The Personalities of Competitive Eating

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Brooklyn, UNITED STATES: Joey Chestnut (L) of San Jose, California celebrates winning the annual International July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest by holding a plate of 66 hot dogs and buns with an unidentifed official, 04 July 2007, at the original Nathan?s Famous restaurant in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, NY. Chestnut won by eating 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes, a world record, beating defending and six-time champion Takeru Kobayashi of Nagano, Japan. The initial count was tied at 63 after the 12 minutes, but judges awarded Chestnut 3 more hot dogs after counting their plates. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Joey Chestnut (Photo Credit: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

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Athletes are athletes, and you can’t ignore the pure talent displayed when they perform a skill. You also can’t ignore the athletes of Major League Eating (MLE). The lights on the competitive eating stage have been shining brighter and multiplying in number over the past decade. Before long, even the quiet, unassuming diamonds will shine bright.

Take Joey Chestnut for instance, the Mohammad Ali of competitive eating. Just five or six years ago, he was a random San Jose University graduate with a weird hobby. Now, he’s at least as famous as the fifth Backstreet Boy or the double rainbow guy from YouTube. In all seriousness, competitive eating is growing, and just like any sport, you’ve got your Dennis Rodmans and Terrell Owens, and your Tim Duncans and Marvin Harrisons.

NEW YORK - DECEMBER 03: Professional eater Eater X competes in the seafood eating contest for "The Slammin' Salmon" film release kick off at the City Crab on December 3, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Eater X (Photo Credit: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Crazy Legs Conti falls more on the Dennis Rodman side. Of all the figures in the business, he has perhaps been the one to most successfully unlock the door to the coveted passageway which transforms the event into entertainment. He dons costumes, riles up the crowds, cherishes the spectacle and embraces the press. A&E aired a documentary centered on him, entitled “Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating.” Several of the other eaters, like Eater X (Tim Janus), who paints a mask on his face for every competition, will join in on the festive side of the competitions.

But many prefer to fly under the radar. Sean Gordon, Juliet Lee and Jim Reeves are a few of the more unassuming that simply go about their business of winning. They join in the sport because they love it, it’s fun and they have a chance to get paid to eat.

When it comes to the IFOCE (International Federation Of Competitive Eating), comparisons to other professional sports can only travel so far. There is a spirit of levity and humor woven into the very fabric of its culture. When you’re dealing with an event that involves consuming grotesque quantities of food, not all of which makes it in nor remains in the mouth and stomach, it’s hard to maintain a serious disposition of dignified decorum without appearing pompous and presumptuous.

"Professional eater" Juliet Lee of Hong Kong eats wontons during an eating competition in Hong Kong on November 27, 2011. The event attracted some 310 participants (244 men and 66 women) attempting to eat as many wontons as possible in eight minutes.

Juliet Lee (Photo Credit: Dale de la Rey/AFP/Getty Images)

IFOCE encourages its, shall we call them ‘players,’ to operate in a spirit of fun. And it’s under the guise and concession of this self-deprecating identity that events and their hosts can freely ham up the intensity and weightiness of the spectacle. This appropriately marketed tone of tongue-in-cheek fun/intensity has helped catapult the events and their participants to a larger stage faster than would have been possible without the balanced infusion of both elements.

The light-hearted atmosphere, cultivated over the years, has had a formational impact on molding the colorful character identities of so many of the eaters. Most have assumed or, without their input, been assigned nicknames, and have played into the showmanship dimension of the competitive eating circus. Therefore, even those players who might otherwise have felt inclined to retreat into the shadows are supplied with superhero-like personas and encouraged to wear unique costume gear to match their titles.

If you wish to enter the world of competitive eating, perhaps one of the most compelling starting points is to begin crafting your own legend of origin. There’s no creativity ceiling. The official league bio for “Erik the Red Denmark” describes him as a “Viking who murdered an Icelandic man he caught by his fire stealing cedar planks.” Maybe you come from a rigidly ascetic upbringing, centered around the denial of Hostess Twinkies. Or perhaps you were thrust into this sphere as an eating child prodigy and are still searching for a way to make it your own. People from lost worlds, time travelers, minotaurs and scientologists, it turns out, often make the best competitive eaters. You can do it too.

Read more about Competitive Eating.

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Justin Poythress has a prodigious palate enjoying all things food, from the fast to the extreme. His work and latest food adventures can be found on Examiner.com.

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