How do you keep score in the country’s most unusual sport?
When announcers last July declared Joey Chestnut the winner of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, spectators had little reason to doubt the score: 64 dogs in 10 minutes.
They considered tracking consumption by weighing plates and even placing microchips on contestants’ tongues.
But the judges — unable to clearly view the contestants’ plates amid all the cups on the table, and overwhelmed by the eaters’ ability to scarf two or three frankfurters at a time — had undercounted Chestnut by 10 dogs, briefly robbing him of a new world record.
Although judges quickly corrected the score and handed Chestnut his world record, the error caused a small scandal. And it sent organizers of the annual Fourth of July contest scrambling for solutions to avoid a repeat.
They ultimately settled on a third option, just in time for this year’s Independence Day competition: A clutter-free contest table and cameras recording every angle in case they need an instant replay.
In the world of competitive eating, where chili is weighed to the third decimal, and even a quarter of a hot dog could make or break a world record, how to keep score is a perennially tricky question.
“It’s a little harder than you’d think,” said George Shea, co-founder of competitive eating’s governing body, Major League Eating. “It is almost impossible to count as they eat because they’re going so fast and it’s so chaotic.”
MLE-sanctioned events take place every weekend in various locations across the country, and the diversity of foods featured at these contests is astonishing in both breadth and depth.
“We’ve done sweet corn, we’ve done hot dogs, we’ve done oysters,” Shea said. “That’s just this weekend. The question is, what is the unit? The unit may literally be a pretzel versus the weight of a pretzel. Hard boiled eggs may not be exactly uniform egg to egg, but over time we assume that they are.”
Take chicken wings. The Wing Bowl, an annual event held in Philadelphia every year since 1993 in honor of the Eagles, regularly draws crowds of 20,000.
Last year, champion eater Molly Schuyler — a mother of four from Nebraska who holds records for hamburger meat (3.4 pounds in 1 minute and 25 seconds flat) and pumpkin pie (48 slices in 10 minutes) — won by eating a record-setting 501 wings in a half-hour.
That’s according to the records of Wing Bowl judges, who count by sight. It is not an MLE-sanctioned event. If it were, Shea would approach it differently.
He believes the best way to measure wings is by weight. Years ago, Shea led a study to measure the average amount of wing meat on each wing, minus bone.
“I love those guys, I love that contest,” Shea said, “but they wouldn’t allow us to weigh the wings.”
At 30 minutes long, the Wing Bowl is akin to a marathon in the competitive eating world, where most competitions last 10 minutes or less.
The sprint is the Hooters World Wing Eating Championship. In June, first-place winner Geoffrey Esper of Massachusetts consumed an average of 28 wings per minute. It’s the fastest rate ever achieved at any of the three major wing-eating contests in recent memory.
Yet other competitive eaters believe so-called “detritus foods” — items with bones and pits, like wings and corn — test a person’s skill at getting meat off the bone, not their ability to eat.
“It’s only testing speed,” said Tim “Eater X” Janus, a former competitive eater who holds world records for ramen (10.5 pounds in 8 minutes) and sushi (141 pieces in 6 minutes). “It’s not testing your discomfort level, your capacity.”
“Some of those things, too, the judging can be terrible,” Janus said. “The corn judging is horrendous.”
Neither are world records very useful at comparing eaters. Add up all the records maintained by the sport’s two governing bodies — Major League Eating and All Pro Eating — and some of the world’s most famous champions, such as Japanese competitor Takeru Kobayashi, don’t even make the top 10.
Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, who holds at least 32 world eating records, excels at jalapenos. The Chicago native holds the world record for eating pickled jalapenos, consuming 275 of them in 8 minutes in 2011.
But jalapeno poppers, their fried brethren? That record goes to Chestnut, who ate 118 poppers in 10 minutes in 2006.
When it comes to the world champion of pizza-eating, that depends on whether you’re counting Pizza Hut P’Zones (7.5 of them, 10 minutes, Joey Chestnut), 10-inch pizzas (83 slices, 10 minutes, Geoffrey Esper), or nine-inch personal pizzas (19 ¼ pies, 10 minutes, also Geoffrey Esper).
Strange feats abound. The world record for chili is 2 ½ gallons. More than 18 pounds of shrimp cocktail in Indianapolis.
Only one man holds the world record for eating mayonnaise — Oleg Zhornitskiy, who on a 2002 Fox network special called the “Glutton Bowl” once ate 8 pounds of the condiment in 8 minutes. Zhornitskiy holds no other records, according to Major League Eating.
So how do you determine who’s the best in a sport as diverse as competitive eating? For the most serious competitors, the gold standard remains Nathan’s. And the best in the game remains Chestnut.
“It’s Joey Chestnut until he is beaten in Nathan’s,” said the competitive-eating enthusiast behind EatFeats.com, a person who goes by the Seinfield-inspired pseudonym O.J. Rifkin. “A Molly Schuyler versus Chestnut contest would be very interesting, especially in a long-duration competition.”
The contest, which has followed roughly the same format since 1972, captured public attention in 2001 when then-rookie Kobayashi ate 50 hot dogs in one sitting — doubling the previous record.
But a contract dispute with Major League Eating prompted Kobayashi to leave Nathan’s for good in 2009.
Since then, the sport has been dominated by 35-year-old Chestnut, who will seek to break his 74-dog record this Independence Day.
As competitive eaters push themselves to increasingly bigger goals, some question how much more they can stomach.
Janus, who retired from competitive eating due to health concerns, said he isn’t sure the human body can go much further.
He became concerned about the effects on his stomach, which he stretched by chugging gallons of water and puking it up, sometimes daily.
“I think we’re definitely scratching the surface around 80 hot dogs,” Janus said. “The only way to get a higher number is to have someone who’s just a bigger person with a bigger frame and bigger organs.”
“If Shaquille O’Neal were to dedicate himself to hot dogs, then that guy would be amazing.”