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Competitive eating really wasn’t on my radar screen until Takeru Kobayashi made international headlines by getting arrested on July 4th for crashing the awards ceremony at the 2010 Nathan’s Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Competition. A six-time champion of the event (2001-2006), Kobayashi did not compete this year because of a dispute with Major League Eating (MLE) over whether he could participate in events not sanctioned by that organization.

According to its website, MLE is “the world body that oversees all professional eating contests”. They evidently helped to develop the “sport” of competitive eating. Besides the Nathan’s event, other premier eating contests include the Krystal Square-off World Hamburger Eating Championship, the Pizza Hut P’Zone Chow-lenge, and the La Costena “Feel the Heat” Jalapeno Eating Challenge (I kid you not!). Each year, there are 80 or more sanctioned speed eating contests in various places around the globe, with the U.S. and Japan being the most common venues.

The sports’ governing body, the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), Inc. supervises and regulates the contests. IFOCE maintains a ranking system for the competitions it sanctions as well as ensures that the contests occur under the supervision of a licensed emergency medical technician (specially trained to extract impacted hotdogs???). Only individuals over the age of 18 can compete. IFOCE is evidently a part of MLE as googling www.ifoce.com takes you to the MLE website. IFOCE (and presumably MLE) was founded in 1997 by brothers George and Richard Shea.

 

The gurgitators

Competitors in IFOCE competitions, known as “gurgitators”, not only have to eat a lot, they have to do at lightning speed. The winner in this year’s Nathan’s competition, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut—a professional competitive eating superstar—downed 54 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. Impressive, but significantly fewer than the world record 68 he inhaled to win the event in 2009. Joey was awarded the “Coveted Mustard Yellow Belt”, regarded as the crown jewel of the competitive eating world.

The variety of foods with their own eating contests is astonishing—so are the official eating records. Here is a sampling:

  • Sonya “Black Widow” Thomas, a petite 43-year-old woman from Alexandria, Virginia, consumed 8.4 pounds of baked beans in 2 minutes 47 seconds…no mention of any inadvertent gaseous aftermath.
  • Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, referred to on Wikipedia as “one of the young guns of competitive eating”, slurped down a 22 oz Sports Slurpee at the 7-Eleven Sports Slurping Time Trials in 9 seconds flat.
  • The record for the hands-free (picture this) Blueberry Pie Eating contest, sponsored by the Stand By Me World Pie Eating Championship is also held by the Dish. He polished off 9.17 pounds of blueberry pie in 8 minutes.
  • Eric “Badlands” Booker, a record-holding competitive eater, is also a hip-hop artist (check out his album “Hungry and Focused” billed as “the first ever highly anticipated competitive eating themed hip-hop album”). In 2002, Badlands ingested 49 glazed doughnuts in 8 minutes. He also holds the world record for speed eating Hamentaschen! He noshed 50 of the traditional Purim cookies in 6 minutes. To get in shape, Eric eats large volumes of fruits and vegetables and drinks a gallon of water to stretch his stomach. He chews 20 pieces of gum at a time to strengthen his jaw (ouch!).
  • Eric “Steakbellie” Livingston ate 3 pounds of Haggis in 8 minutes (Oct 2008)—ugh! Haggis, you guys. Do you know what Haggis is??? Steakbellie wears traditional Scottish attire to competitive eating events. His kilt carries the Steakbellie family crest upon which is an image of a savage throttling a snake. Above the image are the words “Si Je Puis” which, if translated poorly, means: “Are you gonna finish that?”
  • Tareku “Tsunami” Kobayashi ate 17.7 pounds of cow brains in 15 minutes (without gagging) and 20 pounds of rice balls in 30 minutes (without sticking). Kobayashi expands his stomach by eating larger and larger amounts food and then exercises to ensure that fat will not impede expansion of his stomach during a competition. The Tsunami is 5 ft 8 in tall and, per Wikipedia, weighs between 128 and 192 pounds (an almost 70-pound swing).
  • “Deep Dish” Bertoletti earned the record for Jalapeno Eating, somehow ingesting 275 pickled Jalapeno Peppers at the 2010 La Costena “Feel the Heat” Jalapeno Eating Championship Challenge.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that sponsors of the events, in addition to often being purveyors of the ingested foods, include Alka-Seltzer and Pepto Bismol. What a hoot!

