The High Art of Competitive Eating

Should competitive eaters be considered athletes? What kind of sport calls attention to such brazen gluttony and the unsettling digestive processes of the human body?

Sweat stinging his eyes, George Shea, wearing a straw hat and blue blazer, stood on an outdoor stage in Salisbury, Maryland on a recent Sunday afternoon and yelled at a crowd of 200 spectators.

“Are you ready, people?” Shea howled, and the crowd cheered back at him. “It’s go time. It’s go time-time. It’s see you on the other side time-time!”

Behind Shea on stage, more than a dozen men and women in orange Major League Eating t-shirts stood over metal bowls containing 24 pounds of chicken wings. The audience cheered louder. Here were the world’s most decorated competitive eaters, and they had come to Winterplace Park on the Eastern Shore to see who would go home as the nation’s most prolific consumer of poultry.

"There is something about the notion of eating performatively under a short period of time that brought a community together,” said Vivian Nun Halloran, a professor of food studies at Indiana University. “It's a very strange concept.”

That community, as we know it today, emerged in 1972, when two public relations agents, Morty Matz and Max Rosen, organized the first iteration of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island. After graduating from college, Shea got a job with Matz and Rosen who tasked him with expanding the Nathan’s competition from a local public relations novelty to a national sports spectacle. Today, the contest is a multi-million dollar media extravaganza and has spun off into a standalone league, with international competitions centered around everything from mayonnaise to pepperoni rolls.

"When I started, there was no phrase 'competitive eating.' There was no anything," Shea, who chairs Major League Eating, the sport's governing body, told me. "There was no Joey Chestnut, there was no Kobayashi, there was no nobody."

The hot dog rivalry between Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi, the leading Japanese eater, is the best known scandal in competitive eating, and has hurled the sport to international fame in the mid-2000s. For spectators, Chestnut and Kobayashi's feud, which lasted until the league terminated Kobayashi for breach of contract, represented a narrative of global proportions—our country versus theirs.

It also garnered Shea lucrative television contracts—exclusivity with ESPN until 2017—a rapidly growing audience, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual prize money, though Shea declined to provide numbers around the company's revenue. Shea’s venture is profitable, and even spin-off events, like the chicken wing contest I attended in Maryland, draw the nation’s top competitors and a dedicated base of watchers and amateur eaters.

* * *

Staring at a vat of chicken wings backstage before the Eastern Shore competition was Crazy Legs Conti—who, when I asked for his real name, produced a driver’s license with the name Crazy Legs Conti—and two female colleagues preparing for the afternoon’s binge.

“With the chicken wings, you figure out a strategy. You take a look at the paddles, the drumsticks,” Conti said when I asked what he was looking at.

His eyes moved along the line of chicken bowls. “Which has more meat,” Conti, who ranks 17th in the world, asked me. “The drumstick or the paddle?”

“The drumstick,” I said, deciding the wings looked a good deal scrawnier.

"You would think that. But the meat-to-bone ratio is .49 for the drumstick, and the paddle is .66," he said. Conti took 100 wings, wore a lab coat and safety goggles, and measured out across five trials the specific meat measurements of the chicken wings.

Conti's pre-contest preparation is remarkably scientific and not uncommon in its rigor—especially among top-ranked eaters who take seriously the cerebral and high-endurance elements of their sport. Some eaters have been known to undergo hypnosis, practice daily hand-eye coordination exercises, and fast for days to maximize their body's potential for efficient and massive food intake.

Many eaters, like “Wild” Bill Myers, who came to the Maryland contest with his fiancée of 15 years, were quick to remind me that competitive eating demands much more from the eater than the ability to guzzle huge quantities of food—it’s also about precision. Stuffing your face is a helpful but not sufficient victory plan when you’ve got only 12 minutes to win.

A good eater, according to Myers, needs to be strategic about which bites to take, how often to chew, and when to maneuver between swallowing and eating more food. This is especially tricky with chicken wings, which are irregularly shaped and have bones. The winner is determined by weighing the bowl before and after the competition, in order to establish the total weight eaten.

With this kind of focus from participants, it might seem reasonable to place competitive eating among the ranks of other legitimate sports; a strong audience base, highly organized league structure, and meticulous training regimen add an element of validity, and Major League Eating considers competitive eating a demanding athletic undertaking.

