Competitive Eating: Is It Really a Sport?
Where Do They Put All of That Food?
Watching competitive or speed eating contests is a little like rubbernecking. For onlookers, the activity is fascinating—in a shameful and morbidly entertaining way.
Mesmerized, you stare as the "food athletes" quickly cram way too much into their mouths and try not to retch. You're fascinated but also disgusted.
You know what could happen later, but right now you cannot help yourself. You are frozen in time, in this place, watching, wondering if that last hot dog has taken a one way ticket, or will it suffer a "reversal of fortune" right there in front of everyone.
Welcome to the world of competitive eating.
What Is Competitive or Speed Eating?
Competitive eating, or speed eating, is a riveting spectacle in gluttony that is most popular in the United States, Canada, and Japan. Contestants attempt to consume the largest quantities of a particular food in the shortest time possible. Examples include timed consumption of
- hot dogs
- chicken wings
- poultine (a Canadian dish of french fries, cheese curds and gravy)
- tacos or
Most contests last 8-10 minutes.
Best Known Example: Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest
The most prominent example of competitive eating contests is that held by Nathan's Hot Dogs on Coney Island, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. Featuring about 20 competitors, the event has been held annually since 1972, in conjunction with the Fourth of July. ESPN began televising the event in 2003 and now broadcasts the event live with an average audience of nearly 2 million worldwide.
Contestants stand on a raised platform in front of thousands of spectators and have 10 minutes to devour the most cooked hot dogs and buns. Participants can use water or another beverage. Condiments are optional, but they are rarely used.
Each contestant is assigned a designated scorekeeper to track their hot dog consumption on a flip card, down to one-eighth of a hot dog. When time has expired, hot dogs still in the mouth count as long as the food goes down and stays there. The 2016 winner, Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, downed an amazing 70 hot dogs in 10 minutes. That's one hot dog every 8.57 seconds!
Male and female contestants have been awarded separate prizes since 2007. Men are awarded a mustard-colored, bejeweled yellow prize belt while women are awarded a Pepto-Bismol pink prize belt. Aside from the glory, cash prizes are awarded to top finishers.
Speed Eaters: Are They Food Athletes?
Is competitive eating a legitimate sport? Are speed eaters "food athletes" or mere gluttons?
Let's examine these questions using the five criteria that SportsAccord uses to define a sport. (SportsAccord is an international umbrella association that includes sports federations and organizations.) Accordingly, to be considered a sport, an activity
- should include an element of competition
- should not rely on any key element of “luck”
- should not pose an undue health and safety risk to athletes or participants
- should in no way be harmful to any living creature
- should not rely on equipment provided only by a single supplier.
Reader Poll: So What's Your Opinion?
Is competitive eating a sport?
Sports Criterion #1: Should Include an Element of Competition
Participants in sanctioned eating contests compete against
- themselves for personal bests
- one another for cash and other valuable prizes, and
- the clock in the hopes of breaking World Records.
To lend credibility to eating competitions, two global organizations govern them: All Pro Eating and Major League Eating (aka International Federation of Competitive Eating). These organizations refer to speed eaters as "weapons of mass digestion" and "food warriors." They also provide overall rankings of competitive eaters.
Sometimes fierce rivalries emerge among participants, such as that between Joey "Jaws" Chestnut and Takeru "Tsunami" Kobayashi (which ended with the Japanese speed eater being banned from the Nathan's Hot Dog Contest, a competition he once dominated).
Examples of What Competitive Eaters Can Do
120 Twinkies in 6 minutes by Matthew "Megatoad" Stonie
250 tater tots in 5 minutes by Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas
141 hard-boiled eggs in 8 minutes by Joey "Jaws" Chestnut
42 peanut butter & jelly sandwiches in 10 minutes by Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti
13.76 pounds pork rib meat in 12 minutes by Joey "Jaws" Chestnut
25 McDonald's Big Macs in 22 minutes by Matt "Megatoad" Stonie
Two pounds of chocolate candy bars in 6 minutes by Eric "Badlands" Booker
337 buffalo wings in 30 minutes by Takeru "Tsunami" Kobayashi
61 tamales in 12 minutes by Miko Sudo
1 whole raw onion in 43.53 seconds by Furious Pete Czerwinski
39 Krystal hamburgers in 2 minutes by Humble Bob Shoudt
47 slices of 16" pizza in 10 minutes by Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti
57 cow brains (17.7 pounds) in 15 minutes by Takeru "Tsunami" Kobayashi
44 lobsters (totaling 11.3 pounds of lobster meat) in 12 minutes by Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas
49 glazed doughnuts by Eric "Badlands" Booker
Sports Criterion #2: Should Not Rely on Any Key Element of Luck
The sanctioning organizations standardize competitions so that the "food athlethes" compete against one another based upon their skill, preparation, and bodily capacities. Rather than rely on luck, competitive eaters adopt both training strategies as well as performance techniques to help them ingest larger quantities of food faster than their competitors.
Participants prepare by
- fasting or following special diets
- stretching their stomach capacities, and
- adopting various exercise regimes.
During the competition, some use competitive methods that help them cram ever more food down the hatch:
- folding food in half
- chipmunking - stuffing as much food as possible in the mouth during the remaining few seconds
- dunking - dipping food in water or another substance to soften it for quick consumption and/or
- jumping up and down to facilitate swallowing.
Sports Criterion #3: Should Not Pose an Undue Health and Safety Risk to Athletes or Participants
Hazards. Does choking come to mind? Usually it's children who take irresponsibly big bites, fail to fully chew their food, and get food with small diameters (like hot dogs and grapes) accidentally lodged in their throats. However, these adults are intentionally wolfing down massive quantities of food. There is obvious risk here.
Choking is the fourth leading cause of non-intentional injury and death in the United States, and food is the primary reason for choking. It's most common among children.
You might think that adults couldn't possibly choke to death during a competitive eating contest. However, in 2014 a man choked to death on a hot dog during a speed eating contest in South Dakota. Then, in 2017, on the same weekend, a college student choked to death during a pancake eating contest, and a 42-year-old man died of asphyxia while participating in a donut speed eating challenge.
Because of the risks, sanctioning organizations insist on specific safety standards at their events, among which are age minimums and having an emergency medical technician present. They also warn people not to try speed eating at home.
Sports Criterion #4: Should in No Way Be Harmful to Any Living Creature
While competitive eating is not exactly hunting or bullfighting trying to masquerade as a sport, it's important to keep in mind what competitiors are eating. Often it's chicken, pork, beef, or seafood of some type. Animals died for those hot dogs. Those competitive eaters are not eating because they're hungry. (I doubt that they taste the food.) They're eating for sheer gluttonous volume. They're mass consuming for the spectacle and the thrill of it.
Sports Criterion #5: Should Not Rely on Equipment Provided Only by a Single Supplier
The only equipment participants rely on is the digestive system they were born with, the food in front of them, and some water or other beverage to wash it down. While the events are usually marketing attempts to publicize restauraunts or specific brands, the activity can involve any food from oysters to cheesecake to grilled cheese sandwiches.
So What's Your Opinon: Is Competitive Eating Really a Sport?
Perhaps you believe competitive eating fits SportsAccord's definition of a sport, that these are not simply competitors in a speed eating contest but indeed food athletes, food warriors, and weapons of mass consumption. Or maybe instead you stubbornly reject the notion that this is athleticism in any sense, insisting it's simply a disgusting exercise in gluttony.
Either way, if the size of the audience that tunes in to ESPN's live broadcast of Nathan's Hot Dog Contest this July 4 is an indication, competitive eating looks like it's here to stay.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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