The American “Sport” of Competitive Eating

By Michael LeCompte

In our modern, sports-obsessed culture virtually anything can be turned into a competition from athletic events to singing and cooking. If the announcers yell loud enough even lumberjack games or weight-loss contests are made to sound and seem like the Super Bowl. One “sport” that continues to grow is competitive eating and its biggest event is the annual Nathan’s 4th of July hot dog eating contest.

Casual observers might argue that competitive eating is not a real sport, but all the elements of the other major American sports are present in the Nathan’s 4th of July contest.

Nathan Handwerker is the undisputed father of the sport. Born in Poland in 1882 he came to America in 1912 and opened his now-famous hot dog stand on Coney Island in 1916.

The first 4th of July hot dog eating contest was held in 1916 and pitted four immigrants chowing down to determine who was the most patriotic. James Mullen, an Irish construction worker from New Jersey emerged victorious, consuming 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes and a tradition was born.

Like Abner Doubleday inventing baseball, though, the story of an Irish construction worker proclaiming his allegiance to America with his stomach is probably more myth than fact. No written record of Mullens winning a 4th of July hot dog eating contest exist prior to the 1970’s, and in the 1990’a a Nathan’s pitchman admitted to fabricating the story.

Like other major sports competitive eating has benefited from cable TV and ESPN now airs Nathan’s 4th of July contest.

Just like football or baseball players competitive eaters train hard. Stomachs are stretched and throats coaxed for the sport.

Competitive eating also has also seen its share of dynasties and produced a number of superstars, such as Joey Chestnut, Tokeru Kobayashi, and Sonya Thomas.

Joey “Jaws” Chestnut has won 8 Nathan’s 4th of July contests in a row. He is the Tom Brady of competitive eating and brings a similar dedication to his culinary craft, stating that, “this sport isn’t about eating. Its about drive and dedication, and at the end of the day hot dog eating challenges both my body and mind.”

Competitive eating has also had its pioneers, advancing the sport for those who follow. Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, a 98 pound Korean-American won the inaugural Nathan’s 4th of July Women’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in 2011 and hasn’t lost one since.

Also, like any respectable sport competitive eating has its own coveted trophy, its own version of the Lombardi trophy that individuals are willing to stretch their stomachs to the limits to attain. The winner of the Nathan’s 4th of July contest receives a bejeweled mustard-yellow Championship belt of “unknown age and value.”

This 4th of July as we celebrate our wonderful way of life the distinctly American “sport” of competitive eating will hold its Super Bowl when contestants battle for gastronomical glory in the Nathan’s Famous 4th of July Hot Dog Eating Contest.

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