On the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate our great country’s independence, I was sorely disappointed in those that voted in an ESPN.com Sports Nation poll. Of nearly 80,000 respondents, 82 percent claimed they thought competitive eating isn’t a sport. These are people viewing the most popular sports website in the world, people that allegedly like competition and the compelling drama that sports brings, but they don’t believe someone who eats 62 hot dogs in 10 minutes is involved in a sport? Even Missouri voted no, although I have to believe the majority of those 83 percent that did were from outside St. Louis.
Look, Major League Eating is a competition. Heck, they have a website, ifoce.com. They have better nicknames than any other sport. Sean “Flash” Gordon. “The Houdini of Cuisine,” Crazy Legs Conti. “Gravy” Brown. Sonia “The Black Widow” Thomas. Eric “The Red” Denmark. Monday’s second-place finisher, Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti. And of course, the Albert Pujols or Tom Brady or LeBron James of eating, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut.
Major League Eating is in fact, the fastest growing sport in the world. It has become an international competition in which men and women compete for bragging rights for their countries. Takeru Kobayashi held the Nathan’s title for six years until San Jose’s Chestnut claimed the Mustard Yellow Belt five years ago. Chestnut allowed Americans to reclaim their glory by not only whipping Kobayashi, but eventually shattering the all-time record by downing 68 dogs.
As MLE President Richard Shea said at the time of Chestnut’s win, “He may indeed have changed the course of this nation, righted the course of our nation. Chestnut is a true American Hero.”
For those that disagree, Shea has this retort: “It’s absolutely a sport and it has the attendance of a sport, and these guys are athletes for sure.”
Indeed, Chestnut has a rigorous cardio routine that enhances his breathing while participating in eating events. And what events he can eat in! Chestnut is a champion on numerous fronts. He ate 7.5 Pizza Hut P’Zones to win the 2011 Pizza Hut Chow-Lenge over Sonia Thomas. He ate 41 slices of pizza to win the 2010 Pizza Hut Chow-Lenge over Pat Bertoletti.
Eric “Badlands” Booker, who competed in 14 straight Nathan’s contests from 1997-2010, failed to qualify this year. He was on stage, entertaining the 40,000 fans with his rap stylings. But in his heart, Badlands is an athlete who wants to compete.
“I compare myself to Brett Favre. Man, I’ve been in the game for a long time. I retired and came back because I felt there was still more to do. I feel like I’ve been a pioneer, a patriot and a pillar in this game,” he said.
This year, China entered a three-man team in the contest. So, the world’s most populous country is on board. The all-time Toasted Ravioli eating record is held by Thomas, who downed four pounds of Toasted Rav at Harrah’s here in St. Louis in 2004.
Bob Shoudt, The Notorious B-O-B, claims to do 500 crunches a day. Granted, it’s believed that 200 of them are Captain, 200 are Nestles and 100 Heath Bar. But, it takes athletic ability.
How people can look at these competitions and not regard them as sport is beyond me. At least, as opposed to diving and ice skating, there’s a defined winner at the end. In eating, as opposed to auto racing and horse racing, the athlete must do the work himself, not drive or ride the actual winner of the race. ESPN ran a “Sports Science” feature about Chestnut, so clearly they think of it as a sport.
Shea is aiming higher. He pointed out to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “We have approached the International Olympic Committee in the past and they took a rather haughty stance. But they should realize that our Fourth of July hot-dog eating contest at Nathan’s gets a better ratings number on ESPN than much of what they broadcast in the Summer Games.”
The United States invented basketball, but has seen our stranglehold on that sport fade away over time. We don’t have any dominant tennis players. Golf’s U.S. Open has been won by a foreigner for five straight years. Hockey’s Stanley Cup was fought for by a team led by a Slovak (Zdeno Chara) and a team led by Swedish twins (Daniel and Henrik Sedin). The USA never wins the Indy 500 anymore.
We have football and eating. We have the best gurgitators in the world. There were 40,000 fans on Monday chanting, “Jo-ey, Jo-ey.” And they were thrilled when this American Hero won his fifth straight championship, equaling the dominance of the 1950’s Yankees. Americans better start believing. Hopefully, we won’t miss one of the extraordinary athletes of our time, The Eater of The Free World, Joey Chestnut.