Crowds flock to Nathan's, but once is enough

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NEW YORK -- Like any big-time American sporting event, the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest had "thundersticks" (mustard yellow, of course) and T-shirt tosses.

It had 35,000 fans with an estimated million more watching on cable.

It had the requisite asterisk controversy: The shortened time span for the contest, reduced from 12 minutes to 10, made for a glaring incongruity to the event's record books.

It even had its own steroids scandal -- who knew that Anbesol is a gum-numbing cream used for ice cream-eating contests? -- and chants of "Kobe, Kobe, Kobe," albeit for Kobayashi, not Bryant.

And ultimately, there was a finish that matched Jordan over Russell, or Tiger Woods at the 18th hole, for drama, if not importance, when a tie at 59 hot dogs forced a five-dog overtime where two very serious-looking judges declared defending champion Joey Chestnut the winner by seven seconds.

"If this was the Super Bowl or the World Series, I'd say this was a sporting event," said emcee and chair of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, George Shea. "But this is a spectacle."

Shea is known for hyperbole -- as Takeru Kobayashi and Chestnut hit the 40-dog mark, he shouted: "This is Sosa-McGwire. This is Ali-Frazier. These men are warriors. These ... are ... Spartans!" -- but he is right about the event being a spectacle. To entertain the massive crowd that began showing up before 8 a.m. -- about five hours early -- the organizers rolled out a buffet of entertainment that included the No. 1 trampoline duo in the country, a rock band from South Jersey, the "Bun-ette" cheerleaders, and two Uncle Sams -- one on stilts, the other a dwarf. There is a "neat-eating" contest for kids: one hot dog, least ketchup and mustard on the face wins.

Every gimmick employed by NBA or MLB teams was seen here, except with Nathan's they were taken to their most implausible extremes: An on-stage marriage proposal took the ballpark tradition a step forward when a couple from upstate New York actually did get married on stage. (Shea claimed he had just been ordained a minister.) As the vows were exchanged, a spectator yelled, "Only in America."

And how.

Major League Eating and the International Federation of Competitive Eating claim to have affiliates as far away as the Ukraine and Thailand, but even Kobayashi, the runner-up from Japan who speaks only through a translator, must come to America to compete. With one fan holding up a poster with the pictures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Chestnut under the title "American Heroes," it may be the only sporting event where the national anthem singer called for a chant of "U-S-A, U-S-A," before taking off his hat and singing.

"It's fun, it's a little bit disgusting," said Anna Schoen, who moved to New York from Hungary three weeks ago and was witnessing her first eating competition. "You would not see this in Hungary."

Said Shea: "People in other countries think this is some sort of quaint blueberry-pie eating thing. It's not. It's an institution. It's about our heritage."

It was also about excessiveness. Time recently reported that 18.8 percent of Americans are overweight, and there aren't many options at the hot dog contest to send them elsewhere. The only food options are a Nathan's, Big Al's Hot Dogs, a Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits and a grocery store that only advertised its alcohol and cigarette selection. The contestants average out to 204 pounds (214 without the two female lightweights).

"It's about gluttony. But also, a lot of people can relate to it," said Patrick Siller, who was attending his first hot dog eating contest. "It's something you'd do with your friends on a Thursday night."

Michael Meyer and his son David certainly could. The pair got jobs as judges at the contest when the elder Meyer mentioned to the event's organizers that he had challenged his son and his friends to an eating contest (Dad won with 13 dogs).

There was also no typical hot dog contest viewer. There were shirtless, tattooed men sneaking beer cans from plastic bags, as well as co-eds in Lacoste pulling beer cans from their backpacks. Spectators discuss strategy -- "Joey's going too fast! He's got to pace himself" -- and their own intestinal fortitude -- "Hey, how many dawgs do you think you could eat?" (That last question kept a group of police officers occupied for about 10 minutes.) The only similarity is that most were first-time attendees, coming once and never needing to see this "spectacle" again.

"It's a one-time thing, like the Super Bowl or Wrestlemania," said Kevin Gehl, a student at the University of Missouri. "I had to do it, but I don't need to go again."