Hot diggity, dog ziggity, it's sport

Is eating a sport?

Millions of highly intelligent humans are asking themselves this question as we speak, following the incendiary Independence Day ESPN television show, The 2011 Nathan's World Hot Dog Eating Championship. My God, this was a programme and a-half. And it was on ESPN, so it must be a sport.

The two commentators certainly thought so, drawing parallels between the competitors and many famous sports people as the show, witnessed by 45,000 people at the Coney Island fun park and watched live by two million on TV, swallowed and indigested itself to a shattering climax.

Statistics on the screen revealed 81% believed eating was NOT a sport. The commentators were outraged. 17% believed it was, which begged the obvious question, what did the other 2% think?

One assumes they didn't understand the question.

I not only loved this show to death and moved so close to our 50in screen as it unfolded that I nearly finished up behind the set altogether, but I also became consumed by the contest and its major players for days afterwards.

Imagine how stunned I was to find this competition began in 1916, after four immigrants decided to hold an eatdown, at Nathan's, Coney Island, to determine who was the most patriotic.

The aim since, same venue, same date, has been simply to find who can eat the most hot dogs in 10 minutes. But the patriotism sub-text ripples quietly underneath.

There still isn't much money in the world hot dog eating championship - the winner gets a pithy poor $10,000 - but the money men are moving in. An attempt to sign the major players to exclusive contracts has resulted in the sport's living legend, Takeru Kobayashi, who gets 10 grand just for opening an envelope in Japan, refusing to sign and being banned.

Kobayashi, his eyes ablaze with kamikaze lust, stormed the stage last year and was arrested.

This year, with favourite Joey Chestnut having announced he was going to best his world record of 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes, Kobayashi set up a parallel event on the roof of a neighbouring hotel, starting his own solo contest at exactly the same time as the Nathan's finalists began gorging on a huge TV screen beside him. And Kobayashi had the last laugh.

Chestnut, dunking his dogs in water for a smoother passage down the throat, took out the title comfortably, but only ate 62. Kobayashi managed 69, and threw world eating administrators into a furrowed quandary. Was his world record legal?

Kobayashi is probably the finest unknown sports star in the world today. He has a magnificent body, biceps that would crack glass, and a cat-like hunger in the eye I can compare only to Rambo.

Kobayashi is so good at eating hot dogs, he once went up against a 1089lb bear, who had been especially starved for the bout. This suggests that Kobayash is not only a supreme sportsman, but also as mad as a shoe, for the bear was right beside him on the stage, and highly likely to eat Kobayashi for dessert. The bear won, Kobayashi survived.

Chestnut's victory, by four downed dogs, was his fifth in a row. The dark horse was Eater X, who was found in the streets of Tangiers as a baby and brought up with no knowledge of his parents or, indeed, himself. He was using World Championship Eating, said the commentators, to try and find out who he is and where he comes from. Eater X, despite excellent technique, came a distant third.

The crowd went home fat and content that America is still the greatest nation in the world. But there was an ominous footnote with the first appearance of competitors from China.

Three eaters, each with different styles and bodies, suggested this hugely ambitious nation has earmarked the WHDEC for their next commercial conquest. What they send to the 2012 championship will be of riveting interest to all sports-lovers.

This one is already booked on our MySky.

Roy Colbert is a Dunedin writer.

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