Newsday’s Michael Dobie on the evolution of gluttony-as-sport.
Signs of social acceptance abound. Cable television, such as ESPN and the Food Network, broadcasts events, and top eaters appear regularly on Jay Leno, Carson Daly and “Good Morning America.” The puzzle page in this weekend’s Life magazine asks readers to match the eater’s face with his or her food of choice.
“It’s been a very steep rise the last couple of years,” said George Shea, who along with his brother Richard used to do public relations for the Nathan’s contest. Sensing possibilities for expansion, the Manhattan-based duo founded the International Federation for Competitive Eating in 1997 and turned an innocent pastime into, well, something of a niche sport so serious it’s funny. Or vice versa.
“We’re serious about it without question. No one can doubt our chili record or our corn on the cob record is legitimate,” said Richard Shea, his tongue planted firmly in cheek.
So, too, the brothers say, no one can doubt their enterprise is a sport. It might be an “entertainment product,” they admit, but that’s true of every sport.
“The definition of sport is any physical activity governed by a set of rules. An awful lot of things are that, but ours is clearly that,” Richard Shea said. “Eating is as inherent to man as running or jumping or other survival skills that are in the Olympics.”
Competitive eating certainly has the trappings of modern sport.
There’s a clock. There’s a final score (the weight or pieces of food consumed). There’s prize money. There are world records and rankings.
There is scouting. Badlands, a 35-year-old conductor on the No. 7 subway line, watches tapes of Japan’s Takeru Kobayashi, the four-time Nathan’s champion universally considered the best in the business.
There are rules. Vomiting, for example, is not allowed (the V word never is used in the business; the IFOCE prefers “reversal of fortune” or “the Roman method”). Competitors must be at least 18. And as in football, every sanctioned competition has an emergency medical technician.
Perhaps the simplest justification is the one offered by 38-year-old Ed “Cookie” Jarvis, a 6-6, 409-pound real-estate agent from Nesconset who holds 11 world records: “They wouldn’t put it on ESPN if it wasn’t a sport.”