Ah, the Fourth of July. We stuff our saliva-spitting disposals with a serving more than we usually would, but we don’t dare ask for the Pepto-Bismol. Sun is just another person until our faces are mistaken for STOP signs. Not for a thought away from sanity would you consider it a sport, though. This is until ESPN shows us.
In Coney Island, N.Y., every Independence Day, you want to believe they’re holding something normal, like the parade from the Big Apple a few miles down, though there’s no rattling drums or obnoxious honks. But there’s always that booming voice: “Destiny has arrived and stands above us like a perfect blue sky,” George Shea, the emcee and chairman of Major League Eating, projects under his patriotic top hat. “Are you ready, Brooklyn!!!” It’s more of an exclamation than a question before 3,000 fist-pumping fans all trying to raise their chant over the cluster of them.
Trust me, you’re not the only one asking if eating is a sport. To be fair, ESPN (standing for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network) has broadcasted annual events, the National Spelling Bee seeming to be in a league of its own. No disrespect to the strenuous work that it takes in the noggin, but the walk to the podium doesn’t seem too athletic of a move to me. For most, neither does stuffing a hotdog down your stuffed esophagus. If you’re one of most, in the next 700 words, I will change your mind.
At the pinnacle of anticipation, intensity revs into gear. When “Teenage Wasteland” starts playing, look for the last competitor annually introduced, the 27-year old construction manager from San Jose. Shea starts going nuts on the microphone before the elated crowd snaps into a wild mob. He flips pages on the inside of his eyelids to read off the century-long introduction for the number one eater in the world, six-time defending Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest champ, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut. Yeah, his name is a food too. Praise is much deserved, yet comical to think eating’s just a hobby he practices on the weekends. In a way, the hardest part is everything leading up to it. “I fast during the week,” Chestnut says.
Like a pocket pass, eight-foot putt, or bullet to first base, wolfing down hot dogs is treated with training just the same. The jaw’s Masseter muscle, pound-for-pound one of the body’s strongest, is pumping iron in its own way. Chewing five or more sticks of gum at once does just the trick, and that’s not a joke.
Sure, the average offensive lineman in the NFL is putting up 40-plus reps of 225 on the bench press, but I’d like to see them try this; the average bite of competitive eaters is measured at 280 pounds of force, a bite stronger than a German Shepard’s.
In any other sport, form is everything. “I’m doing whatever it takes to get it in,” Chestnut admits. “There’s nothing pretty about it.”
68 hot dogs—buns included—later, the baggy shirt of the average-sized Chestnut begs the question: Why’s he not filling that thing out? And why’s the Michelin Man, who could fit an elephant in him, the one heaving at the other end of the table? Simple, really. With the stomach rapidly expanding during competition, body fat takes up valuable space within the rib cage for any further expansion. Yup, you guessed it—or probably were deceived. To be successful at eating, you have to be fit.
Though the clock (set at 10 minutes for hot dog eating) is seen over any focus on form, there is a sloppy-Joey technique. You’ll see Chestnut’s chin yanked up as he hops up and down. He’s shaking hands with gravity, as bouncing helps accelerate the falling food.
Now, competitive eating biases, let’s reflect on the intangibles to being a sport. Training? Check. Strength? Check. Maintaining a healthy body? Check. Utilization of technique? Check. Audience and presentation? Check, and here’s glimpses of last year’s, a preview for this week’s.
“When you walk near him, you walk in an ellipse,” Shea starts. “Ranked number two in the world, he has 39 world records. He’s the Jalapeno-eating champion of the world with 275. Let me hear it for Pat ‘Deep Dish’ Bertoletti!”
What about the bantamweight rocking the aviators? “Ranked number 10 in the world, he is the rib and potato wedge-eating champion of the world! Tim ‘Gravy’ Brown!”
Hey, there’s the big boss of the kitchen, wide-billed hat backwards, the whole look! “Six-foot-two, 250 pounds, ranked number 12 in the world, he ate 19.5 peanut butter and banana sandwiches to honor the birthday of Elvis, ate six pounds of French fries…uh, just because. Ladies and gentlemen, Sean ‘Flash’ Gordon!”
Yikes, there’s the pasty-skinned, unkempt-dreadlocked, Pringles handlebar-mustached guy in the leprechaun outfit. “He added to his title in pancakes, in beef frisker, in French-cut string beans, but he will always be known for the time he was buried alive under 60 cubic feet of popcorn and ate his way out to survival! The Houdini of Cuisine! ‘Crazy Legs’ Conti!” Cheesy? I’d say so, but they ate it all.
Look, eating is eating just the same as casually walking is walking—though walking is actually an Olympic event! (Whoever’s in charge of putting in new Olympic events, take the hint.) Take your stand on eating, but it’s not “just eating” like some sort of “eat polite, you’re at Denny’s.” It’s professional eating, and with that, it leaves something we can all agree upon: In its own wacky way, it’s amusing as hell to watch. And when “Teenage Wasteland” ends, the 10-second countdown starting, we’ll be chomping at the bit.