A lot more work goes into competitive eating contests than simply cooking enough hot dogs for competitors to eat. We talked on the phone with George Shea, chairman and co-founder of Major League Eating, the organization that oversees many of the world’s biggest eating events, to get a look behind the scenes.
While you might know the league for the world-famous Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Contest, held annually at Coney Island on the Fourth of July, they host many competitive eating contests around the world, throughout the year. According to Shea, the League “provides a critical component: It’s real. We judge the events. They’re safe with EMTs on hand. The records are accurate, and we have helped to foster some great athletes.”
Tailgate Fan: What is your role in Major League Eating?
George Shea: My role is focused on the event, the creative elements. It’s oriented towards hosting and publicity. I run media relations. As a result, I do things that I think are interesting, like the best way to eat chicken wings. If it’s interesting or funny, that’s what we go after.
TGF: Have you competed in any eating contests?
GS: I tried one time and failed miserably. I realized it’s much more difficult than I thought.
TGF: I read the biographies of a few of the top competitive eaters and they come from all over the world with unique backgrounds. How would you describe professional competitive eaters? What’s the common link?
GS: These people are competitive. That is the unifying factor. They do not want to lose. They prepare in advance, they find the best way to manage the food. Like any extreme athlete, they prepare. When they lose, it’s not pretty. It’s not a lark. It drives them nuts.
TGF: Why does the League discourage at-home training?
GS: We are extremely focused, and always have been, on safety. If we have an event anywhere, we have an EMT there. We don’t do events for anyone under the age 18 or if everyone’s been drinking. We try to create a safe environment. We’re constantly working on a safe environment and at-home training isn’t safe.
TGF: What should people know before participating in their first competitive eating contest?
GS: It’s much more difficult than they think, and they may think they’re a big eater but they’re not a big eater in the Major League world. But every once in a while, they’re just great. The thing about our events is they’re exciting, the crowds are fun, and there’s lots of media. The eaters become hooked because it’s almost like the X Games.
TGF: Major League Eating has a number of events for contests that include Twinkies, hot dogs, brats and tamales, among other types of food. Is there any type of food the League won’t sanction for a contest?
GS: Anything like ghost peppers. They’re really, really hot. We’re not going to do that to our eaters. It’s not Fear Factor. The rule of thumb is that kitchen cabinet food is fair game, so we might have oysters or mayo.
TGF: Would you call competitive eating a sport?
GS: Without question, yes. Eaters prepare for an event, they consider themselves athletes, they prepare.
TGF: Out of 60 total participants listed on the Eater Rankings page on Major League Eating’s website, about 10 are women. Why is it lopsided?
GS: It is less lopsided than it used to be. Socially, women don’t consider themselves big eaters and probably thought there was a stigma attached to being a big eater. We used to have only one or two women and now we have some great eaters. I think that’s changing and we definitely seem to have accelerated in the last few years.