What happens if he loses?” asked a father with two hot dogs in his left hand and his son gripping his right. The crowd (or at least those that could hear over the incessant chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”) turned to face the apparent newbie to the sport with a look of disdain. The male contestants in yesterday’s 97th Annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition on Coney Island had four and a half minutes left in their ten-minute bout, and this was not the time for ignorant (although seemingly rhetorical) questions from a Fourth of July tourist.
We stood amid a throng of patriotic spectators, food enthusiasts and right next to Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, a tiny woman of 105 pounds who only minutes earlier had won the women’s championship after consuming 45 hot dogs and buns, setting a new women’s world record. Afterward, she told us and everyone else within earshot that she was still hungry. We couldn’t help but remain skeptical.
“Wow, just wow,” the only words Ms. Thomas could utter to The Observer over the cheers for the favored Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, a man ranked first by the International Federation of Competitive Eating.
Now there was less than three minutes for the men to eat, and the crowd strained just to get even the slightest glimpse of the action. We couldn’t see Mr. Chestnut’s face, or any of the competitors for that matter (blame the people dressed in hot dog suits, others on stilts and poor staging generally).
“Do you think he’ll sign my hot dog?” we heard someone ask. It was a sarcastic question, but the fan behind The Observer clearly understood the significance of this near-century-old fierce competition.
The competitors, who were more than 10 hot dogs behind Mr. Chestnut, continued to chomp quickly as the seconds ticked away. Despite stuffing their faces to the point of disgust, they were significantly less efficient than the champ.
One participant, Matt “Megatoad” Stonie, told The Observer before the competition that he didn’t even like hot dogs and found them difficult to eat. This may have accounted for his inability to match the skill and technique of Mr. Chestnut, and was the reason he had to put in some extra conditioning over the last year in order to consume 42 hot dogs (still less than Ms. Thomas’s record this year, we would like to add).
Meanwhile, Yasir “The Doggy Bag” Salem, another male competitor who appeared to be dressed for a triathlon, told us just qualifying for the contest was good enough for him. He went on to argue competitive eating is on equal grounds with triathlons (an assertion we will leave to reader discretion) and that practice makes all the difference.
“I’ve only had 31 in practice, but it’s so different in competition,” Mr. Salem said.
Our conversation was briefly interrupted when a fan high-fived Mr. Salem and said enthusiastically, “Hey, you’re The Doggy Bag!”
We mused that the celebrity status apparent of these fast eaters, their nicknames, their uncanny ability to expand their stomachs and their ability to stomach mass quantities of foods they don’t even care for brings them almost up to par with superheroes like Spider-Man–almost.
Meanwhile, the games were really heating up back on the stage that no one except for Ms. Thomas could see. She gave the play-by-play to anyone willing to listen. At the same time, fans continued to comment to the best of their ability.
“How do they not choke?” asked an enthused attendee that held an ESPN foam finger reading “It’s not crazy, it’s sports.”
“Like, that’s so much food.”
While some surrounding spectators expressed doubt mid-competition, The Observer never questioned whether Mr. Chestnut would defend his title for the sixth consecutive year. After all, he did consume 68 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes in 2009, a sickening feat and the current world record for both sexes. We did, however, begin to have some apprehensions about his health when, with less than a minute and a half to go, Mr. Chestnut needed to consume 11 hot dogs to break his record; Ms. Thomas did not.
“He can still make it!” Ms. Thomas exclaimed jumping up and down. “He has time.”
There was 30 seconds left. Mr. Chestnut’s bun counter hovering behind him showed a tally of 63. It was beginning to look like he would be just shy of his record. Soon, the crowd’s chants of “Joey! Joey!” began to die down. And although it sounds almost too good to be true, just as the clock hit zero, Mr. Chestnut’s hot dog count hit 68, tying his personal best.
“I was trying to break the record,” Mr. Chestnut confessed to us post-competition, sweat beads accumulating after his hard-fought battle against the dogs. “I was pushing my body to the absolute limit. I’m gonna go take a nap now.”
He went on to assure us he would recover by mid-afternoon, just in time for fireworks and, of course, another hot dog.