Is Competitive Eating Really a Sport?

Emily WeaverEmily Weaver is a writer for Grandstand Central covering the intersection of women in sports and how the role ideologies like race, gender and sexuality fit into that equation. She is a die hard Iowa Hawkeyes fan.

Culture

The Fourth of July is America’s birthday. It’s also the day the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is held in Coney Island, New York. But that content has become much more than sweaty men pounding hot dogs for a mostly drunken crowd.

Every July, thousands travel from around the world to watch around 20 mismatched men stuff hot dogs down to their throats for the ultimate prize: the iconic yellow Mustard Belt (oh, and $10,000). 

The rules? Contestants have 10 minutes to chow down as many dogs as humanly possible, with six cups of water allowed for sipping or dunking buns (we’ll get back to that). Condiments are allowed but typically ignored, yellow penalty cards are distributed for “messy eating,” and don’t even think about having a “reversal of fortune.” There’s a red card for that.

In 2001, Takeru Kobayashi doubled the previous record by eating 50 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Six years later, in a shocking performance, Joey Chestnut bested him by 16. Last year Chestnut set a new record, scarfing 74 hot dogs. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, the average human eats about 70 hot dogs a year. What an average person eats in a full year, Chestnut eats in 10 minutes.

For some hot dog eaters, Nathan’s Contest is merely an opportunity to stand on the largest competitive eating stage in the world next to Joey Chestnut, the American gold standard. For Eric “Badlands” Booker, it’s just a nice holiday lunch. But for others, it’s their shot at becoming the new American hero and a chance to beat the biggest, baddest competitive eater there is—the man they call “Jaws.” 

Miki Sudo and Joey Chestnut posing for a picture as the 2019 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest champions.

But this is no backyard Independence Day picnic. Contestants don’t just show up on the Fourth and volunteer to consume over 10,000 Calories and 30,000 mg of sodium. There are months of training and regional qualifying rounds to earn a seat at the table. These are real athletes performing at peak level on their sport’s grandest stage.

Competitive eating is a sport at the highest level. So grab yourself a dog and let’s take a deep dive on the sport of competitive eating. 

Competitive Eaters Train just like Other Athletes

Competitive eaters have their own training regiment. And like any other sport, each of the world’s best eaters does things a little different.

Joey Chestnut trains his mouth muscles by mimicking a bicep curl movement. To do this, he ties a weighted sack to a mouth guard, and yes, it looks just as weird as it sounds. Next he trains the chewing muscles. You know those squeezy stress balls that are supposed to relieve, well, stress? Try putting one between your chompers and biting down repeatedly. That’s what Chestnut does. Next, he works on his swallowing technique. Chestnut lays down on a bench like he’s about to do sit-ups. On his way up he inhales three large gulps of air, then three more on the way down. To relieve the air from his stomach, he presses different areas of his abdomen and burps.

And that’s just one round. In the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, The Good, The Bad, The Hungry, Chestnut explains that repeating this training routine is necessary for his success at a competitive eating contest. That’s the sort of precise muscle training it takes to eat 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes on the nation’s largest competitive eating stage.

Chestnut’s longtime rival Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi trains by using water to expand his stomach. This method is very common in the competitive eating world—probably because Kobayashi is such a legend, everyone else is copying him now. Back home in Japan, American-style hot dogs were not available. In a podcast with Freakonomics, Kobayashi admitted he used sausages made of minced fish, and since hot dog buns weren’t an option either, he cut bread down to size. 

When it came to eating hot dogs, Kobayashi gave the answer by changing the question. It was not how many hot dogs he could eat in 10 minutes; instead, he wondered how fast he could eat a single dog. Kobayashi’s strategy has everything to do with timing—how long it takes to separate the dog from the bun, fold the dog in half, dunk the bun in water, then chow down. If he takes too long to chew the dogs, the buns start to pile up. 

And yes, Kobi dunks the buns in water. In the 30 for 30, Kobayashi explains warmer water is best, allowing the bun to absorb it faster. By absorbing water, the bun can shrink to half its size, making it easier to consume more than one bun at once. And the key is to not take many bites once the dog is in your mouth.

Now everybody do the Kobi shake. A competitive eating strategy isn’t complete without making room for more. Kobayashi adopted a dance-like rhythm to keep the digestion flowing and make room for more dogs. It goes a little something like this: jump shimmy, jump shimmy, now take deep breaths. He also inhales more by ballooning his cheeks like a chipmunk storing nuts for the winter. Repeat this for 10 minutes, and you’re doing the Kobi shake.

Kobayashi can down a hot dog, bun and all, in just three seconds. Normal humans take that long just deciding which condiment to add to their frankfurters.

ESPN Turned Competitive Eating from Spectacle to Sport

So what exactly defines a sport? If the formula to create a sport is “training + competitors + game/event + a winner = sports!” then competitive eating certainly fits into that equation. 

In the 30 for 30, event chairman and hot dog hype man George Shea said he knew that to make competitive eating as a respected sport, it would need a backstory, much like professional wrestling. And thus was born the legendary Mustard Belt, which Shea will neither confirm nor deny was made originally right there on his apartment floor. Winning the Mustard Belt was the equivalent to winning the keys to the city, or in this case America’s stomach. 

By broadcasting the event on ESPN, Shea changed the way America saw it and the way people interacted with it. Viewers were able to develop personal relationships with the eaters whether they were in Coney Island or watching from sunny California. 

George Shea announcing the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest contestants.

In the contest’s early years, Shea encouraged locals to tryout. “You sir, you sir. Help your nation. You know this if for the Fourth of July,” Shea would say. “Don’t turn your back on Uncle Sam!” He created a show of it, announcing contestants as if they were wrestlers entering the ring.

What is sports really but one giant spectacle? Bridging American independence with shoving meat down our throats? What could be more American than that on the nation’s birthday?

It became a self-fulfilling prophecy to become the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest champion. Competitive eaters are performers, and they are athletes.

Competitive Eating has Come a Long Way

The 2019 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest concluded with Joey Chestnut eating 71 hot dogs—not even his personal best—and women’s winner Miki Sudo eating 31 hot dogs. That’s right; women are competitive eaters too. We’ll get back to that in a future piece.

But Chestnut and Kobayashi don’t just train all year for one, 10-minute feast of processed beef. The Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest spawned an entire sport of competitive eating, complete with a Major League Eating federation, an annual tour of competitions and events, and a legion of competitors and fans. Chestnut and Kobayashi eat far more than hot dogs. Chestnut is the world record holder in eating Pepperoni Rolls with 43. He’s eaten 47 grilled cheese sandwiches in 10 minutes. Kobayashi ate 14 Twinkies in 60 seconds on The Wendy Williams Show.

But Chestnut and Kobayashi aren’t the only legendary eaters. There’s Eric “Badlands” Booker, Crazy Legs Conti, Miki Sudo, and Erik “The Red” Denmark. Each one has a nickname, an event specialty, a personality, and cult fan following. Cuz, you know—sports!

Sports hold different meanings to different fans, and that’s okay. People crave competition as much as they do hot dogs. Competitive eating might not be the baseball to your football, but for some, watching Chestnut eat 74 hot dogs gives the same thrill as watching someone hit a home run over the Green Monster or catching a Hail Mary at Lambeau.

Competitive eating is a sport, even if you still think it’s gross.