Fantasy SportsIndividual SportsTeam SportsAnimal SportsThe Olympics

Competitive Eating: Is It Really a Sport?

Updated on August 6, 2017
FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway is a psychologist who admits to watching the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on ESPN each July.

Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest is a famous example of competitive eating and involves participants consuming as many hot dogs and buns as possible in 10 minutes. But is speed eating really a sport? We examine the question.
Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest is a famous example of competitive eating and involves participants consuming as many hot dogs and buns as possible in 10 minutes. But is speed eating really a sport? We examine the question. | Source

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.

Competitive eater Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas in a Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest.  In 2011, she won $10,000 for eating 40 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes.
Competitive eater Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas in a Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. In 2011, she won $10,000 for eating 40 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. | Source

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
  • donuts.

Most contests last 8-10 minutes.

The annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest is held on July 4 and broadcast live on ESPN.
The annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest is held on July 4 and broadcast live on ESPN. | Source

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.

Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas won $2,500 in the crabcale eating contest, 2005.
Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas won $2,500 in the crabcale eating contest, 2005. | Source

Coney Island: Location of Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest

A markerConey Island, Brooklyn, NY, USA -
Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, USA
get directions

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

  1. should include an element of competition
  2. should not rely on any key element of “luck”
  3. should not pose an undue health and safety risk to athletes or participants
  4. should in no way be harmful to any living creature
  5. should not rely on equipment provided only by a single supplier.

Oh, gross. American competitive eater Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti fills his mouth with hot dogs in the 2010 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. He placed third in the competition.
Oh, gross. American competitive eater Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti fills his mouth with hot dogs in the 2010 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. He placed third in the competition. | Source

Reader Poll: So What's Your Opinion?

Is competitive eating a sport?

See results
Food athlete of tomorrow?
Food athlete of tomorrow? | Source

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

Achievement
Achievement
Achievement
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
Hot many hot wings can you eat? Competitive eaters engage in speed eating contests of food ranging from chicken wings to hot dogs to grilled cheese sandwiches and much more.
Hot many hot wings can you eat? Competitive eaters engage in speed eating contests of food ranging from chicken wings to hot dogs to grilled cheese sandwiches and much more. | Source

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.

What goes down must stay there!  Speed eating participants who vomit food are said to experience a "reversal of fortune" and are disqualified.
What goes down must stay there! Speed eating participants who vomit food are said to experience a "reversal of fortune" and are disqualified. | Source

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.

Eric Booker packs in his 14th hot dog in the 2010 Nathan's competitive hot dog eating contest.  Despite what you might think, not all competitive eaters are large.
Eric Booker packs in his 14th hot dog in the 2010 Nathan's competitive hot dog eating contest. Despite what you might think, not all competitive eaters are large. | Source

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.

Speed Eater "Crazy Legs" Conti in a 2007 french fry eating contest in Austin, TX
Speed Eater "Crazy Legs" Conti in a 2007 french fry eating contest in Austin, TX | Source

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.

Professional speed eaters can earn thousands of dollars in prizes, but many speed eaters are one-time or occasional participants in local "just for fun" contests, like these Marines.
Professional speed eaters can earn thousands of dollars in prizes, but many speed eaters are one-time or occasional participants in local "just for fun" contests, like these Marines. | Source

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.

© 2017 FlourishAnyway

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 6 days ago from USA

      Sha - Glad to see you back. I hope you write more soon. I like your notation that it's a spectacle. I don't think anyone could argue with that! Sometimes watching others eat makes me barfy, and I often find it disgusting to listen to their eating sounds ... the chewing, chomping, slurping. Yuck. Have a wonderful weekend.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 6 days ago from Central Florida

      Flourish, I don't think competitive eating is a sport, but it certainly is a spectacle! I'd never be able to compete. I'm a slow eater and would probably puke if I even tried to stuff as much in my belly as the competitors do. Regardless, I enjoyed this article.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 6 weeks ago from USA

      Devika - It's definitely something that is popular in specific countries. Very interesting to get a perspective from someone else! It doesn't highlight our best side.

    • profile image

      DDE 6 weeks ago

      Eating in that way is stupid! I wouldn't consider such eating as any.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 7 weeks ago from USA

      Mamerto - Thanks for weighing in. I can see your point of view.

    • Mamerto profile image

      Mamerto I Relativo Jr 7 weeks ago from Cabuyao

      For me it's a competition, but not a sports. It is a contest but not a show of athleticism. Faster, higher, braver is the motto of the Olympics and I don't see how it relates to competitive eating. I have nothing against

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 8 weeks ago from USA

      Linda - It is pretty gross to watch, and I don't like the fact that animals died to make that food only to have it be used for sheer gluttony and entertainment value. Thanks for weighing in.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 8 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a great article that is very interesting. I'm glad that I read it. The actual act of competitive eating I find disgusting, though. I definitely don't consider it a sport! I can't help thinking about the excessive amount of unnecessary food that's eaten in a competition. This seems so inappropriate to me when many people are hungry in the world. The death of the animals for a purpose other than required nourishment also bothers me.

