In summer, I prefer playing sports to watching them on TV, but I did find myself riveted to the flat screen the other day, witnessing one of the most amazing athletic competitions I've ever seen.
The finals at Wimbledon? The pre-Olympic trials for U.S. women's gymnastics? No, it was the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest — the Super Bowl of competitive eating — and I simply couldn't take my eyes off 42-year-old Sonya Thomas as she pounded down her 39th, 40th and 41st hot dog. It was a miracle! They must have been kosher.
Sonya's gorging technique is the stuff of stars. Sonya crammed the hot dogs into her normal-size mouth with both hands, jumping up and down to move the megawad past her throat, down her legendary esophagus, into her amazing expandable stomach.
The average human stomach is the size of two fists, so you've really got to hand it to Sonya — whose nickname, by the way, is The Black Widow (I'm not sure why, but it's perfect for the web). By the time her 10 minutes were up, Sonya had shoved in 45 hot dogs, and let's not forget the 45 buns, which she dunked in water before sending them down the chute. Keeping it all down is part of the magic.
The ability to relax your throat and expand your stomach to the size of a chateau in France is the hallmark of a competitive eater, I learned later. Competitive eaters do risk their stomachs exploding, but these guys and gals take their training very seriously. "It's like running a marathon," one commentator said — and most of them are athletic, of average weight and, of course, nuts.
Sonya, still jumping up and down, still digesting her huge victory, was very excited after her win. She's ranked fourth in the world — a "multi-food sensation" who is also a world champion in crayfish eating — and not only was this her second win in a row, it was a personal best. The woman who placed second only managed to eat 33 hot dogs and buns. Pathetic. Off camera, she was probably eating crow, while Sonya went on to explain the secret of her success.
"It's all mental," she told the reporter from ESPN2. Sonya set a goal, pictured herself eating 45 hot dogs in 10 minutes, and then, in competition, did it for real.
See how important goal-setting is? Visualization? See what you can learn on a hot summer's day just sitting at home watching wacky sports on ESPN2? I can hardly wait for the Olympics.
After the female hot dog eaters competed, it was the guys' turn. A trim-looking fellow named Joey Chestnut — the favorite, who holds 27 world records — won his competition by eating 65 hot dogs in 10 minutes, a jaw dropping 20 more than Sonya. According to information on the Nathan's website, each hot dog has 290 calories, 17 grams of fat and 710 milligrams of sodium.
If my very rough calculations are correct, in 10 minutes Joey Chestnut consumed enough calories and suspicious nutrients to feed 1,000 youngsters in Texas who don't know where their next meal is coming from. Go Joey!
I saw a picture of Champion Chestnut mixing it up with the fans just minutes after his impressive victory. Naturally, he was all smiles, and in his hand — I am not making this up — was a bottle of hot pink Pepto-Bismol. I wouldn't be surprised if that's Joey's sponsor. I don't really want to know.
When I finally found the strength to turn off the TV, I was speechless. But not for long. This is so gross! This is a tribute to the indomitable human spirit! This is our civilization in decline, eating uncontrollably, unable to throw up to our leaders what needs to be done in the face of our current obesity crisis. This is our world gone mad, I finally decided; so many kids and their parents going to bed hungry, while others feed their faces for the glory of it.
And 2 million people were watching on ESPN2. If they call it "The Hunger Games," they might get even more next year.
ENERGY EXPRESS-O! WE'RE REALLY IN A PICKLE
"I think (competitive eating contests) speak to people suffering from the literal and symbolic consequences of consumerism." — Adrienne Rose Johnson, author of "Magic Metabolisms: Competitive Eating and the Formation of an American Bodily Idea."