But what kind of well-founded sport calls attention to such brazen gluttony and the revolting digestive processes of the human body? Instead of zeroing in on an athlete’s physiological vigor and agility, competitive eating plays an antithetical role—a sort of sport in reverse.

The Nathan’s Hot Dog eating competition, Shea’s showpiece summer contest, debuted on live television a decade ago and will draw more than 35,000 people to Coney Island this Fourth of July, but the sport—and this term is debatable—lacks any semblance of physical grace or athletic form. Its winners take in very little cash and their celebrity is limited to a niche group of competitive eating fanatics. Why, then, would anyone risk public humiliation, potential damage to long-term health, and a grueling training routine to perform an activity which, to some, serves a gimmicky marketing need and, even worse, a conspicuous display of American gluttony?

* * *

“Go, go, go!” Shea yelled over blaring techno music as the competitors rushed to gulp down more meat. “Two minutes and thirty seconds left!”

Juliet Lee, a 48-year-old Chinese immigrant who owns a hair salon near College Park, Maryland, was struggling to keep her mouth closed as she stuffed handfuls of chicken scraps into her cheeks. Because there isn’t much time to chew, Lee downs tennis ball-sized clumps of food with water before digging back into her bowl. The audience’s response alternated between cheering her on and grunting with disgust as they wondered if, just maybe, she might puke it all out.

As Lee’s 100-pound body heaved, I couldn’t help wondering whether my fascination with her public eating was oddly sadistic. Here was a woman—a small-business owner, a mother of two teenage girls, someone with no evident or outward antisocial behavior—voluntarily compromising her body and exhibiting her physical vulnerabilities in front of hundreds of screaming watchers. The voracity and determination with which she devoured her chicken made me uncomfortable: How much humiliation will one go through for competition? But for Lee, the exercise of competitive eating is cathartic and has, over the past seven years, freed her of a range of body image issues that she’d suffered from since childhood.

Lee, who grew up in Nanjing, remembered needing to curb her appetite in order to appear more ladylike to a conservative Chinese family. “‘Oh you eat so much,’ my family would say. It was not elegant and kind of embarrassing. People made fun of me,” she said.

Juliet Lee, center (Major League Eating)

“Since I started eating contests, I’ve started to be proud of myself, and I’ve stopped feeling ashamed of my appetite,” she said. “I think the most important thing is that I feel better about myself. Emotionally, I didn’t feel good about eating so much. That was kind of a dark side of my life. Now it’s a bright spot.”

Although Lee has arrived at a new level of freedom around the competitive lifestyle of eating contests, athletics enthusiasts and experts remain skeptical about the activity’s status as an actual sport.

“Real sports,” writes British philosopher Colin McGinn in his book-length study on disgust, “accentuate the potential for coordinated movement in the human body, while bracketing the disgust elements most evident in stasis.”

He continues: “No longer laden and squelchy, the body is now light and steely, a source of pure kinetic energy, like the body of a god.”

I wonder if “Wild” Bill Myers, a self-proclaimed athlete, whose 360-pound body, shuddering and sludgy with sweat, broke down fistfuls of grease-dunked bird meat in front of hundreds of onlookers, would agree with McGinn’s commendatory description.

But for McGinn, competitive eating is “not really a sport at all, grotesque to watch, and of merely minority interest.” Say that to the 1.95 million people who tuned into ESPN to watch the Nathan’s contest in 2009. And when I called McGinn to tell him about a major professional league that supports those exact athletes he dismisses as gluttonous goons, his opinion didn’t budge.

“It seems almost like a parody of a sport,” McGinn told me. “Here is a person exercising some skill—I suppose in some sense—but at the same time, doing it in the service of something that’s just drawing attention to the organic body.”

By divorcing the eating from its physiological purpose—or “by decoupling the act of eating from its most basic raison d’etre: hunger”—we create a spectacle that, in a uniquely absurdist way, has no grounding in our normal reality, Halloran, the food studies professor, argues in a 2004 article. This extreme decontextualization—something akin to seeing the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas, or even a rigged wrestling match—leaves us with a “simultaneous experience of sensual revulsion and pleasure.”

