Every Fourth of July, Nathan’s Famous, the frankfurter chain, hosts a hot-dog eating contest in Coney Island, N.Y. Tragically, this year’s contest was marred. Six-time champion Takeru Kobayashi was hauled away by police after storming the stage. He had been barred from the contest for refusing to sign a contract with Major League Eating.
Contracts? Major League Eating? Is this some kind of joke?
Nope. It’s worse. It’s a joke that has turned serious.
In the old days, eating contests were just for fun. A bunch of ordinary folks would line up at a county fair to see who could swallow the most pie. Pretty soon, they’d run out of pie, time, or belly space. Things are different now. Competitive eating has become an industry with stars, managers, corporate sponsors, international marketing, and a pro league. It’s generating more money, more exposure, and more physical abuse. Before we reach for another helping of this perversity, it’s time to ask whether we’ve had enough.
Major League Eating, founded 13 years ago as the International Federation of Competitive Eating, began as a lark. The PR men who run it, brothersGeorge and Rich Shea, gave it a comic Latin motto that meant “In gorging, truth.” They called their members “Horsemen of the Esophagus” and “weapons of mass digestion.” For this year’s hot-dog contest, they outlawed vuvuzelas.
But MLE is no longer a joke. In the last year, it has organized 85 contests with nearly $600,000 in prizes. It has secured sponsorships from Coca-Cola, Harrah’s, Netflix, Orbitz, Pizza Hut, Smirnoff, and Waffle House. This year, it recruited Pepto-Bismol, Old Navy, and Heinz to sponsor the hot-dog contest. In addition to MLE’s TV programming for Fox, SpikeTV, and other networks, ESPN now pays the league to broadcast the hot-dog contest, with 40,000 spectators on hand and another 1.5 million households watching.
Success has given MLE the swagger of a monopoly. It compares itself to the NFL and boasts exclusive representation of “the world’s top competitive eating stars.” On Monday, MLE President Rich Shea told CBS, “If you want to be in the Super Bowl, you have to be in the NFL. If you want to be in the Super Bowl of competitive eating, which is the Nathan’s contest, you have to be a Major League Eater.” Outside MLE, he scoffed, “I don’t know where else you go.”
Hence the contract dispute. Years ago, Kobayashi and others entered the hot-dog contest as amateurs. Then MLE introduced contracts. This year, MLE barred Kobayashi because he refused to sign its contract, which restricted his freedom to earn money from activities outside MLE, such as endorsing products. Kobayashi’s description of the league’s demands resembles a purported standard MLE (IFOCE) contract that has been posted online by a rival league, All Pro Eating. Under the posted contract, the “performer agrees to participate solely and exclusively in organized competitive eating events, exhibitions and appearances … which are sanctioned and approved by the IFOCE.” Furthermore, “IFOCE shall also be Performer’s sole and exclusive representative with regard to obtaining and/or negotiating on Performer’s [behalf] for any revenue opportunities,” including “personal appearances, merchandising, licensing, advertising, film, television, radio, internet and all other media.” For this, the “performer agrees to pay IFOCE 20% of the gross amounts payable to performer under said agreements.”
On Sunday, when Kobayashi stormed the stage, Rich Shea dealt him MLE’s worst insult: “unprofessional.”
But competitive eating has become more than professional. According to Kobayashi, it’s now government-sanctioned. “I recently received a O-1 visa to work in the United States, a visa granted to athletes judged to have ‘extraordinary ability,’ ” he reports. “In my case that ability was competitive eating.” Such visas are officially reserved for people with “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.”
In fact, U.S. political leaders seem divided. While the U.S. immigration service gave Kobayashi his special visa, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg all but endorsed Kobayashi’s chief rival at last week’s “weighing-in ceremony” for the hot-dog contest. Standing beside MLE star Joey Chestnut, Bloomberg hailed the contest as “the World Cup of eating up,” dismissed Kobayashi as a coward for not participating, and saluted Chestnut for “eating an amazing 68 dogs … in just 10 minutes.”