    • kallini2010 profile image

      kallini2010 8 weeks ago from Toronto, Canada

      Flourish,

      Thank you for the compliments, it's heart-warming to hear this. As you have probably guessed by now - I pay a huge price for my "brilliance" and will trade "brilliance" for health any day. Not that it'll ever happen.

      So, you can take all or any of my ideas and write an article if you wish - it will make me very happy that at least one person listened and shared and made a difference for others. I'm very unlikely to write anything.

      Speaking of ends: I'm not as terrified as I used to be, if only I was disciplined enough to do what I have to and planned to do.

      One thing I recommend anyone and everyone: there is a great course:

      "Death, Dying, and the Afterlife: Lessons from World Cultures" by Mark Berkson

      http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/death-dying...

      I'll spare you the details, but just like any normal Westerner, I wasn't too keen on taking it. Sheer curiosity...

      If I have to choose from all (more than 30) courses I've taken - this will be the one.

      I don't pay for my courses, though - all of it is available in the Toronto Public Library and if you ask me what is the best thing I love about Toronto - it's its Library. If you find the course (ever), try taking it (just read the raving reviews of it).

      I'm quite satisfied with small things - if I make a difference for one person even once, I consider my life well lived.

      And with postcrossing - mail five cards - you'll see how each of them will make your day impossible to forget. It's not overeating - it's over-excitement (the same principle of exaggerated joy, just a much better application of it).

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 8 weeks ago from USA

      Kallini - You're quite a brilliant lady. I'm going to see if I can find the BBC series and watch it. My choking problems have a lot to do with my MS and the swallowing functioning, and it's frightening. I often think that will be my end as well. I spend too much time thinking about how the story ends. In your comments alone you have several article ideas; you're such a smart lady that I hope you will share your insights and research with others.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 8 weeks ago from USA

      Nadine - I'm happy you enjoyed this and could tolerate the photos. I find it oddly fascinating in a rubbernecking kind of way.

    • kallini2010 profile image

      kallini2010 8 weeks ago from Toronto, Canada

      Flourish:

      I can tell you what the point and reason is - it's really so simple - arts, sports, entertainment, doing anything above and beyond normal excites us because it involves exaggeration.

      If you can ever find "How Art Made the World" BBC series (four parts, I think), you'll never ask this question again. Animals respond to exaggeration with excitement just as much as we do (we are animals). If they could have art, they would have it as well.

      People keep wondering why is this and why is that - why glamorous magazines use completely unrealistic face and body images - nobody will buy them because realism is boring. So, the same goes for competition - for us it's entrancing to see something we can't do without training and where one starts doing something above and beyond, there'll be another who wants to do it "abover and beyonder".

      But, seriously, if you watch the series, you'll be left wondering "Why is such simple a thing is not taught to us to begin with so that we understand the very nature of art and ourselves?"

      I very strongly recommend watching it even though I know you probably won't. I can't remember one person who did follow my recommendation just as I don't remember anyone who doesn't wonder why we are not satisfied with "normality".

      As for choking, last time I thought that I should have a will and have all my stuff "departure-ready" and, of course, still don't.

      My mother (a medical doctor) says that choking is normal and it gets worse with age. Couple of things that reduce the chances of choking - eating small bites and paying attention while eating and, especially, drinking. Yes, and I hope choking won't be the end of me, but something else will.

      Thinking of the ends:

      too much food reduces life span, too many consumed calories decrease mental abilities. Fasting is good for the brain. But I bet if we had fasting competition, someone would always be the first and the best faster of them all.

      Cheers,

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 8 weeks ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      No, It truly can not be seen as a sport. To try to compete with others is in itself a twisted occupation. We are all unique individuals, but the images and photos were entertaining.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 8 weeks ago from USA

      Peggy - That sounds like a "no way!" Thanks for weighing in. Have a great day!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 8 weeks ago from USA

      Dear Kallini, You seem to like sports as much as I do. I find sports completely impractical although I'm married to a sports fanatic who can watch a televised golf (the most boring of all), a high school basketball game, or the Superbowl with equal interest. Although often beautiful or impressive, I wonder what the point is. We pour so many resources into sports as entertainment at tremendous expense to many of those who are the participants. I think you're right about the portion size. Many of us could afford to reduce the amount we eat and ensure that our food waste is reduced as well. Thank you for your rich, interesting, and well reasoned comment. I hope choking will not be the end of you. I have a problem with it too.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 8 weeks ago from USA

      Larry - I appreciate your weighing in and the rich comment. You're brave to put it right out there, being in such the minority, so I thank you for that. It makes for good discussion. I was surprised that the "elite competitors" in competitive eating aren't all obese people; many are slim and eat only one meal a day regularly except when training.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 8 weeks ago from USA

      Catherine - Thank you for the compliment! I truly appreciate that!

    • profile image

      Peggy Woods 8 weeks ago

      I think that it is just plain crazy! It is not surprising to hear that some people choke and even die from doing this. That is sad. My vote is for "no" and I am not even interested in watching it.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 8 weeks ago from Oklahoma

      Maybe not a sport by some definitions, but all sports require luck, for example. And all sports have negative ramifications on your health on some level.