Halloran also suggests we enjoy a special type of pleasure from watching somebody else struggle to keep their body under control. Take the weightlifter who appeared to defecate in her jumpsuit in the 2000 Olympics and quickly became a YouTube phenomenon, not for her latent athletic prowess, but for the suddenness—and cringe-wreaking awkwardness—in which her bowels apparently gave out.

Or go back to 1984, when Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, an otherwise accomplished Swiss long-distance runner, stumbled in 37th place in the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon in Los Angeles. Andersen-Schiess staggered like a Mary Shelley character toward the finish line, completely dehydrated, with buckled knees and a hunched back. The audience gasped as Andersen-Schiess stubbornly pushed through her inevitable physiological shut-down. After 2 hours and 48 minutes, she hobbled across the finish line, collapsing instantly, face-first, into a group of medics. "It's almost as if the person is committing suicide in front of you," McGinn said. "You try to marvel at their masochism."

"Any sportsman can decide to make a competition out of anything,” he added. “Talk about crapping contests. You could do that—a very avant-garde person could do that. And a very avant-garde artist can make a pile of shit and put it in a museum.”

But risk of public humiliation and self harm haven’t deterred a new generation of competitive eaters who grew up on the ESPN broadcasts to find something accomplishable in the activity.

Take Ric Best, a 22-year-old senior at Yale, who chugged a gallon of Poland Spring water every morning to stretch out his stomach until he—usually without exception—vomited. Best, who goes by the Tudor-inspired moniker King Hungry VIII in eating contests, is what the major leaguers call a “newb”—but an inspired one. After watching his first eating competition in 2009—it was all-you-can-eat spinach—in Boston, Best’s friends bet each other that they could probably do the same and even come out on top. For Best and his friends, a win seemed within reach.

“We all eat. We all eat more than we should sometimes,” Jason Bernstein, a senior programming and acquisitions director at ESPN, said. “I’m not necessarily certain as to what it takes to shoot over a 6-foot-8 power forward coming at me for a three-pointer, while 16,000 fans are watching me in the stadium and perhaps 40 million worldwide. But I can certainly get my arms around eating a hot dog fairly quickly.”

To glean tips on how to more effectively stretch out his stomach, Best sent a Facebook message to Eric “Badlands” Booker, one of the league’s most formidable eaters, requesting some industry pointers.

Booker is a big name in the competitive eating community and is known for a variety of culinary accomplishments, though his lasting success lies in the realm of Jewish fare. Aside from eating 50 Purim hamantaschen in six minutes and 21 baseball-sized Matzo balls in just over five minutes, both of which remain longstanding world records, he is also a part-time rapper, and his website highlights an assortment of videos with Booker rapping about “my peeps tonight, vibin’ so hard I’m gonna miss my flight” on a river yacht.

Badlands, like Lee and Myers, seems to be making the most of his part-time celebrity status, with a line of his own headphones and occasional appearance fees. But only Chestnut, who rakes in a cushy $200,000 a year from appearance fees and prize winnings, can afford not to hold a day job. Those ranked in double digits can barely afford to cover travel costs, which are generally not paid by the league.

“I pretty much do my nine to five,” said Booker, who’s a conductor on the New York City subway. “It’s like being a superhero. It’s like, you know, you’re Peter Parker and you work for the ‘Daily Bugle’ and you take your pictures and do all that, but every now and then you have the Spiderman suit and you throw it on—so when an eating competition comes along, I just do my weekend warrior thing.”

* * *

“Ten seconds left!” Shea screamed as the eaters gulped down their final bites. Myers, the largest contestant on stage, was far behind by this point in the contest; chicken wings are less of a capacity food and geared more toward the extra nimble—of which Myers is not. Lee, who picked up pace in the second half, did reasonably well among the females, but not well enough to beat Joey Chestnut—the league’s resident champion.

Backstage, as amateur eaters and eager fans clamored to take a picture with Chestnut—who could now add chicken wings to his long list of gastronomical accomplishments—Shea rolled up his shirtsleeves, took off his straw hat, and sat, sweating, at a picnic table.

"Anyone who has experienced live entertainment knows there's something very special about it, even though it's very transitory, means nothing, no inherent value to it,” Shea said, looking over at the contestants congratulating each other behind the stage.  “But it's very powerful.”