In 1984, the winner of the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest was a 17 year-old, 130-pound German Judo athlete named Brigit Feldman.
She had never eaten an American hot dog before she claimed the title with 9.5 hotdogs in ten minutes. Flash forward to 2001, and Japanese competitor Takeru Kobayashi doubled the existing hot dog eating record from 25 hot dogs consumed in 12 minutes to 50 hot dogs over the same time period.
If you want to see how fast sport can push the limits of human performance, you don't have to look much further than a speed-eating competition.
The Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, which takes place each July 4 on Coney Island, seems like a silly game, but if the exponential performance gains achieved in fewer than 20 years prove anything, it's that it's already become a serious competition.
According to a recent paper in the journal Biological Letters, the limit appears to be 84 hot dogs. The current world record is only 75.
James Smoliga is the author of that paper and a scientist who studies sports medicine at High Point University. He has studied 39 years of Nathan's Hot Dog Competition data that has him convinced that competitive eating is a sport, and it has room to get even more competitive.
"I think this is just the beginning," Smoliga says.
What makes competitive eating a sport – The Nathan's Hot Dog eating contest has followed a competitive trend-line that has defined many of our most physically taxing sports, from marathoning to the 100 meter.
"I saw that there is this pattern where initially in a sport, a world has slow incremental changes, people are just chipping away a little bit at a time," says Smoliga. Then, as more people take up the sport, financial incentives increase or training becomes the norm, performance skyrockets before leveling off.
When Smoliga looked for that pattern at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, he found it. "Lo and behold, it fit perfectly." It even seemed to be progressing extremely quickly.
The winning "active consumption rate" at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest (how many grams one person can eat) has increased 700 percent in less than 40 years, Smoliga's paper notes. For mainstream sports, world record performances have only progressed by a median of about 40 percent "since the inception of world record recognition" which, for most sports, is 1922.
Ultimately, that's indicative of the fact that competitive hot dog eaters are treating themselves like athletes – they're training to win. In doing so, pushing the limits of human consumption ever upward towards the theoretical limit (84 hot dogs).
That, in itself, helps bolster the idea that competitive hot dog eating is a sport, something that Smolida has thought "long and hard about."
The Michael Jordan of hot-dog eating – If we're talking about the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, the Michael Jordan is clear: Joey Chestnut has won every competition since 2007 except for the 2015 competition. He's also the world record holder: In 2020, he ate 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
No hall of fame is complete without Takeru Kobayashi who doubled the world record in 2001 (He has since not appeared at the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest since 2009 reportedly due to conflicts with Major League Eating, the sport's governing body).
On the women's side, Miki Sudo has been the Champion since 2014. She holds the women's world record of 48.5 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
Competitive eating is still so new — It's hard to know exactly what makes a champion (beyond a stretched stomach, which is the result of rigorous training). There is probably a size advantage – "Big men seem to have dominated the early years of televised competition," a 2014 paper on competitive eating notes. However Kobayashi weighed in at only 105 pounds, was known for a rigorous bodybuilding routine, and "distinctly professional push to competitive eating" that paper notes.
Physicality aside, the mental component perhaps sets competitors apart. As Chestnut he notes on his website: "It's about drive and dedication, and at the end of the day, competitive eating challenges both my body and my mind."
The spirit of competitive eating – If anything has defined the past 39 years of the Nathan's Hot Dog eating contest, it's an astronomical rise from a silly festival game to a sport over a short period of time, going by Smoliga's research. But unlike some traditional sports, we're probably not anywhere near the limit of human performance in competitive eating.
It's a controversial question, but there is mathematical evidence suggesting that the pace of world-record breaking does slow as we reach the true limit of biological human performance. (That's in the absence of drugs and as long as no game-changing technology like super-fast swimsuits.)
That line of thinking suggests that records will plateau over time, but that hinges on the idea that the sport is widely played and accessible to those who may one day become elites as Nate Silver points out in analysis of record-breaking at the Beijing and London Olympics. In sports like track, odds are that someone with the right combination of skill and biology to break that record has already taken up the game and trained in the right way to do so.
For instance, 2008 paper on 13 track and field sports suggested that there was still room for improvement in sports men's shotput, javelin and "especially" the women's marathon. That same paper we are nearing the ceiling for sports like the men's marathon, and the 800 and 1500 meter for women.
"There's not a whole lot of people that are trying to down as many hotdogs as they can in 10 minutes."
It's possible we've entered the plateau phase of competitive hot dog eating, at least for the reigning champions. In 2020, Chestnut was only able to top his 2020 record of 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes by one hot dog, after all.
There's still a lot of untapped talent out there, so it's not clear if we have hit that sweet spot of widespread participation and specialization that can push us to the absolute limits of human performance in competitive eating
"There's not a whole lot of people that are trying to down as many hotdogs as they can in 10 minutes," says Smoliga. "I think if you had thousands of people training for this, and they were really taking it seriously like Joey Chestnut does, I think you would start to see it would be a lot more competitive."
There are likely many more dramatic record-shattering moments in competitive hot dog eating ahead of us.
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