New Sport On The Horizon

I doubt seriously whether many of you have ever heard of the International Federation of Competitive Eating but maybe you should acquaint yourselves with this organization because it looks like it is ready to break big time onto the American sports scene. The organization is better known in Japan than elsewhere in the world because that is where this gluttonous "sport" was born, but it seems to hold a particular fascination for for spectators everywhere and you remember how a lot of us used to laugh at wrestling and look at how it appeals to much of the younger generation. I don't plan to get hung up on whether the activity is a true sport or not. Let's just call it competitive entertainment even though the Federation says they hope to eventually become an Olympic sport. They use as one of the arguments for inclusion that synchronized swimming and flag waving have been accepted as Olympic sports so why not competitive eating. They may have a valid point here.

Let me give you a little background on how I became aware of this emerging phenomenon.

Several weeks ago I went with a friend and his teenage son to the "Pool Room" in Fredericksburg for them to enjoy, for the first time, an example of a good old fashioned hot dog. The "Pool Room" is located in downtown Fredericksburg and is the oldest eatery in Fredericksburg.

I was trying to establish rapport with the son whom I have not known for very long so as I saw him thoroughly enjoying the dogs I said to him that I would give him, at a later date, $20 if he could eat 5 hot dogs at one sitting. The purpose of the exercise was to present the kid with a challenge to see how he would respond to it and hopefully to provide him with some guidance on how to assess a challenge in the future. Heady stuff, huh.

At first, I was somewhat concerned because he quickly said he felt he could do it and would accept my challenge. I tried to caution him about reacting too quickly because I wanted him to think it out before he became hopelessly committed to acceptance of the challenge.

We talked on and I told him there would be a couple of simple rules which he accepted with no difficulty. One of the rules was there would be a 30 minute time limit and a second one was that he had to hold down the dogs for at least 15 minutes after the time limit was up. He was told that he could choose the location of where the challenge would take place and we agreed to talk later and finalize arrangements for the show down.

I received an e-mail a couple of days later in which he confirmed his acceptance of the challenge but he wanted to know if he could leave chili off the hot dogs. I told him that the dogs would have to be identical to the ones he had at the Pool Room and explained that to allow him to leave off the chili would be comparable to me wanting to add slaw. He accepted my logic and we were ready to go. In the meantime, it had occurred to me that there was a missing element in the situation I was presenting to him. He had nothing to lose so I gave him a choice of a) $20 prize and I would pay for the dogs or b) $30 prize and he would pay for the dogs. He accepted b. I later gave him a third choice which he rejected and that was to call the whole thing off and I would give him a $10 prize.

He chose Jack and Jill's in Charlottesville to hold the challenge and "we got there about dinner time on a Saturday." Sounds a little like "What It Was Was Football", doesn't it? My apologies Andy.

He ordered the dogs at three different times and I think later on he regretted doing this because the time spent preparing the dogs counted again his clock. He came out of the gate strong and at the 3 dog point I thought he had an excellent shot at reaching 5. But as any runner knows, the last 100 yards is not like the first 100 yards and mid way through the 4th dog I sensed he was in some difficulty. He made it through the 4th one, however, and only 1 more dog stood between him and the prize. The clock kept ticking though and his thirty minutes ran out. I then made a modified challenge by giving him an additional 15 minutes but reducing the prize to $20. Remember this was an exercise designed to teach the kid something that hopefully would be useful later in life, not an exercise solely to see if he could down the dogs.

As he started on the 5th dog I knew he was not in some difficulty, he was in trouble. He went outside and sat on a bench and proceeded at a much slower pace than at the beginning. I didn't ask him if he went outside because he was afraid he might throw up and he didn't volunteer any information in this regard. He got all of the 5th dog down with the exception of about 2 bites and then he just sat there and looked at what remained. After a few minutes he closed the lid on the Styrofoam container, reached over and dropped it into the trash can and announced to the world what we already knew He acknowledged he couldn't finish what remained of the 5th dog. Frankly speaking, I think he could have downed what remained but I'm not at all sure he could have kept it down. It's one thing to lose but another thing to lose without dignity.

It was obvious he was deflated after failing to meet the challenge and his father and I tried to console him by saying that even though he had not "won", we thought he had done well and had probably exceeded what most adults could have done. I don't believe he believed us at first but as we started back to Richmond I think he started to think better about his performance and by the time we got home I think he was pretty much over the agony of defeat. I gave him $10 to cover the cost of the dogs and I think that made him feel a little better.

Now you may wonder what this story has to do with the International Federation of Competitive Eating and I'm aiming to tell you. The only problem is that I am going to have to do it in Part 2 because this one has run so long. I will close for now by listing two things that I learned from the challenge I have described and they are:

1. Everyone I have told this story to has been very interested and therein may lie the secret to the sport's increasing popularity. There seems to be something involved that people can relate to. Sort of like NASCAR and the fact that most fans drive cars. How many people in this country have NOT eaten a hot dog.

2. Most, if not all males, I have encountered over estimate the number hot dogs they can eat at one sitting. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's something to do with testosterone. I remember one conversation I had with a friend who insisted he could eat 12.  When I expressed my doubts that he could consume that many, he expressed surprise that I was questioning his claim.  Finally in desperation to end the conversation, I asked him what was the largest number he had ever consumed at one sitting. He said 5 and I rested and still rest my case.

