At approximately 12:00pm on the 4th of July, millions of Americans will pause their holiday barbeques, huddle around their television sets, and watch a group of competitors do something disgusting. For 10 straight minutes, they'll witness wet hot dogs jammed into mouths already packed with beige paste, a disturbing cornucopia of convulsive eating mechanics, and a hot-dog-crazed crowd of thousands waving American flags.
This might seem like a strange way to celebrate our collective freedoms on Independence Day, but beneath the event's grotesque pageantry is something that undeniably captures the public imagination. But what is it? Why do grown adults sit transfixed as the gorgefest unfolds in high definition, and why do children, fresh from watching the contest, eagerly challenge each other to see who can wolf down a dog fastest?
Opponents of the contest would tell you that it's because Americans like watching gross things, or because everyone likes a good freakshow. They may be partly right, but judging by A) how much Americans love thumbing their nose at everyone who tells them to eat healthy, B) how unapologetic-lack-of-restraint has become a trademark of modern America, and C) how the most popular TV shows in America are already just thinly-veiled allegories of the 7 deadly sins, this contest is about as American as America gets. Throw in the fact that we're the most obese country on the planet, and the Hot Dog Eating Contest could be the national pastime.
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The competitors themselves offer the most entertainment. To qualify, they only need to prove that they have skills to compete (meaning, mostly, an ability to eat a lot of the same thing for a long time without getting sick.) Beyond that, though, the contest does not discriminate against any ethnicity, religion, weight class, or gender, resulting in a remarkably weird group of participants. Every year, the latest crop — from massively obese Americans to old Frenchmen to miniscule Japanese guys — all mash identical hot dogs into their mouths to compete for the World-Famous Mustard Belt. It's America at her best.
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If you've never heard of the Mustard Belt, the first thing you should know that is that it stands for much more than just the Hot Dog Eating Championship. Being the most famous trophy in competitive eating (from the country that invented hot dogs,) the belt is practically a symbol of the American way of life, and is defended as such. Every year that it's not won by a domestic champion, a thin layer of collective shame clings to Americans everywhere. If, in the land of gorging, America can't even win the biggest gorging-contest, then what have we become as a nation?
The event itself is fascinating to watch, either in person or on television (it's been broadcast live on ESPN since 2004.) The Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Stand on Coney Island hosts the event each year, and much effort is put into supporting the claim that it's a near-century-old American tradition. The rules are simple:
1: During the allotted period of time, contestants eat as many hot dogs and buns (called "HDBs") as they can.
2: They're allowed to use a beverage of their choice to wash things down.
3: They must stay in full view of their own, personal "Bunnette" scorekeeper.
4: Condiments may be used, but are not required.
5: HDBs that are still in the mouth at the end of the contest only count if they are eventually swallowed.
6: Puking up the hot dogs before the end of the contest (called "a reversal") will result in a disqualification, unless you do something horrific to make up for it (more on this later.)
Two brothers, George and Richard Shea, transformed the contest into its current state in 1997, when they formed the International Foundation of Competitive Eating (now called Major League Eating), and chose the Hot Dog Eating Contest as the crown jewel of a new American eating circuit. Eating contests have existed throughout the world for a long time — as a kid, I was traumatized by the super creepy egg-eater in the Guinness Book of World Records — but up to that point had never grown beyond the State Fair level in the US. Under the stewardship of the straw-hatted George Shea, however, the new American contests immediately gained traction as being "big" eating events, and attracted a brand of eaters from around the world for which, quite honestly, American competitors had not prepared.
An examination of the past 15 years of contest results reveals three things:
1) As soon as the contest was taken over by the IFOCE, a wave of dynamic, Japanese eaters stormed the scene, dominating the Americans. From 1997 to 2006, only one contest was won by an American — Steve Keiner in 1999 — but due to a false start that was not immediately caught by the judges (he won by 1.25 HDBs,) that victory is now regarded as illegitimate.
2) The winning number of consumed HDBs has steadily improved over the years, primarily due to Japanese innovation. In 2000, a man named Kazutoyo Arai discovered that HDBs were much easier to eat if you separated the hot dogs from the buns (the technique now called "Japanesing.") In 2001, Takeru Kobayashi improved on that method, using both hands to separate the hot dog from bun, snap the hot dog in half, dunk the bun in water, squeeze the air out of the bun, and jam everything into his mouth (this technique is now known as "The Solomon Method.")
