By Norm Elrod
The Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, which takes place in Coney Island, on the edge of New York City, is competitive eating’s biggest event of the year. Joey Chestnut, who ate 72 hot dogs in 10 minutes, is the reigning male champion. The legendary competitive eater has won the event 10 times and holds the hot dog-eating world record (73). Miki Sudo, who ate 41 hot dogs last year, is the defending female champion.
While the spectacle draws attention every Fourth of July holiday, it is, at it’s heart, an athletic competition with highly trained professionals competing. Participants must qualify, and rules are in place to ensure safety and fairness.
Major League Eating (originally the International Federation of Competitive Eating) oversees all professional eating events, including the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. It was founded in 1997 by brothers George and Richard Shea to be a central resource for all things related to competitive eating. Since then, it has become the international governing body for competitive eating, putting on about 80 events per year and working with professional eaters, including Chestnut, Sonya Thomas, Patrick Bertoletti, and others.
Aspiring contestants must first win one of the many local qualifier events, which take place around the country in the weeks leading up to the main event. The defending champion gets an automatic bid, and a couple of wildcards (determined by average score) along with special MLE guests are also invited.
The July 4th event is divided into male and female divisions, with about 20 competitors in each. Contestants have 10 minutes to eat as many hot dogs and buns as they can, with a total prize purse of $40,000 on the line. A master of ceremonies presides over the challenge, commenting on the event and engaging the crowd. A panel of judges weighs in on any possible infractions, close calls and so on.
So what are some of the rules?
A hot dog and its bun must be completely consumed to be counted, but they can be eaten separately. There are a few approaches allowed, including ‘dunking’ and ‘chipmunking.’ When a food is doughy or comes in a bun (like a hot dog), a contestant can dunk it in liquid before putting it in their mouth. But it can only stay submerged for a very short time, to avoid anything dissolving. Food may be consumed in small pieces to cut down on chewing time. Chipmunking is when a contestant stuffs their mouth with small bites of food right before time expires. Any food that is swallowed within 30 seconds counts toward the total.
An eater can be penalized for messy eating and disqualified for vomiting if the regurgitation touches the table or their plate. After time expires, eaters may relieve themselves however they wish. Ties are decided by a five-hot dog eat off, followed by one-hot dog rounds of sudden death. Condiments are allowed but rarely used.
A top priority is, of course, safety, stating on the International Federation of Competitive Eating website, “all sanctioned competitive eating matches take place in a controlled environment with proper safety measures in place.” For safety reasons, practicing in one’s home or participating in competitive eating before the age of 18 is not recommended.
While IFOCE discourages training, many professionals still undergo rigorous training programs to increase stomach elasticity, jaw strength and eating speed. Some competitive eaters will quickly drink gallons of water or eat lots of watermelon or oatmeal to stretch out their stomachs before events. Trencherman extraordinaire Joey Chestnut conducts personal time tests, eating Nathan’s hot dogs for months prior the annual 4th of July event.
It’s too late to qualify for this year’s July 4th event, but this year’s holiday cookout could kick off your training for next year. That is, if you have the stomach for it.