Competitive eating has grown far beyond the popular event at local fairs where winners won blue ribbons for eating the most pies.
Today, it's a global sport with its own league, dedicated fans, and professional competitors who train to eat more food than seems humanly possible. Major League Eating, the sports governing body, is largely responsible for the change. Public relations executives Richard and George Shea professionalized the sport, attracting larger crowds every year for more than a decade. This July 4, Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Championships, the Olympics of competitive eating, drew 40,000 fans to the Coney Island contest.
But, the more I read about competitive eating, the more I think about Eight Men Out, the book and movie about the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The scandal itself became a way of looking at the way baseball and the White Sox were structured in those days with the miserly owner, Charles Kaminsky, paying the players only a tiny fraction of what they were really worth to him.
So it goes 95 years later with Major League Eating, where the people that run the contest and collect the ad money make millions while the people wolfing down the dogs and wings and training in ways that may seriously compromise their health get a few thousand if they're good and they're lucky. The contracts these eaters sign even slightly resemble the exploitive contracts offered to black artists in the early days of rock and roll.
And, it's not without risk. There is some concern about the long term health of the athletes.
So, what makes it all worthwhile? We'll talk about the joys and the risks.
- Crazy Legs Conti is a competitive eater and the subject of “Crazy Legs Conti: The Art and Zen of Competitive Eating”
- Barry Rothbart is a comedian, actor and the co-director with Jeff Cerulli of the documentary, "Hungry"
- Dr. Marc Levine is Chief of Gastrointestinal Radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the co-author of a study, “Competitive Speed Eating: Truth or Consequences"