Open Mic: Competitive Eating a Sport?

Kyle LavigneAnalyst IJuly 3, 2008

To some people the Fourth of July, people gather around their grills and enjoy their barbeques, complete with the essential hot dogs and hamburgers. To some the Fourth of July means fireworks displays help celebrate the birth of the United States.

But to others every year on the Fourth of July, a few thousand people gather in Coney Island to observe one of the more unorthodox, and for some one of the most disgusting, events of the day: the Nathan’s International July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest.

As some of us will watch the enigma that is this classic (well…sort of) showdown as Joey Chestnut looks to once again defeat the almighty Kobayashi, more will wonder why this seems to be viewed as a sport.

I mean it’s a bunch of guys stuffing their mouths with hot dogs. Surely, there’s no training involved in that, and there’s no way these guys are athletes. Before diving into this topic fully, just what is defined as a sport?

In Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies, an old textbook from a writing class I took during my freshman year (I knew that would come in handy), author Jay Coakley defines a sport as a physical, competitive, and institutionally organized activity. Based on that, competitive eating would fall under that category.

Plus, there is a surprising amount of training involved. Take the aforementioned Kobayashi for example. To help ensure he performs well at all eating contests, he works on expanding his stomach. How? Well, he eats…a lot. He will ingest growing amounts of food per seating in the days leading up to a competition.

Additionally, to prevent the added fat from hindering food working through his system, he exercises frequently to turn that fat into muscle. So, is the debate settled? Is this a sport? Well, for me, even if Mr. Coakley’s definition says it is, I bare to disagree.

Sure, the act of eating is a physical activity, and it is formally organized by the IFOCE (International Federation of Competitive Eating). However, in my view, a sport should physically test the human body through a form of an endurance test. While these competitors may to have deal with feeling a bit bloated and nauseous afterward, it’s not enough of a test to qualify competitive eating as a sport in my book.

Sure, they do have to train themselves, but that involves eating increased amounts in order to expand the stomach…so you can eat more. Eating is not something that is physically testing, and the competition does not provide a difficult enough environment for the contestants to be athletically challenged.

Maybe if they made them eat while running mile things would be different (although I can’t imagine how they could deal with the cramps, remembering an old childhood rule that you should weight an hour to run, swim, etc. after you eat).

To help my view, let’s shift the focus and compare competitive eating to another activity whose status as a sport has been debated: car racing. Like competitive eating, its basic activity is not physically grueling; it doesn’t take much to drive a regular automobile.

However, considering the extremities of the environment they must compete in (significant heat, high g-force loading), their bodies are thoroughly tested, and the competitors, or drivers in this case, have to train to raise their endurance, similar to that of a marathon runner.

Competitive eating neither provides an environment that puts the human body through an extreme test (eating until you’re physically sick doesn’t count) nor does it require extensive training on the part of the participants (eating a lot doesn’t cut it as training). Therefore, competitive eating falls into the same category as poker, pool/billiards, darts, and shuffleboard: a game, but not a sport.

However, the Nathan’s contest does provide some moments of high comedy. Remembering last year, announcers Paul Page and Richard Shea proclaimed Joey Chestnut a national hero for defeating Kobayashi (even saying his picture would appear next the word “hero” in the dictionary). For sure, I had a fair chuckle after that analysis.

 So, sit back relax, and enjoy one of the most enjoyable times of the year for all sports fans, even if this particular event may not be an actual sporting event.