Is Competitive Eating Really A Sport?

What is a sport? In today’s society, the lines are blurred in defining what sport is. This is because almost any competitive activity can be considered a kind of sport. Let’s try to take on the different definitions of sports: According to Wikipedia, sports are forms of competitive physical activity in which organized or casual participants aim to use, maintain or enhance skills and physical ability, all the while providing entertainment for spectators and fellow participants. According to the Australian Sports Commission or ASC  – sport is a human activity designed to achieve some sort of goal or result which requires physical skill and exertion, which by nature is accepted as competitive and therefore accepted as a sport. The definition provided by SportAccord is the most accepted internationally; the association is the de facto representative of international sport. SportAccord provides a criteria whereby a sport should:

  • Have an element of competition
  • Not rely on any equipment provided by a single supplier
  • Not rely on luck
  • Not be harmful to other living creatures

Cross country mountain bike racing. this is a sport. Image courtesy of
Cross country mountain bike racing. This is a sport. Image courtesy of

The association also recognizes that a sport can be primarily physical or based on co-ordination, etc. With so many variations in the world of sport, there is of course an increase in the application of the term to a large set of non-physical activities and challenges, specifically in the United States where many events and strange exhibitions of physical competition are turning into “spectator sports”. One example is competitive eating.

What Is Competitive Eating?

By Wikipedia’s definition, competitive eating or speed eating is a type of sport in which competitors compete against each other to consume large quantities of food in the shortest time possible. Most eating contests are usually 8 to 10 minutes long but will not exceed 15 minutes. The participant with the most food eaten is declared the winner. This spectacle is popular in the US, Canada and Japan.

Image courtesy of
Smacking the food down with Crazy Legs Conti. Image courtesy of

A Little Bit Of History

Traditionally, eating contest were often spectacles at county fairs in many states in the US; these contests usually involved pies. Competitive eating started with a PR stunt by agents Morty Matz and Max Rosen, who organized the first annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island, 4th of July 1972 (US Independence Day).  George Shea who worked with Rosen and Matz was tasked with expanding Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest from a localized PR stunt to a national “sports” spectacle. Today, this contest is a multi-million dollar media extravaganza which has prompted the creation of a standalone league with competitors from Canada, Japan and China. In 2001, Japanese Takeru Kobayashi transformed the contest and the level of competitive eating by downing 50 hot dogs! The absurd spectacle generated media attention and ESPN sports channel did not hesitate to cash in on the event and has been airing the annual spectacle ever since. This media exposure contributed to the growth of competitive eating. The Japanese competitor held the title from 2001 to 2006 until he was dethroned by American Joey Chestnut. In 2008 they tied at 59 hot dogs each in 10 minutes. Chestnut won in at eat off in which he was the first to finish eating 5 hot dogs against Kobayashi. Chestnut holds the record of eating 69 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes while Kobayashi is a 6 time Guinness World Record holder for eating pizzas, hamburgers, hot dogs and meatballs. Women have also competed in eating contests and became instant celebrities; Miki Sudo, Sonya Thomas, Juliet Lee and Michelle Lesco to name a few.

The Governing Bodies Of Competitive Eating

Because of this media attention, organizations were able to be created in order to “professionalize” and “legalize” competitive eating as a sport.

Major League Eating (MLE)

The organization is headed by Nathan’s PR man George Shea. MLE sanctions professional competitive eating events and televised specials. MLE coordinates eating events in the United States and Canada. The organization has a partnership with ESPN until 2017.

All Pro Eating

This organization prides itself as the only independent competitive eating organization in the world and also officially sanctions most  competitive eating competitions in the US. All Pro Eating differs from Major League Eating and the IFOCE because of its strict picnic style of competitive eating and recognized organization which allows independent competitive eaters to participate in their events. Independent eaters have no contractual obligation to compete.

International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE)

IFOCE was founded by George and Richard Shea in 1992. The organization hosts almost 50 major league eating spectacles all over North America every year. The IFOCE was the first to establish organized eating contests and then evolved to Major League Eating which provides brand licensing of paraphernalia, shirts and other products.