3) There has only been one major rule change in the past 15 years. In 2008, the MLE lowered the length of the contest from 12 minutes to 10 minutes. Prior to the change, Japanese eaters had won 9 of the previous 11 contests. Since the change, America has gone undefeated.
That last item seemed a little strange to me. George Shea gave a vague and unconvincing reason for the the rule change (he said evidence that inspired his decision "was in the form of random notes and contest-related scribblings that were apparently unearthed at Nathan’s,") so I went looking for clues in the hard numbers of the contest itself. Since the last 7 years of contests have been broadcast on ESPN, the videos were all up on youtube, and I spent an afternoon charting each one of them minute by minute.
The new metrics offer an alternative portrait of the past 7 years, and may even give insight behind the scenes at MLE, especially with regard to the rivalry of two men who've dominated the Hot Dog Eating Contest for nearly a decade.
If you've heard anything about competitive eating in the last decade, you know the beginning of the story: in the summer of 2001, a tiny, 120 lb. young man from Japan showed up at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, took his seat next to men twice his size, and proceeded to do something spectacular. The prior record for consumed HDBs had been set the previous year at 25, and Kobayashi doubled that record, eating a total of 50 HDBs in 12 minutes. The shocking news made headlines around the world, and gave the IFOCE its first major international star.
The following years followed a similar pattern: Kobayashi took the stage with the best America had to offer, and then broke everyone down. Common scenes from that era included hopeless looking fat guys with thousand-mile stares, looks of astonishment at Kobayashi's seeming lack of fatigue, and genuine wonder among observers whether anyone else would ever win the eating contest again. Every summer, the Mustard Belt would come to New York for the contest, and then fly right back to Japan, where it was proudly displayed at the Imperial Palace in Saitama. These were difficult days to be an American.
In the summer of 2006, after 5 consecutive Kobayashi championships, George Shea gave an interview on the Just My Show podcast. In the interview, where he previews that year's contest, he describes the dynamic between the unbeatable Kobayashi and a promising young American named Joey Chestnut. Kobayashi is described as "truly the only professional eater in the world" for making "more than $100,000 a year," but his allegiance is with the young American, who he feels has what it takes to beat the champ. In describing what it'd be like if Chestnut overtook Kobayashi, he goes a little over the top by saying "If he beats him, you will see an enormous swell of interest in this guy… I think that if he wins, he'll be an instant celebrity." In describing Kobayashi's dominance, however, he says that "It actually has been one of those things as a sport that you look at and say, you know, something's gotta shift."
One week later, Kobayashi went out and won his 6th consecutive title. His margin of victory, over a strong showing from Joey Chestnut, was only 2 dogs (and buns.)
Connoisseurs of the eating contest remember 2007 as the year that all hell broke loose. In the lead-in to the contest, Joey Chestnut, who'd been secretly "japanesing" throughout the winter, broke Kobayashi's world record at a qualifier event (59.5 HDBs,) and inspired Americans to wonder if this was finally our year. To complicate things, Kobayashi claimed to have suffered a jaw injury during his own preparatory training, and showed up to the contest under a cloud of scrutiny (to prove that he was actually injured, his doctor gave reporters a medical record showing that he'd had a wisdom tooth removed.) The contest went on as planned, and became an instant classic- both men scarfed down over 10 dogs in the first minute, and their totals remained very close throughout. Chestnut maintained a one or two dog lead for most of the race, until the 11 minute mark, when Kobayashi took a one dog lead (60 to 59.) The final minute was as close to total pandemonium as the contest had ever seen, and right at the moment when George Shea counted down the end of the contest ("3, 2, 1.. !",) Kobayashi appears to puke into his hands.
The conference between the Bunnettes and judges took an uncomfortably long time. Chestnut thought Kobayashi should have been immediately disqualified, but Kobayashi's judge argued that right after he puked, he caught it in his hands and shoved it right back into his mouth (which, apparently, is legal.) After they hashed it all out, Kobayashi was deemed to have not broken any rules, but that was beside the point- the final count showed that Joey Chestnut had won! Fireworks shot off overhead, an overjoyed Chestnut was wrapped in an American flag, and the TV announcers screamed that it was "a great day in America!"