      It's not a sport I support. Just not interesting to me, but in my opinion, a sport nonetheless. The best eaters train and condition for the event. You're actually at a disadvantage if you're heavy.

      Another example of sport debate. A lot of people don't realize the tremendous physical shape you have to be in to be a top level NASCAR.

      Wonderful article. Great topic for debate.

    • kallini2010 profile image

      kallini2010 8 weeks ago from Toronto, Canada

      Dear Flourish:

      I don't think it's even a question whether competitive eating is a sport. It's a competition alright, but hardly a sport. But as much as I hate to admit, I don't find legitimate sport very healthy either. I know that in rhythmic gymnastics - girls starve "to death" - if they go above certain weight - "they won't be able to lift themselves in the air as high as necessary".

      Or synchronized swimming - beautiful, right? Harmful to athletes? Of course. Russian team spends a few hours on the floor and then eight hours in the pool. Chinese team spends ten hours in the pool. Isn't that insane?

      Dancing competitions are no better. If you see professional dancers dance, it always looks like they are having a stroke.

      I'm very much against sports - including very harmful ones like American football and hockey. It's the competition part that pushes people to the limit and beyond.

      As far as "eating" goes - competitive "pushing all this food down" is competitive, but it's not eating. I think it exists only because public is watching. I never do. I know of a young man back in Russia, who (on a dare) ate (God knows how many) dumplings and paid for it dearly nearly with his life. If the ambulance came a bit later, he would have died.

      I rarely eat hot-dogs (for me this combination doesn't work), but thanks to your video - now I won't touch them at all.

      But I'd like to bring the attention of the readers to the fact - all that ill-consumed food is not going to the poor - whether consumed or not. Most non-Americans say that American portions can satisfy a family - why then not campaign for reducing at least a portion size?

      I also know that a lot of people choke to death not on food, but on saliva or a bit of liquid. (I think that choking will be the end of me). It's human anatomy that put these two tubes a bit too close together - the possibility of choking is the price we pay for being able to speak. I've read that dogs never choke. They don't speak either.

      A true competition would be a quiet one - how to teach yourself to eat slowly and consume as little as possible without feeling hungry which saves both food and money. We've got ourselves accustomed to overeating and addicted to competition - regardless whether we are only spectators or participants themselves.

      So, maybe, my overall conclusion is "we don't care for our bodies unless or until they fail us" and do all the stupid things just because we can.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 8 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      P.S.: I just want to add to my previous comment. This is so well written and researched. I truly admire your mastery of the writerly craft.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 8 weeks ago from USA

      Catherine - That is a pretty visceral reaction, but then again it is a very gross thing to watch. I often watch with my extended family.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 8 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      It is definitely gross in so many ways. There is a hunger crisis and an obesity crisis and these fools glorify stuffing yourself like a pig being fattened for slaughter. And, of course, gross violation of table manners. I condemn the sponsors of these contests. And I would never ever watch one. Just reading about it pushed me to my limit.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 8 weeks ago from USA

      Savvy - I hear you with the ice cream. The competitive eating is about as gross as it gets. It's hard not to watch though. I do wish they'd eat something like corn or bread, not meat. Thanks for sounding off! Have a great week ahead.

    • savvydating profile image

      savvydating 8 weeks ago

      It's hard for me to think of this as a sport. I've never seen a competition and I'm pretty certain I never will. It just seems like an abuse of the body to eat that much in one sitting & the idea of watching would make me feel totally icky. Surprisingly, from the pictures you posted, some winners are downright slim. I guess it's entertaining for some. I just hope no one else chokes to death!

      But who am I to judge. I've been known to down a pint of Haagen Daaz within 10 minutes, no problem.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 8 weeks ago from USA

      MsDora - It is pretty gross to watch, even the photos! Hope you're having a good weekend.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 8 weeks ago from USA

      Bill - If it were a sport and chocolate were part of the competition, I'd be the one to beat. I'm sure everyone has a special food or dessert. Hope you're having a great Father's Day weekend!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 2 months ago from The Caribbean

      Seems to me, that the activity is unhealthy and harmful. In the process, the competitors appear to be other than human. Still, it may be lawful since they are aware of what they are doing. I couldn't watch it. Thanks for the details. Another interesting topic!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I think I'll have to vote no on the sport question. I've seen a couple of these "competitions," and in all honesty, they bore me to tears and border on offensive for me. Not sure why, just a "gut" reaction to them. :)

    • FlourishAnyway profile image
      Author

      FlourishAnyway 2 months ago from USA

      Heidi - It's interesting how we continue to attempt to stretch our definition of sports, huh? My husband eats very rapidly because he was raised poor and no amount of feedback can slow him down.

      I have to put a tall plant between us at the table so I cannot see him because it stresses me out at the table. I can't imagine doing this for money. Have a wonderful weekend.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 months ago from Chicago Area

      Okay... I'm saying NO to "sport." I think it only satisfies the criterion for No. 1. No. 3 and 4 are the worst offenses in my opinion.

      This reminds of of the new trend of "esports athletes" who play video games for prizes and sponsorship. Some have even suggested it become part of the Olympics. Really?

      Hope your weekend is filled with tasty experiences... without competition!