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Competitive eating

Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas at Nathan's Famous 2007 Hot Dog Eating Contest. Photo: valjean615/Flickr

Whether you think it’s excessive, fascinating or both, the stakes have been raised in competitive eating. No longer confined to county-fair pie-eating contests, famous “gurgitators” like Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi can chow down 50-plus hot dogs in 10 minutes, and TV shows like “Man v. Food” are affording speed eating a tentative legitimacy, attempting to make it seem more sport than stunt.

Yet the gross-out factor is still going strong. What does the future hold for competitive eating? Here’s what you need to know.

1. It’s controversial.

Major League Eating, or MLE, “helps sponsors to develop, publicize and execute world-class eating events in all variety of food disciplines.” There are upwards of 80 official MLE-sanctioned events each year, including the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, which first took place in 1916 and is now broadcast live on ESPN.

But MLE has been criticized for bringing too much exclusivity in the name of corporate sponsorships. Perhaps the best-known MLE-related controversy involves Japanese hot-dog vet Kobayashi, who received a visa to work in the U.S. that is only granted to athletes with “extraordinary ability.” Kobayashi’s fall from Nathan’s fame, which culminated in his arrest at the 2010 contest, came out of his refusal to sign an exclusivity contract with MLE that would have forbade him from participating in eating contests put on by rival organizers. (He called the contract “unfairly restrictive.”) Some supporters say it’s a plot to favor the U.S.-born Chestnut, who is now number one in the world according to MLE rankings.

2. It’s not that lucrative.

If you’re looking to get rich from snarfing Buffalo wings, you might want to rethink your career path.

The winner of the Nathan’s hot dog contest receives $10,000, an amount that, before this year, was only awarded to the first-place male contestant – the women’s top prize was previously just $2,500. Although Kobayashi is said to have pocketed $150,000 in one year, he’s also a household name. Patrick Bertoletti only received $2,500 for consuming 191 jalapeño peppers in 6.5 minutes, a sum that might not have been worth the pain that followed.

Salaries haven’t exactly skyrocketed for competitive eaters, but expectations certainly have. (See a list of current records.) In 2000, the winner of the Nathan’s contest won by eating only 25 hot dogs. In 2009, Chestnut won by eating 68. With the spotlight dialed up, contestants are consuming more – and risking more injury.

3. Size doesn’t matter.

In a sport centered around who can eat the most, the field isn’t necessarily dominated by big dudes. While Chestnut weighs 230 pounds, Kobayashi only clocks in at 160. And world champion Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, who has regularly placed in the top five at the Nathan’s contest and ranked the top eater in a wide range of categories from Vienna sausages (8.31 pounds in 10 minutes) and baked beans (8.4 pounds in under three minutes) to turducken (7.75 pounds in 12 minutes) and cheesecake (11 pounds in 9 minutes), weighs a mere 105 pounds. In fact, thinner eaters may have an advantage, since their stomachs have more room to stretch.

There’s also scientific evidence of possible biological differences between competitive eaters and the rest of us. A 2007 study by four University of Pennsylvania researchers, “Competitive Speed Eating: Truth and Consequences,” examined eater Tim Janus’s stomach and found that it lacked peristalsis, the muscle contractions that move food down into the small intestine. Janus was able to eat 36 hot dogs in 10 minutes without feeling full. The hot dogs remained in his stomach, which, the researchers wrote, “protruded enough to create the indistinct impression of a developing intrauterine pregnancy.”

4. It’s disgusting.

All that food goes down. But what if comes back up?

Coyly referred to in speed eating circles as a “reversal of fortune” or “suffering urges contrary to swallowing,” vomiting is, not surprisingly, part of the landscape. Official contest rules often state that eaters that do so during a competition are automatically disqualified. Some contests also have time limits – no vomiting within two minutes of the competition ending, for example. Once the time is up, eaters are free to “reverse” as they wish.

5. It’s global.

Yes, competitive eating is wasteful and twisted, especially when others are starving. Hyper-consumption may be a hallmark of American culture, but the popularity of modern speed eating can be attributed to Japan.

In the 1990s, before it caught on in its present iteration in the U.S., televised eating contests like “Gluttonous King” were big in Japan, giving rise to Kobayashi, who is credited with revolutionizing the sport. His 2001 Nathan’s record of 50 hot dogs in 10 minutes, which doubled the previous event record, was the equivalent of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute-mile barrier in 1954. Kobayashi’s technique of breaking the hot dog in half, eating both halves simultaneously and dipping the buns in water to ease their delivery has since become the competition’s standard.

Japanese speed eaters like Gal Sone, a petite gurgitator-turned-pop star, continue to hold the mantle. Meanwhile, opportunities to throw back obscene amounts of the food of your choice are multiplying, from the World Flauta Eating Championship to the Thanksgiving Meal Invitational.