More fit than fat: Should competitive eaters be considered athletes?

The idea that competitive eaters are athletes is as well accepted as the idea that hot dogs are healthy food.

Take Eric “Badlands” Booker, one of the most popular figures in the history of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. He is 6-5 and weighs 420 pounds.

“I have a long way to go to be like an athlete like a LeBron James in basketball or a Tom Brady in football” said Booker, 53. “But I know what I have to do to stay strong, to stay competitive in competitive eating.”

Booker is a throwback to the bygone days, when massive men bellied up to Nathan’s long table on Coney Island in New York and the hot dog eating commenced. This year the competitors will include a former college basketball player, a former college soccer player, a former competitive bodybuilder, a professional wrestler and a host of competitors who look more fit than fat.

Joey Chestnut, the 14-time champion at Nathan’s, is known for his signature jaw and throat exercises. He also runs rather than relying solely on his innate ability to eat massive amounts of food.

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“When I started calling myself an athlete, I started to be able to push harder,” said Chestnut, who last year set a new record when he ate 76 hot dogs and buns during the 10-minute competition. “If I call something a hobby, subconsciously you’re going to be able to put only so much energy into it. You have to go all-in. I had to go all-in and push it to the limit.”

The evolution from fat to fit began with the arrival of Takeru Kobayashi, who in 2001 astonished onlookers when he made his debut at Nathan’s. He was 5-8, weighed 128 pounds and destroyed the competition while eating 50 hot dogs.

Only later would the competitive eating world learn his secrets — drinking excessive amounts of water to stretch his stomach to hold large quantities of food; exercises to strengthen his tongue; weightlifting; and nutrition.

“He was always using his body as a testing tool and he would test things all the time on himself,” said Kobayashi’s wife, Maggie. “He realized he would be much more if he started to train and treat it as a sport. Like, treat himself as a serious athlete. That was like his lightbulb moment.”

Kobayashi, a six-time champion, stopped competing at the annual Fourth of July contest after a contract dispute with Nathan’s and Major League Eating, but his impact is clear.

The traditional athletes set to compete this year include Sophia DeVita-Gutierrez, who was the goalkeeper on the soccer team at Fairfield College from 2012-16. She said weightlifting up to six times a week and playing racquetball once a week helped prepare her for the hot dog competition. She made her debut in 2016 and said her personal hot dog-eating practices before July 4 feel like workouts.

“You’re like sprinting to eat these hot dogs in 10 minutes,” said DeVita-Gutierrez. “By the end of it, I’m exhausted. Basically like I just had a sporting event. I think most eaters who are good have to be in shape to be able to keep up.”

“Crazy Legs” Conti, who has been on the professional eating circuit for 21 years, won’t be mistaken for an elite professional athlete. But he said he has something in common with them.

“They’re working on their mind as much as getting their bodies in shape,” he said. “It’s mind over stomach matter. I know that sounds cliché, but the stomach can fill up, the mind never can. So pre-visualization. Knowing every bite, chew and swallow where you’re going to be in the contest. You don’t know how your physiology is going to feel, but you know your technique going in.”

Kobayashi said he takes satisfaction in the competitors looking more athletic and treating competitive eating as a sport.

“That’s the way I thought it would go if I treated it that way, that more people like that would come out,” he said through a translator. “And it’s what’s actually happened now.”

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