On Monday around 12:30 p.m., a surprising number of spectators will watch the infamous Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest from home on ESPN, or live at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island, Brooklyn: to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the contest that started in 1916.
But has it really been 100 years? There’s a lot more evidence to suggest the famed story was a Mad Men style PR stunt in the ‘70s than there is proof of the legend.
The company proudly tells the story of Nathan Handwerker, who opened up a Coney Island hot-dog stand with $300 he borrowed from a friend after emigrating from Poland in 1916. Legend has it, an Irish immigrant named James Mullen was randomly walking down the boardwalk looking to prove how American he was, so he naturally challenged a group of people to a hot dog eating contest, because what could be more American than that?
Apparently small contests were held periodically after that but the whole thing didn’t really take off until the ‘80s, and now it’s a full-fledged sport with techniques, training regimens, and records constantly being broken. Last year, Matthew Stonie ate 62 hot dogs to upset Joey Chestnut’s 60, but Chestnut still holds the world record for 69 hot dogs, which he set in 2013.
That story is good and all, but it’s most likely a marketing scam, invented solely to give the company more notoriety after an initial public offering.
“Our objective was to take a photograph and get it in the New York newspaper, Wayne Norbitz, who served as president of Nathan’s for 26 years and still sits on the board of directors, told The Japan Times.
Norbitz says the first contests actually happened in 1972 and they were very small affairs.
“We’d honestly wait for a couple of fat guys to walk by and ask them if they wanted to be in a hot dog contest,” he said.
So, enjoy the sight of grown men and women dunking hot dogs in water and then gargling them down their throats, evidently people enjoy that. Just know that this year is really their 44 year anniversary – and the true 100th won’t be until 2072.