or curling, which is in the Olympics. Curling, what is that?

"My point is competitive eating is a very fundamental sport. The fundamental sports are running, jumping, pushing and fighting. Eating is even more fundamental: Who can eat the most to survive and in the quickest time when that mattered whether you survived. There are rules. We have a governing body, and we keep track of the records.

"No question, it's a sport, but the issue is there are people resistant to change. Like it or not, competitive eating is here to stay."

Of course, others aren't so convinced.

"Fifty hot dogs in 12 minutes?" Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella said. "That's not sport. That's stupidity."

Personally, I don't think competitive eating is a sport, but I sure as heck want to watch Kobayashi defend his title. I just don't want to be anywhere near the bathroom after he finishes.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at cuffscaple@hotmail.com.