 

Risks

Competitive eating is not without its risks. Indeed, the MLE website specifically warns against trying the sport unsupervised at home. Although I couldn’t find any references to food-ingestion related deaths at MLE sponsored events, a number of deaths have been reported when “untrained” individuals have tried to speed eat (or drink). A 2008 article by Jason Fagone, published in Slate, describes a few. In 2002, a 14-year-old schoolboy in Japan raced his friends at bread-eating, choked, and died. In 2004, a Japanese housewife choked to death on a wheat-rice cake at a contest in Hyogo prefecture. In January 2008, a 28-year-old woman in California died of water intoxication after drinking almost two gallons of water in a contest sponsored by a morning radio show. She was trying to win a Nintendo Wii. One competitive eater, Mort Hurst, a MoonPie eating champ from North Carolina, suffered a stroke after eating 38 soft-boiled eggs (acute hypercholesterolemia??) in 29 seconds in a Guinness World Record attempt in 1991. Luckily, he recovered and went on to compete again.

Takeru Kobayashi has reported having severe jaw pain after overtraining in 2007. He apparently could only open his jaw about the width of a fingertip, most likely related to an overuse injury of some sort of his temporomandibular joint. I guess this is the speed-eater equivalent of tennis elbow. No one yet knows what the long-term effects of gorging will be on the stomach and the esophagus—stretching doesn’t seem to be particularly good for other parts of the body. Interestingly, although gurgitators consume phenomenal amounts of calories during their competitions, most of the gurgitational superstars featured on the MLE website appear to be of normal weight.

So why, you may be wondering, would any sane person engage in such a risky sport as competitive eating. Well, I suspect, it may be for the same reasons people go over Niagra Falls in a barrel or walk on tightropes slung between skyscrapers: FAME and FORTUNE.

Competitive eaters have a vast and ravenous following. There were more than 40,000 people in attendance at the 2010 Nathan’s event. It was broadcast live on ESPN which has held the broadcast rights since 2004. In 2006, an estimated 1.5 million households tuned in to watch those little doggies go “down the hatch”.

Top-ranked eaters, like Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi, have fan clubs (although the ones I found online each have only 11 members). They also have websites that brag about their accomplishments complete with photos of them actively engaged in their sport. Google these guys and gals and you will find they also have their own pages on Wikipedia and they have oodles and oodles of Google references. When Kobayashi showed up at the Nathan’s event, he was treated as a visiting celebrity by the crowd that evidently egged him on with calls to “Let him eat, let him eat!”

 

How much do they make?

Although the fortune part of the equation is still relatively modest, there are cash prizes for many of the competitions. Joey Chestnut won $10,000 for wolfing down those 54 dogs and buns. Notorious B.O.B Shoudt won $2,000 for managing to down 36 peanut butter and banana sandwiches in 10 minutes, beating the second place finisher, Tim “Eater X” Janus, who was only able to swallow 27 of them. Many of the contests also have cash prizes for second and third place winners. So, do the calculation, if you compete 8 or 10 times a year you could actually make a living by gurgitating, especially when you consider all of the free food you get along the way.

Now, some have tried to make a case that these guys are a little goofy or even a bit sick in the head. Lawrence Rubin, Ph.D, a psychologist, in a Psychology Today blog titled, “Professional Competitive Eating: Socially Sanctioned Bulimia?!,” explores the question (but doesn’t come up with an answer). Of note, however, is an article he cites published by Vivian Nun in a 2004 issue of the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, “Biting Reality: Extreme Eating and the Fascination with the Gustatory Abject”, that suggests the audience for these events might be a little weird, too. She is quoted as saying that “people are drawn to these eating spectacles in order to purge themselves of the forbidden desire to consume taboo foods (in mass quantities).” What??

Whatever the motivation, there is one thing is for sure, competitive eating seems to a growing “sport”. The lure of prize money, enthusiastic audiences, prime-time TV coverage, and the chance to stand out from the crowd will almost certainly draw more and more competitors into the ring. So, for all of you folks out there who yearn to be a celebrity, ask yourselves: Is gurgitation your pathway to fame and fortune?

 

Postscript

Takeru Kobayashi was released from jail the following day. On his release, he was quoted as saying, “I am very hungry. I wish there were hot dogs in jail.” According to the NY Post, the “third-ranked world-wide eating machine was only given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk while in custody.”