It's ironic that the very next week after the showdown in Charlottesville, the kid's father, who had been supportive of the challenge, called me one night and said, "Quick, turn on the Discovery Channel. I think there's something on that you will be interested in." That turned out to be the understatement of the year because there was a program airing on competitive eating which led to my introduction to the International Federation of Competitive Eating. While the program was about eating of various foods, most of it centered on the hotdog eating contest which takes place each July 4th at Coney Island and the events leading up to it.

I have tried over the years to keep up with that spectacle of hot dog consumption but information in the past has been pretty hard to come by with the exception of the coverage it gets on July 4th. I would always commit the current record to memory and talk about it occasionally with friends but that was the extent of it. The internet has changed all that.

I have learned, for example, that you can't just enter the Coney Island competition, you have to qualify just as in many other forms of athletic competition. There are regional competitions around the country, the two nearest North Carolina and Virginia being Philadelphia and Atlanta. That should change in the near future if I am reading the situation correctly.

The record for number of hot dogs consumed in 12 minutes until 2 years ago was 23 and 1/8. I believe the TV program is 1 year behind current records but that point is not completely clear. At any rate, when the Japanese entered the competition, the world of hot dog consumption was turned upside down. The number of dogs eaten by the 135 lb. Japanese youth at the competition being filmed was 50 which was 19 over the second place finisher who had 31. A Japanese female finished 3rd and the U.S. top finisher had 22. Now think about that for a minute. Do you know of any other form of competition where the winner's score was more than two times the second place finisher and more than two times the existing world's record? That would be roughly comparable to someone high jumping 20 feet or running a 2 minute mile. It is simply mind boggling and the U.S. contestants were appropriately in shock.

The U.S. competitors vow to wrest the title from the Japanese but they don't offer any explanation of how they plan to do it. Just trying harder won't cut it in this situation.

You might wonder how in the world this young Japanese champion manages to perform such a gastronomical feat and the film attempts to explore some of the variables involved. They consulted physiologists and nutritionists for help and some light was shed on how he is able to do it. First, capacity increases if the competitor is standing. This might make a difference in some situations but not at Coney Island where all the contestants were standing. Secondly, there are two points in the eating process where the individual is not in control. Bodily functions control the pace and I won't bother you with a medical explanation of where they are but I will say that the contestants have discovered how to reduce the bodily function rate by one half. This could add up over a 12 minute period. A medical doctor says that for an individual to hold 50 hot dogs, he would have to have consumed a large number many times before to stretch the stomach. I have the feeling the Japanese gentleman has had a lot of practice downing dogs.

There were a couple of things involved in the "Japanese technique" that warrant mentioning. First, the dog is taken from the bun and folded so that when it goes into the mouth, it looks like two dogs and Second, the bun is dipped in water to ease passage through the esophagus. This is now referred to as "Japanesing" the hot dog bun.

What does the future hold for this new "sport?" After giving the matter much thought I have decided it is perfect for intercollegiate competition and it offers some potential for me to serve as a coach at Carolina before I check out. It could start slowly at first, sort of like the rowing team and we would call it a club and wouldn't ask for any funds from the Athletic Department. We would get someone like Jesse Jones or Beefmaster franks to sponsor us. School sponsorship will come later. No scholarships but we might need a special practice facility because you can expect some accidents during practice. Maybe we could do what Matt Doherty did and just place several trash cans around for those who need them. O.K. scratch the need for a special facility.

After a few seasons as a club, certainly we would want varsity status, uniforms, scholarships and all the other trappings that go with varsity sports. We might forego the training table for obvious reasons but I need to give that more thought.

The contests themselves would be just as exciting as football or basketball games. The cheerleaders could stand behind each team member and hold up cards to show the total consumed with the head cheerleader holding up a card with the running total for the team. There would be 15 minute quarters with no time outs and a different team would compete for each quarter only. Think of the close ups the jumbotron could provide while the competition is ongoing and everybody could sing Aye Zigga Zoomba to cheer the contestants on. It could spread to high schools and then we could recruit like we do in other sports to represent the University in regional competition, at first and then national playoffs. There could be summer camps and bowl games too. There could be both men's and women's teams or they could be the first sport, with a few exceptions, to have both sexes on the same team.

I'm not sure exactly what extreme sports are but it seems to me this would qualify. If you don't think they are increasing in popularity then you don't talk to teenagers very much. I guess it would be more appropriate to use BBQ rather than hot dogs in this part of the country but we would encounter regional differences and besides, who would want to compete with the North Carolina teams if the competition was in consuming BBQ. It would be no contest.

While I've had a lot of fun horsing around with this idea, please don't think I have completely lost my marbles. You might, however, react differently if you could have seen the film of the actual competition and things do change, you know. Whatever happened to collegiate boxing? Do cheerleaders lead cheers anymore? There are a few still around who remember when boxing in college was very popular and UNC, at one time, had an outstanding boxing program. It would take some adjustment by many people but the most puzzling question for me is whether it would result in decreased hot dog sales by the concessionaires.

See you at the first contest against State. I can't wait. I'll be the one with the white hair and expanded waist line standing near the contestants. Come by and say howdy after the match and let's have a dog together. Or 2...or 3...or however many you can handle.