Further analysis, however, shows something strange. In looking at average-HDBs-per-minute over the course of the race (more or less, their "eating pace" over time,) I discovered that both men had incredibly fast starts and that Chestnut's pace slowed to allow Kobayashi to catch up. Of all the graphs I charted, though, nothing matches what the judges claim happened between minute 11 and 12. The judges record Kobayashi eating 3 dogs in the last minute (a low number, but fitting, considering he was seconds away from puking,) while Chestnut put back 7. This is a very high, almost unbelievable number. In all the hot dog eating contests that Chestnut has entered (before and since), the only other time that he's recorded 7 HDB minute after the 5 minute mark was in 2009 (when he scored a 7 at the 6 minute mark.) Take a look at this video of the final minute and judge for yourself.
The following summer, it was announced that the contest would be shortened by 2 minutes. George Shea claimed the aforementioned "scribblings" as the reason for the change, but nearly everyone cried foul. The new contest length would make it impossible for new competitors to compare themselves to records set in the past, and the perception was that the rules were changed to benefit sprinter-type competitors like Chestnut, while disadvantaging more marathon-type competitors like Kobayashi. An angry Chestnut (whose crown might have hung heavy considering the ignominious end of 2007's contest,) called the change "ridiculous" and defended 12 minutes as "the sport's standard," while another (anonymous) participant suggested that the corporate suits might have put the screws to George Shea after watching Kobayashi eat his own puke on live TV.
Whatever the reasons for the change, the two guys returned to compete for the next 2 years. In 2008, they were dead even at the 10 minute mark, after which Chestnut prevailed in an overtime session. In 2009, Chestnut defended his title again, winning by a ridiculously high total of 68 to 64.5 HDBs.
In 2010, Kobayashi's problems with MLE came to a head. The Shea Brothers, in their continuing quest to make Major League Eating as 'legitimate' and profitable as other major sports leagues, asked Kobayashi to sign an exclusivity clause before participating in the Hot Dog Eating Contest. This clause would have barred Kobayashi from competing in non-MLE (read: Japanese) events, prevented him from non-MLE sponsored endorsement deals, and prevented him from making media appearances without league consent. Not surprisingly (considering the fact that Kobayashi has been competing in non-MLE events since the days before the MLE existed,) he declined the new terms, and was barred from the contest.
On the day of the event, Kobayashi made a surprise appearance in the Coney Island crowd (wearing a "FREE KOBI" t-shirt) and bathed in the chants of his fans, who screamed "Let him eat! Let him eat!" After the contest had finished — Joey Chestnut had coasted to an easy victory — Kobayashi climbed onto a side stage, waved to his supporters, and was immediately tackled by a few members of the NYPD. In witnessing this, George Shea washed his hands of the situation, letting the cops arrest Kobayashi and take him to jail (where he was booked and charged with resisting arrest, trespassing and obstructing governmental administration.)
Looking forward, I wonder if the contest has lost a bit of its luster. Without a real rival, Joey Chestnut seems primed to continue his own Kobayashi-type string of victories (a fact, it should be noted, that doesn't seem to bother the Shea brothers in the least,) all while smiling wide for the camera and shilling for the corporate sponsors. The Shea brothers will continue building the MLE into a homogenized American product, knowing full well that their exclusivity agreement is geared towards non-foreigners (without ties to foreign contests or endorsements.) Judging by last year's contest, where Americans took the top 16 spots in the competition, we may be entering an era of extreme mediocrity, where the drop in quality will be compensated by the fact that an American will always win. As much as I might not like it personally, these changes follow the pattern of yet another undeniably American tradition- stacking the deck.
As for Kobayashi, it appears that his relationship with MLE is unsalvageable. In May, his portrait was removed from the large "Wall of Fame" mural outside Nathan's, and the parties have gone their separate ways. As for his eating career, he continues to participate in non-MLE events, and is supported wherever he goes by a dedicated group of conspiracy-minded enthusiasts who will forever defend the man they see as the greatest competitive eater of all time.
To learn more about competitive eating in America, visit EatFeats or Major League Eating.
For fans of the "Mike Tyson's Punch-Out" video game (on which the drawings of this post are based,) visit the mind-blowingly great Red Tom's Punchout Page.