When I first heard about the ‘sport’ of competitive eating, I had two reactions:
- It’s a sport?
- It’s really a sport?
What began as a rural novelty at county fairs involving homemade pies has somehow become a sport, with a governing body, sanctioned events, and over half a million dollars in annual prize money.
Most people point to ESPN for the sudden validation of recreational gorging. In the mid-seventies, the network televised the annual Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest from Coney Island for the first time, and strangely, people watched.
Putting aside why someone would enter the contest, I can’t imagine watching it. If I’m watching traditional sports, at least a part of the appeal is imagining (or remembering) me playing the sport.
What I’ve seen of competitive eating has never made me think, “If only it could be me up there on a makeshift stage eating really fast.”
And I don’t ever remember stuffing my face as a youngster and thinking, “If only I could turn pro at this, it could my ticket out of this town.” Don’t get me wrong – I’m no stranger to overeating…just watch me in Vegas at a buffet. But I do that once every ten years or so. I’ve never thought of ‘going pro.’
(Really, if we’re going to have people compete at basic bodily functions, why isn’t there a competitive sleeping championship? I’ve been in training for the opportunity for years. You could have local mattress stores sponsor matches.)
By the way, it’s not just hot dogs that these ‘athletes’ shove down their gullets. There are competitions for eating asparagus, baked beans, beef tongue, Buffalo wings, burritos, cabbage, catfish, chili, cow brain (?!), and donuts. And that’s just the first four letters! Proving that, if we put our minds to it, Americans can over-indulge in anything.
Most events are timed affairs, except for haggis-eating contests In those, I imagine the first person willing to eat haggis is automatically declared the world-record holder for haggis-eating.
side note: In Scotland, haggis is traditionally served with mashed potatoes and rutabagas. For centuries, this has allowed the Scots to ignore the fact that their national food is a mix of sheep heart, sheep liver and sheep lungs. Well, the whisky helps, too.
The International Federation of Competitive Eating (which sadly, is a real thing) oversees the big money events. They also enforce the rules about vomiting, and right there, you lose me as a sports fan. If throwing up is actually mentioned in the ground rules of the sport, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to watch it on a flat-panel hi-def screen.
Apparently, the competitors prefer to call themselves ‘gurgitators,’ which may be the least pleasant word any group of people has ever chosen to call itself. And they all have nicknames, so I guess in that sense, they’re like athletes.
For example, there’s Don ‘Moses’ Lerman, who was quoted in an interview as saying “I’ll stretch my stomach until it causes internal bleeding.” Who says there are no heroes in professional sports?
The biggest name on the circuit is Joey ‘Jaws’ Chestnut, who started competing in college, and now holds several world ‘records.’ He used to be ranked second in the world, but like with any sport, there was a scandal; the former champion was stripped of his title and ranking by Major League Eating and the IFOCE for refusing to sign a contract which would have prevented him from competing in non-MLE sanctioned events. I swear I didn’t make up any of this.
Despite the fact that competitive eating doesn’t really make sense to me, I wanted to interview Joey Chestnut for this piece. Then I found out these guys all have agents, like real athletes! How exactly do you ‘represent’ someone who does this?
“Mr. Chestnut will not be participating in next month’s Pork Rind Championship, as we are negotiating with a very popular seafood restaurant regarding their annual oyster contest.”
It’s just as well I couldn’t connect with anyone in this scene, because I’m not sure what I would have asked. Things would have gone downhill after my first question:
“Do you realize that you could have fed several villages for a month with the amount of food you’ve forced into your pie hole during your ‘career’?
I want to laugh at all of this, but I don’t know that this is the best time in our nation’s history to glorify pigging out. I don’t want to be rude, but we could stand to cut back a bit, frankly.
My personal feelings aside, I have to admit that, on some level, competitive eating is classic Americana. It combines the two most characteristic American traits – gluttony and competitiveness.
More importantly, as a really rich country with lots of natural resources and a bad habit of messing around with other countries’ affairs, it’s probably good to keep things low profile. I believe competitive eating is the kind of activity that inspires the rest of the world to hate us just a little bit more.