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Competitive Hot-Dog Eaters Have Made America Great Again

This Fourth of July will see the claimed 100th anniversary1 of the first Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island in New York City. For more than a decade now, the event — along with the sport of competitive eating in general — has experienced explosive growth, credited to both a broader audience and an interesting cast of competitors innovating in the field of shoving hot dogs down one’s throat.

But for all the ways the competitive eating scene now resembles a mid-major sports operation, the crown jewel of the eating calendar — now overseen by Major League Eating — has only recently begun to maintain detailed records of exactly who ate exactly what. This kind of growing pain isn’t unique to food-themed events — it’s not like we have in-depth sports statistics for the early days of baseball, after all. But at bare minimum we know who competed with whom and what the scores of those competitions were. Competitive eating is more of a mystery. Before the 1970s, the competition, if it actually existed (which it likely didn’t), has no historical record, and as recently as 1996, details as basic as the number of hot dogs consumed by the third-place competitor are lost to time, or at least stranded on some dusty old VHS cassettes. Only the dawn of the Web and a devoted fan base maintaining the scores has made even the most basic analysis possible:

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“There’s an inherent mystery to competitive eating, and we can’t know everything about what happened in the past,” said Sam Barclay, an official at Major League Eating since June 2011. “I think that’s part of the beauty of our sport.”

“Mystery” is certainly a word. One would have to comb through hundreds of press releases on the Major League Eating site to assemble a history of the event. Conveniently, we are on this internet, so of course fans of the sport have come together to maintain EatFeats, which Richard Shea, the president of Major League Eating, said in an email is “a fan board, not at all affiliated with MLE, but accurate.” Their detailed records have assimilated both the posts on the Major League Eating site — which go back to only the early 2000s — and records obtainable through the Nathan’s hot dog site and the internet archive. Still, just to show the extent of the gaps, there’s very little information for the event in the 20 years after the impromptu “rebirth” (or outright invention, depending on who you ask) of the event in the late ’70s.

Even the way Major League Eating reports official results is, for a professional sports league, unconventional: For the past three years, Barclay said, the official event results have been tweeted as the way of officially entering the achievement into the annals of history.

So, back to that chart: What on earth happened around 2004? The Nathan’s official hot dog, I have been assured by a number of people, didn’t change. Why did humanity suddenly get really, really good at eating hot dogs? Why isn’t it incremental change, like we see in other sports like sprinting?

“We know how to run fast for 100 meters, and we’ve known that for time immemorial,” Barclay said. “When it comes to competitive eating, we have these quantum leaps in success because our eaters are working out things that no one else has worked out before.”

Yes, competitive eating is apparently as cerebral as it is masticatory. Controlling for breathing, water consumption, consuming the hot dog in a different way — all of these can lead to a massive competitive advantage. To see the profound effect creative thinking can have on the event, one must only look to Takeru Kobayashi, the Japanese phenom who managed to double the Nathan’s record in 2001 through a blend of stretches, training, dunking the dogs in water before cramming them in, and breaking the hot dogs in half to ease consumption. It was the Fosbury Flop of franks. But just like we see in other sports, competitive advantages don’t stay that way for long, and soon become just the way the sport is played.

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So we aren’t sure exactly how large shifts in performance came about, and that’s at least in part because, once again, we aren’t quite sure what’s happened. Consider: We have more information about the last six years of the event than we do for the first purported 94. And in competitive eating, new world records are essentially commonplace. Strictly in the five years Barclay’s been working there, one Nathan’s record has been tied and two new ones set. Just in the time I spent researching this story, Joey Chestnut set a competition record at a Washington, D.C., qualifier on June 25, with 73.5 dogs in 10 minutes.

The popularity of the event — it will once again be on ESPN this year, and my colleagues at ESPN Stats & Information Group inform me that reigning champ Matt Stonie is the favorite to win with 1-to-2 odds — has led to a growth in the field, with competitors like Sonya Thomas,2 currently the fifth-ranked eater alive and the three-time winner of the women’s competition, emerging from relative obscurity to the top of the pack.

“There’s people out there who don’t know the gifts they’ve got,” Barclay said. “We don’t know how many Sonya Thomases there are out there, sleeper agents for a future that has even better competitive eating.”

This puts competitive eating at the kind of crossroad at which sports like mixed martial arts have found themselves, with the room for innovation in method being exploited at the same time that a growing talent pool makes forecasting the upward limits of human potential — the hypothetical two-hour-marathon of wursts — a dicey proposition. Twenty years ago, when the Nathan’s record was just more than 23 hot dogs, who would have thought that 50 was possible? Ten years ago, when the record was just more than 53 hot dogs, who would have thought we’d reach the heights of 70?

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“History makes a mockery of those who doubt the human spirit,” said Barclay, regarding the maximum number of hot dogs a person can eat in 10 minutes. “We’ve known this for a long, long time. Whether it’s sports, arts, culture science. In terms of the ceiling, I don’t know if there is a ceiling.”

Footnotes

  1. It is probably not actually the 100th anniversary, the ’70s were weird.

  2. While the competition was originally coed, in 2011 Nathan’s split off the women’s competition. That’s why you see two finals per year in the above charts. Before that, Thomas had been a regular presence in the top of the field regardless.

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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