Pat Bertolli, the second highest-ranked professional eater in Major League Eating, at the 2010 Nathan’s Famous Annual Hot Dog Eating Contest. Photo by Hello Turkey Toe.
Written by: Margaret Jacobi
Athletes push their bodies to incredible lengths, enduring semi-masochistic regimens and diets. Rising to the top requires devotion and tenacity that permits the best to continue executing astonishing new physical feats, and probably pull in a luxurious salary.
Which brings us to Takeru Kobayashi.
While Tom Brady and Eli Manning built muscle training rigorously for the Super Bowl, Kobayashi was drinking lots of water and eating chicken wings. He was preparing for an entirely different sort of championship, the Wing Bowl XX.
His hard work paid off on the Friday prior to the Super Bowl, when he overcame a truly extraordinary physical act in Philadelphia and consumed 337 chicken wings in 30 minutes. This victory earned him a $20,000 cash prize and yet another world record (he held the hot dog eating record for six years and topped the turkey eating world record last November).
Now that Kobayashi has been a professional eater for over a decade, incurring all the accoutrements of mass patronage, the lack of brute physicality or simple muscular exertion in his chosen sport begs the question of whether he can really be regarded in the same serious light as traditional athletes.
“It’s up to the viewer,” says Kobayashi. “If that person watches and feels that it is a sport, then it’s a sport. If not, then it is not a sport to them. That’s all really. I treat it as a sport in my life.”
Once considered a light-hearted event at a county fair, the competitive eating arena has transformed into a lucrative career for some. Joey Chestnut, anointed the #1 eater by Major League Eating (MLE), reportedly earned $200,000 in 2010 from several competitions.
Major League Eating’s highest-ranked eater, Joey Chestnutt at the 2010 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Photo by Hello Turkey Toe.
According to Richard Shea, the President of MLE, bids have even been made in the past for contests to be an addition to the Olympics. Despite competitive eating’s radical divergence from typical perceptions of sports, the MLE oversees nearly 100 eating competitions worldwide on a yearly basis.
“People love to watch as humans set records, then break records, etcetera,” says Shea. “Competitive eating is a display of skill and grace. Everyone knows what it means to eat a hot dog, but imagine 68 in 10 minutes? That’s the record set by Joey Chestnut, it’s the world record and it’s amazing.”
What began for Richard Shea and his brother George in managing the publicity for Nathan’s Famous Annual Hot Dog Eating Contest in the mid 1990s turned into the founding of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (later renamed the MLE) in 1997.
In 1916, Nathan’s Famous on Coney Island was a mere nickel hot dog stand, now the venture has become a national franchise and an iconic place to buy a frankfurter. Legend has it, Nathan’s Famous has been throwing a hot dog eating contest since its initial opening.
The contest, held annually on July 4th, is the most important event for MLE in the year and originally served as a major catalyst for the success of the competitive eating industry. Last year, the 96th annual event broadcast on ESPN garnered 1.94 television viewers and a 40,000 person live audience.
Since its inception, the MLE has unified the professional eating field, increased event attendance from hundreds to thousands, and now presents competitions featuring everything from deep fried asparagus to shrimp wontons.
But like most conventional sports, the history of competitive eating includes controversy along with strategy and skill. With rising obesity and diabetes rates in the United States and millions of starving people in the world, some contest that competitive eating, far from a legitimate sport, is a dangerous, insensitive, and transparent display of gluttony.
“It is clearly a sport and most will agree once they’ve watch an event,” responds Shea to this criticism. “Major League Eating realizes it’s a luxury to compete with food … MLE Gives to support charities, whether it’s a food bank or sending money to Tsunami victims in Japan.” MLE Gives is the charitable branch of the association that donated $5,000 towards Japanese tsunami relief funds and declared future intentions of raising $25,000.
“Our sponsors also make charitable donations,” says Shea, “What’s more, we don’t waste food.”
Though the largest of the competitive eating organizations, the MLE is not the sole administrator of such events. The Association of Independent Competitive Eaters (AICE), later renamed the All Pro Eating Promotions, was founded in 2004 as a separate arena without contractual obligation for independent competitive eaters. Such contractual obligations required by the MLE turned away many superstars like Kobayashi, who has claimed to never compete with them again.
While continually being snubbed by the Olympic Council has not restrained competitive eating from gradually developing into a more reputable, multi-faceted sport, the field of competitors has developed to the contractual maturity that distinguishes professional sports from the amateur. Yet something about the cardinal differences between eating competitions and traditional sports games still leaves a disconnect between the respective arenas.
Patrick Bertolli, who won 18 events last year and is ranked as the #2 competitive eater by the MLE, parallels the sport to the track wreck analogy: “It’s so exciting, weird, gross, disturbing, and amazing that people watch and can’t look away.”
Despite this sensationalistic aspect to the competitions, Bertolli is consistent in his dedication to the sport.
“I’ve stuck with it and believe that this was something I was born to do,” says Bertolli. “It requires a lot of mental strength to get to the top.”
There are several fundamentals in life related to physical needs and basic impulses. Competition and food are very intrinsic to the human condition, is it only natural that they have been combined to form a sport? Any more unnatural than running 26 miles or biking a 24-hour race?
Disgusting? Perhaps. Interesting? Definitely. Time will only tell what the future holds for competitive eaters, but the 40,000 who show up annually for Nathan’s Famous July 4th competition are testament that people are attracted to discovering just how far these eaters can go.