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
"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,
Shea is known for hyperbole -- as
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."
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
"It's fun, it's a little bit disgusting," said
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.
"It's about gluttony. But also, a lot of people can relate to it," said
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