Photo courtesy Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs
Welcome to a world populated by colorful characters like Crazy Legs Conti, the Black Widow, and the Tsunami. Here, pint-sized eaters compete side-by-side with hefty gurgitators, and a small woman named Sonya rules with an iron stomach.
In this article, we'll meet some of the biggest names in competitive eating, try to figure out why people hold these contests, and learn how the world's top eaters manage to pack it all in.
Informal eating contests probably date back thousands of years. The International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) observes that "30 hungry Neanderthals in a cave" fighting over a rabbit constitutes the first instance of competitive eating [ref]. Organized eating contests became a traditional part of state and county fairs throughout the United States in the early 20th century. These contests often focused on creating a messy spectacle, such as eating pies without using your hands, rather than speed eating.
The IFOCE was formed in 1997 to unify the many eating competitions held around the world. IFOCE rules regulate eating methods, safety standards and a growing circuit of regional qualification contests. In the past some contests were more about seeing who could eat a certain amount of food the fastest. Today's IFOCE competitions are judged by the amount eaten within a set period of time, traditionally 10 or 12 minutes. The IFOCE also tracks world records and ranks the world's top eaters.
IFOCE safety rules require that competitive eaters be at least 18 years old, and they strongly discourage any kind of training or practice at home, insisting that competitive eating is only safe in a controlled environment.
Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs began holding Fourth of July hot dog-eating contests on Coney Island in 1916. Today this contest is considered the Super Bowl of competitive eating, and is also the World Hot Dog-Eating Championship event for the IFOCE.
The rules that govern an eating contest are pretty simple. The food to be eaten is either weighed, like cabbage, or cut into uniform pieces, in the case of a pizza-eating contest, for example. No one is allowed to start eating until an official gives the signal. Competitors can eat the food however they want, either breaking it into pieces or just shoving it in. They can dip the food into a liquid (usually water) to make it softer. If the food has different parts, the parts do not have to be eaten together. For example, hot dogs can be eaten separately from their buns. When time expires, any food that is already in the contestant's mouth counts as eaten as long as he or she eventually swallows it.
There's one rather gross question everyone asks about competitive eating -- what happens if someone vomits? IFOCE rules are very clear, though they are very delicate about the terms that they use to describe someone throwing up. Anyone who suffers "a Roman incident" is disqualified if the result of that incident touches the plate or table. Once time has expired, competitors can rid themselves of the massive amount of food they've just eaten however they like.
Instant replay is not used in IFOCE contests -- the ruling of the judges at the time is considered final. This can sometimes lead to controversy. In 2002, record holder Takeru Kobayashi reportedly vomited some hot dog at the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest, but held most of it back with his hands until time ran out.
Prizes for these competitions vary from nothing but a title to a few thousand dollars. It depends on the organizers and promoters of the specific event. Some events have sponsors who donate prizes, and well-known competitors will often be paid to travel the world giving competitive eating exhibitions.
In the next section, we'll see how they manage to eat all that food.