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Olympic-Sized Appetites: The World Of Competitive Eating

Aug 1, 2012
Originally published on October 22, 2012 11:32 am

Here's a sport you won't be seeing in London this year: Competitive eating. But if you're curious enough — and you can stomach it — you're likely to find an eating contest at your local fair or festival this summer.

Now eating contests are nothing new — they've been around since at least the 13th century, when a servant supposedly beat the Norse god Loki by eating his plate. But they've only become popular in the U.S. in the last hundred years or so.

So what inspired people to start stuffing their faces for fun and prizes? One theory is that eating contests sprung up at local fairs to celebrate the bounty of food during harvest time.

"Whether it's asparagus in Northern California, oysters in New Orleans, lobsters in Maine, or sweet corn in Palm Beach, Florida... with those riches, they would have an eating contest," says Richard Shea, president of Major League Eating (MLE), a group that develops, promotes and judges eating contests internationally.

Shea's organization has taken the tradition to new levels. It produces about 80 contests a year. He calls the annual Nathan's Famous hot dog competition at New York's Coney Island the league's "Superbowl." The July 4th contest has been around since 1916, although the MLE only became official in 1998. This year's hot dog champion was Joey Chesnut, who packed away 68 hot dogs in ten minutes — buns included.

But is shoving food down your throat as fast as possible really a sport?

Competitive eating does carry the marks of a modern day sport – star players, cash awards, a loud and loyal crowd, corporate-sponsored events, even ESPN coverage. Sponsors range from Pizza Hut to Pepto-Bismol to Old Navy.

And apparently, eating a lot, and quickly, does require some skills. "Hand speed, jaw strength, stomach capacity," to name a few, says Shea.

Although they have certain skills in common, different eaters do have their own styles, as I witnessed at a corn dog contest at the California State Fair this year (a homegrown event, not MLE organized). Some dunk their food in water to help it go down easier, others lean forward or bounce up and down in an effort to swallow.

If it comes back up during the contest? That's a "reversal of fortune," in the parlance of the game, and an immediate disqualification.

Competitive eaters also come in all sizes. They can be quite fit, or at least, within normal weight — Sonya Thomas, the women's champ known as the "Black Widow," is about 100 pounds, but she proves its more about the size of the stomach than the size of the person.

Some eaters are concerned about keeping their weight down. Up-and-coming eater, 21 year-old Eric Dahl, won the California state fair corn dog contest by "demolishing" 20 corn dogs in eight minutes.

"My diet is 95 percent on point, and I believe anything in moderation is OK," says Dahl, who puts himself through school with the help of money he makes eating. "It's not like I eat like this every day, or else I'd be 300 plus pounds."

Health questions aside, modern eating competitions have gained in popularity. A crowd of 40,000 spectators watched the hot dog contest this year, Shea says. The crowd would have been about 1,000 some fifteen or twenty years ago, he says.

MLE wants to expand around the globe. It has even approached the U.S. and International Olympic Committees about being included, but so far, no one's biting.

Copyright 2013 Capital Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.capradio.org.