O n your marks . . . Get set . . . Eat! With thousands of fans screaming and ESPN cameras covering it all, off they go. A group of twenty or so adults, ranging from the small, fit, and trim to the big and tall football lineman, commence to gorge down, as fast as they can, about two dozen or so hot dogs piled high in front of each from Nathan's Deli. Buns and all! Is this an event at your local county fair? No, it's Nathan's Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest in New York, with competitors from across the world, who have practiced all year long to down almost fifty hot dogs—not simply in one sitting, but in just twelve short minutes! Eaters' profiles can vary in age, weight, or gender. For example, Sonya Thomas, who holds the second-place rank of top eaters on the circuit worldwide, is a thirty-seven-year old, and 105-pound woman. In contrast, Joey Chestnut, who holds the third place rank, is a twenty-two-year-old male weighing 230 pounds.
In the past, informal eating competitions were about who could eat a certain amount of food in the shortest time, but it evolved into a formal competition to determine who could eat the biggest quantity of a certain food in a given amount of time. According to the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the situation of "30 hungry Neanderthals in a cave" fighting over a rabbit is a form of competitive eating that existed in the earlier days. It was not until the twentieth century that food-eating competitions became organized by and popularized at state and county fairs. The first documented hot-dog-eating contest was held in 1916 at Coney Island and has continued annually since, except in 1941 and 1971. In the early 1970s, the New York City publicist Max Rosey resuscitated the event to sell Nathan's Hot Dogs at their stand at Coney Island, then in a rapid state of decline. After Rosey's death in 1990, George and Rich Shea took over the Nathan's account and made the hot-dog-eating contest into a quasi-sport. In 1997, they created the IFOCE, based in New York City, to further their agenda of turning what had been a parody of sport into a competitive sport. The IFOCE's motto "In Voro Veritas," "In Gorging Truth," reflects the underlying parody of eating as a sporting event. With the support of sports writers such as Gersh Kuntzman of the New York Post, what had begun as a tongue-in-cheek joke quickly became a truly competitive sport. Today more than 6,000 professional eaters are registered with the IFOCE, with the best known having become celebrities. Ironically, at the moment when obesity became the world's newest "epidemic," binge-eating became a sport.
Organized competitive eating has become popular in a number of nations, including the U.S.A., Canada, Germany, Thailand, England, Ireland, the Ukraine, Russia, and Scotland. The most prestigious international event in competitive eating is Nathan's Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, which claims to be the Super Bowl or Olympics of competitive eating. A group of twenty skilled individuals annually compete at Nathan's flagship restaurant in Coney Island, where the world hot-dog-eating championship began. This twelve-minute contest is watched by fans, supporters, and media. The world record for this contest is held by Japanese, five-time champion, 132-pound Takeru Kobayashi (1978-), who ate 53 V of Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs and Buns in twelve minutes on July 4, 2004. Kobayashi also holds the world records for cow brains (17.7 pounds in fifteen minutes), hamburgers (sixty-nine Krystal Square Burgers in eight minutes), and rice balls (20 pounds of rice balls in thirty minutes).
Sports broadcasters on the popular cable network ESPN cover these events and identify the competitions as a sport and competitors as "athletes." The IFOCE spokesperson, Nancy Goldstein, defends the IFOCE referring to eating competitions as a sport because their athletes train to compete and acquire necessary skills for the craft. "Like any sport, the athletes train to compete ... It is believed that [with] some of the heavier competitors, the extra weight doesn't allow their stomach to expand as much," she said. "Some of the skills needed are capacity to hold the large amount of food, and jaw strength is very important . . . having skill and great speed is very necessary as well."
Since safety is an important issue in any sport, the IFOCE has developed a set of rules. These rules include an age minimum of eighteen years. Also, authorized competitions may only take place in a controlled environment with fitting rules and appropriate medical assistance present. The IFOCE does not advise any inhome training or self-training of any kind and recommends only participating in sanctioned events.
As in any sport, there are conflicts regarding dangers and risks. Since competitive eaters eat and train at extreme levels, eating competitions may be a source of potential problems, seeing that it is not the healthiest thing to do. Overextending the stomach with this amount of food could damage the stomach lining. Depending on the competition, participants may consume anywhere from 4,000 to 12,500 calories in one sitting. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends 2,300 calories a day for an average male. Some competitors do not completely digest all the food they eat; instead they vomit, which the IFOCE calls a "Roman incident." The IFOCE disqualifies any competitors who vomit before the time period has expired. This behavior is a form of binge-eating now understood as a sport.
Joseph Regan, MD and bariatric surgeon in Milwaukee went on record to say that by promoting competitive eating, a bad example is being set because it encourages binge-eating as a form of entertainment and sport. Regan and other doctors find it ironic that in an age where people are obsessing about weight and when obesity has emerged as one of the country's most significant health problems, media outlets, such as ESPN and MTV are reporting and glorifying these eating-competition events, recognizing binge-eating as a sport by referring to the competitors as "athletes."
Many people believe that a large body size is advantageous in this sport. However, George Shea, the Chairman of IFOCE contradicts this common notion, arguing that fat actually restricts the stomach from expanding to its greatest capacity. This theory is supported by the fact that today, three of the top competitive eaters in the world weigh less than 150 pounds.
See also Binge-eating; Sports
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