You won't out-eat America! - NBC Sports

You won't out-eat America!
4th of July hot dog eating contest is an example of our most notable excesses
Reuters
Joey Chestnut, left,ÿholds his arm up after defeating Takeru Kobayashi of Japanÿat Nathan's annual hot dog eating contest on Coney Island onÿJuly 4, 2009.
July 3, 2012, 4:07 pm

Two-hundred thirty-six years later, the Fourth of July belongs to another Chestnut - Joey Chestnut, the 28-year old eatbeast who is the five-time winner of the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. All eyes will be on the world's top ranked competitive eater who is 10 spit-slicked minutes and one painfully distended abdomen from tying Takeru Kobayashi and becoming the contest's all-time winningest participant.

Our apologies to both John Adams and Oscar Meyer, but on July 4, Nathan's Famous leads the way for A-M-E-R-I-C-A. The contest has become not only an annual event but, after collecting thematically appropriate sponsors like Pepto-Bismol and a multiyear TV deal, it's become an anticipated one as well.

Maybe that's because competitive eating is a decidedly American spectacle that just HAD to originate here, between our mountains majesty and fruited plan (we'll ignore the waves of grain due to everyone's recent gluten allergies).

Other countries have found ways to explore their own excesses: spindly skyscrapers that stretch to ridiculous heights or climate-controlled indoor ski resorts or diamond-encrusted monarchs who wave demurely as they're driven from palace to palace. We Super-Size it. We unleash the StrasBurger. We put self-serve cotton candy machines in chain restaurants. We will out-eat you, rest of the world, so back away from the table and just let us finish.

The flat-out indulgence has to be part of the contest's watchability, the reason an expected 30,000 will stand at the corner of Surf and Stillwell to watch grown men try to suppress their gag reflexes. Last year's midday broadcast was the most-watched Nathan's contest yet; just under 2 million viewers watched Chestnut scarf 62 dogs, roughly the same size audience as each of the Euro 2012 semifinal matches.

So why do we tune in, pausing between lighting bottle rockets and squirting lighter fluid to watch an officially sanctioned version of the first crime scene from "Se7en"? Because it's a competition that involves eating, our most basic of needs.

"The only sport more fundamental than competitive eating is competitive breathing," Major League Eating president George Shea said. "And that's dangerous because it can cause hyperventilation."

We may never decipher an R.A. Dickey knuckleball or throw a tight Tom Brady spiral (although we can probably do an OK Rex Grossman) but we can all shove some meat byproducts into our open mouths, right?

Wrong.

What might be the sport's biggest appeal is also its biggest misconception. "In our opinion, average eaters have as much chance of ingesting 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes as executing a triple axel on the ice or running a 4-minute mile," researchers wrote in the "American Journal of Roentgenology," which is the science of radiation and also a word I just looked up.

But the logo of Major League Eating still reflects the sport's everymouth attitude. It's not (allegedly) a Harmon Killebrew-shaped silhouette or Jerry West's shadow. It's a nondescript hand clutching a fork in an 'I'm going to stab you if you steal a single fry" gesture that could be any one of us.

(This isn't eating's first beef. Major League Eating itself is opposed by the All Pro Eating circuit, essentially the Arena League of inhaling food. Run by a guy named 'Coondog,' All Pro is based around "Picnic Style" rules that don't allow the water dunking techniques that will leave the Nathan's stage splattered with one more fluid.)

The Crif Dog Classic, if successful, could bring new dimensions (and new distensions) to the annual sport. Would the Crif and Nathan's winners eventually face off in a SummerSlam-style eatoff to be crowned King of the Nitrates? Based on how restrictive MLE is to their competitors-which led to Kobayashi's expulsion in the first place-it's doubtful.

But who knows what could happen if the Crif Dog Classic starts chewing at Nathan's audience. Those crowds have been faithful not because they have to, but because where else are they going to watch adults sweat profusely while they have lunch, other than Paula Deen's house?

"I don't consider [starting a new tournament] being very brave," Kobayashi said. "There are many others before me who have also stood up for what they believe in competitive eating."

Standing up for what you believe in. Now that's a sentiment worth celebrating on the Fourth of July, whether you're in Brooklyn or in Coney Island, standing on Chestnut Street or beside Joey Chestnut. Just make sure you have plenty of napkins.

Jelisa Castrodale has learned a lot about life by making a mess of her own. Read more at jelisacastrodale.com, follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/gordonshumway, or contact her at jacastrodale@gmail.com



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