"It is possible to die from eating. But I think to be professional means you don't die." (Takeru Kobayashi)

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Las Vegas Five-O

Something big happened on Thursday at the New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Something even the boldest of Vegas bookies would've given only 75-1 odds of occuring. That something was 22-year-old Joey Chestnut -- the number three eater in the world -- eating 50 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes during the second qualifying event of the season to determine who will compete in the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Contest on July 4.

Chestnut's 50-spot annihilated the American record of 37 set by Sonya Thomas during the 2005 Nathan's contest and left everyone (perhaps including Chestnut) in shock. (For some reason, the IFOCE claims Thomas' U.S. record total from 2005 was 42, but other sources -- including Thomas' own website -- set the mark at 37.)

So what does Chestnut's feat really mean? For one, it means Takeru Kobayashi isn't unbeatable. In each of the last five years that Koby has devoured the competition on Coney Island the real question was never if he could be beat, but how many hot dogs he would eat and who would finish second.

Let's take a quick look at his dominance over the years. In 2001 he burst onto the scene by downing 50 dogs and buns; a full 29 more than the runner-up. The next year, he put away 50.5 dogs to Eric "Badlands" Booker's 26. In 2003, Koby had an off year, eating just 44.5 franks but he still dusted runner-up Ed "Cookie" Jarvis' total of 30. 2004 saw him set the current world record with 53.5 dogs (countryman Nobiyuki Shirota would finish in second with 38), and last year he cruised to another easy win, beating Sonya Thomas by a score of 49 to 37.

In two of those four years, Joey Chestnut's Thursday total would've won him the coveted Mustard Yellow Belt and the obligatory whirlwind tour on the late night TV circuit.

In an ESPN.com article, IFOCE Chairman George Shea had this to say about Chestnut's gut-busting feat: "This could be so critical to our sport," said George Shea, chair of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, which sanctions more than 100 eating contests, including the Nathan's event. "It's never good for the same athlete to win so many years in a row. The Fourth of July has been stolen from Americans because of Kobayashi's dominance and now America has someone who they can get excited about."

But could it be that the IFOCE owes its very existence to Kobayashi's ability to eat circles around the competition each July at the corner of Surf and Stillwell in Brooklyn, New York. In the same ESPN article, Joey Chestnut estimates he's won more than $50,000 in prizes while competing on the pro-eating circuit. Where does that money come from? Sponsors. And how has the IFOCE been able to attract its sponsors? Takeru Kobayashi.

When Koby put up a "double deuce and a half" in 2001, the world took notice. Next year, the world watched again to see if "that little Asian guy" could defy the laws of gastrology one more time. How would, of course, and he'd do it again, and again, and again. Just as Babe Ruth ushered in a new era of baseball in the Roaring Twenties by putting up gaudy home run totals year after year, so too has Takeru Kobayashi with competitive eating. To say that Koby's dominance is somehow bad for the sport of competitive eating is like saying pro golf would be better off without Tiger Woods in the 90s or the NHL without Wayne Gretzky in the 80s.

No, I have a feeling most gurgitators on the competitive eating circuit don't mind one bit if Kobayashi flies into LaGuardia from Nagano each year, eats four dozen hot dogs on ESPN, and then disappears for another 364 days (with the exception of Koby's appearance at Krystal Hamburger Eating Contest in Chattanooga). And why not? While Koby's basking in his awesome celebrity status in Japan, American eaters are making thousands each year (or at least gas and beer money) by pulling down prize money provided by sponsors who are attracted to a sport made popular by the 24 hours Kobayashi spends on American soil each year.

I'm not saying Koby's reign shouldn't end -- or that Chestnut isn't the one to do it -- I'm just not sure what'll happen when it does.


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