This is the same Mayor Bloomberg who banned trans fats in New York restaurants and is now pressuring food companies, under the threat of legislation, to reduce their salt use. But 68 hot dogs? That’s a feat worth celebrating. Perhaps the mayor is unaware that each Nathan’s hot dog has 692 milligrams of sodium and 18.2 grams of fat, including 6.9 grams of saturated fat and half a gram of trans fat. This means that in the first 30 seconds of the hot-dog contest, Chestnut exceeded the U.S. government’s prescribed “tolerable” daily intake of sodium, and within 45 seconds, he exceeded the limit of his recommended daily intake of fat. By the end of the 10 minutes, he had eaten 10 to 17 times his recommended fat intake (including 33 grams of trans fats) and 20 times his “tolerable” sodium intake. The mayor should have handed him a cigar—it would have done less damage.
Bloomberg isn’t alone in glorifying eating contests. Scan the Congressional Record, and you’ll find tributes from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V.; Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.; and Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc. These politicians, like countless others, stand foursquare against pornography, except when it involves deep-throating 68 wieners on ESPN.
If you’ve never seen the Nathan’s contest, you can get your fill of it by watching ESPN’s excerpt, a full-length video, or MLE’s highlights from last year’s show. It’s an orgy of brown drool, flying debris, and masticated mush. You’ll see fists and fingers pushing food down throats. You’ll see contestants twisting their necks and shaking their bellies to make the food go down. “They work on their gag reflex,” one ESPN announcer explains. Another praises a contestant: “He was blessed upon birth with an overactive gall bladder and not four but six first molars. He’s a great eater.” In case the frontal images aren’t graphic enough, ESPN delivers close-ups through its “chew-view cam,” along with a running “dogs per minute” stat.
Chestnut, who has won the contest for the past four years, explains his techniques to Esquire: “I drink massive amounts of water to make sure the muscles around my stomach are still loose and stretched. You can fool your body into accepting more—I’m jumping up and down to control my stomach and push the food through faster. It wants to settle in your stomach, but I’m getting the food to settle farther and farther down.” He tells ESPN, “I’ve practiced ignoring the feelings of hunger and being full for so long, I don’t even feel them anymore.” Ten years ago, the record at the Nathan’s contest was 25 hot dogs. Now it’s 68, and Chestnut claims to have forced down 72 in a practice session.
The physical risks of this lifestyle are obvious. Three years ago in Slate, Jason Fagone, the author of Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, recounted strokes, jaw injuries, choking deaths, fatal water intoxications, and other eating-contest tragedies. “Thanks to increasing prize money and media exposure, there’s incentive now for competitive eaters to challenge the physical limits of the body,” Fagone observed. They’re “stretching their stomachs with huge volumes of chugged liquid,” inducing digestive paralysis and risking “gastric rupture.” A study published that year cautioned that “professional speed eaterseventually may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis,intractable nausea and vomiting.” Even MLE warns prospective contestants of the sport’s “inherent dangers and risks.”
But the contestants keep pouring in. Thanks to MLE, ESPN, and a growing stable of corporate sponsors, the fame and money become more attractive each year. One contestant has chugged 48 ounces of beer in less than six seconds. Another has wolfed down a 72-ounce steak in less than seven minutes. People weighing less than 100 pounds are eating one-eighth of their body weight in eight minutes. At the other end of the spectrum, more than a dozen elite competitors touted by MLE and All Pro Eating weigh over 300 pounds. One of them, 420-pound Eric “Badlands” Booker, crushed Slate’s Emily Yoffe in a matzo-ball eating contest five years ago. Booker also makes rap CDs about competitive eating. You can buy them, of course, through the MLE Web site.
Fifty years from now, when historians are looking for a moment that captures the depravity of our age—the gluttony, the self-destruction, the craving for worthless fame—it won’t be bathhouses, Big Love, or AdultFriendFinder. It’ll be Joey Chestnut stuffing that 68th hot dog down his unresisting gullet, live on ESPN. Or, worse, it’ll be the guy who broke his record.