Promoters and competitors stand by the integrity and discipline of competitive eating and believe that this phenomenon is a legitimate sport. George Shea stated that before there was no such thing as competitive eating or professional eaters. Shea argues that based on accepted definitions of “sport”, competitive eating is right on the ball. Many believe that competitive eating is the fastest growing sport. Believers of the contest also stated that competitive eating is a kind of “reverse sport” which, instead of focusing on an athlete’s physiological agility and vigor, focuses on what the human body and mind can take or accomplish. According to professional eater Bill “Wild Bill” Myers, competitive eating involved more than just eating large amounts of food. It takes precision, strategy and discipline. This kind of focus and dedication might be a reasonable reason to place competitive eating amongst other legitimate sports. It has organized leagues, it has an audience, the cash to make events happen, media mileage, meticulous training, the validity and a demanding athletic undertaking as stated by Major League Eating.

The Argument: Competitive Eating As A Legit Sport

Many people who are not sold on the idea of competitive eating say otherwise. Competitive eating is not a sport and will never be a legitimate sport. It is a spectacle, a novelty and just plain entertainment. Yes, there is an organizing body, media coverage and dedication of the competitor. Many see no point of calling competitive eating a sport because it only calls attention to gluttony and fame-hungry promoters, the false sense of pride of competitors and the excesses of the US. Michele Catalano’s blog about competitive eating will detail this argument. Although competitors are respectable citizens, the so called contest is not a sport. With just 10 minutes of ESPN time, rooting for someone to gorge on large amounts of hot dogs is not a sport.

There can be an eating competition just like dance competitions and singing competitions. Beer Pong can be a competition, but it is not a sport. There is respect to competitors because of their discipline, dedication, training and strategy, but for some, calling them legitimate athletes may require a slap to the face. Some also question why Chestnut is declared a world record holder for eating 69 hot dogs in a short amount of time. Who knows, there may be somebody else out there who can down more hot dogs than Chestnut, but have more important things to do with their life and choose to pass on the bragging rights of eating large quantities of food.

Competitive eater Juliet Lee. Image courtesy of
Competitive eater Juliet Lee. Image courtesy of

There are 6 plain and simple reason why competitive eating is not a sport:

  1. Promoted gluttony.
  2. Eating is an ordinary activity. In a normal setting, overeating is not something typically done; unless you are drunk, stoned or your frat buddies have made a bet with you.
  3. Sporting success is not earned through a non athletic skill.
  4. The effort made by Joey Chestnut in 10 minutes of gluttony and exertion is not the same as Joe Frazier boxing 15 rounds, or completing a full Iron Man competition.
  5. Purge eating is a psychiatric pathology.
  6. Many people are starving around the world. Showing gratuitous eating live is a cruel practice. Are there any reports where Major League Eating and its promoters donate money to feed hungry people in other countries or help minimize famine? NO. They are the Don King of of competitive eating.

It is quite ironic that New York promotes healthy eating, but also supports hot dog eating contests. There’s no harm in these contest per se, but eating 60 hot dogs in 10 minutes is not healthy by any standards. It is celebrating gluttony in a country where obesity is a problem. Eating is something we do to survive and to give nourishment to the body; it is not something done to see how much and how fast an individual can eat. For a true athlete, it takes precise skill, dedication and hard work. Apparently just because there are rules, a governing body, media exposure and money involved, anything can be declared a sport. Thanks to competitive eating, anyone can now call themselves world champions just because they’re the only one who ate the most number of chillies, watermelons, fried chicken, pizza, ramen, gyoza or anything edible. However, for a large number of people, competitive eating is just a curiosity, a stunt and not a sport. Think, contemplate and ask “Why?”

Image courtesy of
Eric Booker and Takeru Kobayashi. Image courtesy of

Now I need to sharpen my Beer Pong skills and techniques. Who knows, ESPN might hook me up, make beer pong a legitimate sport and make me famous.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here