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Major League Eating MAG
In Coney Island, N.Y., every Fourth of July, you want to believe they’re holding some normal holiday festivity – like the parade in the Big Apple a few miles down. But here there are no marching drums or shiny fire trucks. There is, however, that booming voice announcing: “Destiny has arrived and stands above us like a perfect blue sky!” George Shea, the emcee and chairman of Major League Eating, projects dramatically under his patriotic top hat. “Are you ready, Brooklyn!” It’s more of an exclamation than a question. 3,000 fist-pumping fans try to raise their chants above the crowd. And ESPN broadcasts it all.
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 broadcast annual events such as the National Spelling Bee. No disrespect to the strenuous brainwork that requires, but the walk to the podium doesn’t seem too athletic to me. To most, neither does stuffing 50 hot dogs down your esophagus. But if you’re one of the doubters, I will change your mind.
As the competitors are introduced, the intensity revs into high gear. “Teenage Wasteland” blares over the loudspeakers, and Shea starts going nuts on the microphone; the elated crowd becomes a wild mob. He reads off the century-old 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 for this 27-year-old construction manager from San Jose. The hardest part of the competition is everything leading up to it.
Like a pocket pass, an eight-foot putt, or a bullet to first base, wolfing down hot dogs requires intense training. The jaw’s masseter muscle, one of the body’s strongest in relation to its size, needs to pump iron in its own way. Chewing five or more sticks of gum at once does the trick – and that’s not a joke.
Sure, the average offensive lineman in the NFL is putting up 40-plus reps of 225 pounds 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 Shepherd’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.”
Sixty-eight hot dogs (buns included) later, the baggy shirt of the average-sized Chestnut begs the question: why is he not filling that thing out? And why is the competitor resembling the Michelin Man 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. Yup, you guessed it: to be successful at eating, you have to be fit.
With the clock set at 10 minutes for a hot dog eating competition, your form better be perfect. You’ll see Chestnut’s chin yanked up as he hops up and down while eating. The bouncing helps accelerate the food’s downward journey through the body.
Now, doubters, let’s reflect on the characteristics of a sport. Does hot dog eating qualify?
Does it require training? Check. Strength? Check. Maintaining a healthy body? Check. Technique? Check. Audience and presentation? Check. Superstars with amazing stats? Check.
Here are some of Shea’s intros for the competitors:
“Ranked number two in the world, he has 39 world records. He’s the jalapeño-eating champion of the world with 275. Let me hear it for Pat ‘Deep Dish’ Bertoletti!”
“Ranked number 10 in the world, he is the rib and potato wedge–eating champion of the world! Tim ‘Gravy’ Brown!”
“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!”
“He added to his title in pancakes, in beef brisket, 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 the fans eat it up.
Look, eating is eating just the same as walking is walking – though walking is actually an Olympic event! (Whoever’s in charge creating new Olympic events, take the hint.) Competitive eating is not “just eating.” It takes a professional eater, and in its own wacky way, it’s amusing as hell to watch. And when “Teenage Wasteland” ends and the 10-second countdown starts, we’ll be chomping at the bit.