Inside the stomachchurning world of competitive eating
Deep within the folds of hip London eatery Meat Liquor, neon lights icker, music booms from speakers and the stench of barbecued meat hangs thick in the air. As waitresses contort between diners brandishing trays the size of tractor tyres, there’s not a vacant chair in sight and a queue grows ever longer outside. Yet such hullabaloo is mere white noise compared to today’s main attraction – a 6’ ” man mountain from Missouri stopping by for lunch.
He’s not hard to spot, either. Striding into the restaurant dressed head to toe in his own-branded sportswear and anked by a sixstrong documentary crew, 2 -year-old Randy Santel approaches the table where a few eager spectators have already assembled and retrieves some industrial sized cutlery from his backpack, before stopping to pose for photos with two female fans who have travelled halfway down the country just to say hello. It’s the kind of entrance you’d expect from a lm star, or perhaps a Premier League footballer. But then, Randy Santel is indeed an athlete, albeit one whose biggest asset is his cavernous stomach.
On a 2-date culinary tour of the United Kingdom – by the end of which he will have consumed over 200,000 calories – Santel’s visit here is on of cial business, to tackle a challenge he hopes will form win No 2 6, as he takes the eld in a sport rapidly growing around the world competitive eating.
On the menu today is Meat Liquor’s Triple Chilli Challenge a , 20 calorie meal featuring a chilli con carne-covered hot dog, a burger stuffed with jalapeno peppers and a large helping of fries buried under yet more spicy beef chilli, all covered in cheese and drizzled with bright yellow mustard. The feast weighs 1.6kg and costs 2 (Dhs1 0), but is free if competitors nish within ten-minutes. It sounds big enough to feed an entire family. However, Santel doesn’t look fazed. This is a man who’s always had an appetite for the extreme.
Weighing a gigantic 2 -stone when playing American football at Missouri State University, portly Santel would’ve been deemed morbidly obese by the reckoning of any doctor, yet could convert his size into freakish power in the gym – his bench press record an outright scary lbs (2 . stone).
After growing tired of both American football and weighing the same as a refrigerator full of bricks, Santel switched curly fries for carrot sticks in his diet and upped his exercise regime in order to shed some fat. Then, in 2010, he entered a magazine competition that offered a holiday to New ealand and guest spot on TV show
Spartacus Gods Of The Arena to the entrant with the greatest body transformation within 12-weeks. Problem was, as he learned of the contest one month after it’d already started, Santel was left with just eight weeks to get ripped like no other.
Armed with a strict diet plan and a training schedule that meant working out three times a day – not to mention an all or nothing
disposition that’d see him die sooner than come second – Santel slimmed down to 16-stone, acquiring massive biceps and blister pack abs along the way. In just two-thirds of the time and ahead of thousands of others, he won the competition.
And yet Santel’s ravenous appetite remained, with the bodybuilder toasting his victory and ditching his super clean diet plan by taking on The Pointersaurus – a restaurant challenge that offered a 00 bounty (Dhs1, ) to anyone who could nish their 2 -inch pizza. Teaming up with a friend, Santel won that, too. And little did he know at the time, but it was his rst foray into what would soon become his career – travelling the world as a competitive eater.
Like a bloated stomach being stuffed full of food, the weird and wonderful world of competitive eating is growing ever larger. With an increasing number of restaurants offering free dinners, T-shirts and even cash prizes to diners that can vanquish meals that weigh as much as new-born babies, it seems possessing the appetite of a small army can sometimes pay. What’s more, hungry individuals stretching their stomachs against the clock is becoming a bona de phenomenon in the sporting world, too.
“I think it’s the sport of the people,” claims George Shea, founder of sanctioning body, Major League Eating (MLE). “Everybody knows what it’s like to eat three hard-boiled eggs and how full they would be, so if they see someone eat 50, they get an immediate sense of how monumental that is.
“I think that in a lot of sports, even something like tennis, high jump or pole vault, there’s a signi cant barrier of entry to most people. But there’s no such barrier to competitive eating and I think it really connects with people that way.”
Competitive eating is not strictly new, with contests dating as far back as 13th century Norse mythology – detailing a matchup between the god Loki and his servant (the latter won by eating his plate). In more recent times, pie eating contests at county fairs have become a staple part of American culture, whereas MLE chairs events for just about every foodstuff out there – including birthday cake, chicken wings, watermelon and even raw cow brains.
The jewel in the competitive eating crown is without doubt Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every 4th of July on New York’s Coney Island. Founded in 1 16 – the rst of cial eating challenge on record – four immigrants squared off to determine who was the most
“Everyone knows how full you feel after eating three boiled eggs. So if people see you eat 50, they get a sense of how monumental that is”
patriotic, with an Irishman swallowing 13 hot dogs in 12-minutes to seal victory. Since then, the contest has become a fundamental part of America’s Independence Day celebrations – with entrants chewing for their chance to win the coveted Mustard Belt and share of the $40,000 purse (Dhs147,000). More than 60,000 fans descend on Coney Island to catch the annual contest live, and in 2014 a record 2. million TV viewers watched the men’s and women’s (a xture since 2011) nals unfold on sport channel ESPN2.
Coining the term ‘competitive eating’ in the 1980s, Shea is a man serious about his food and claims his eating federation will be “a worldwide sporting franchise similar to FIFA” within a decade. Think his tongue is in his cheek? It isn’t. Shea is so con dent that he’s genuinely aggrieved eating challenges are not yet represented at the Olympic Games.
“We have tried many times in the past to get into the Olympics, but we were snubbed,” Shea admits. “I think you would nd competitive eating as an absolute crowd favourite and would further
invigorate the games – I nd it so much more entertaining than any other individual sport out there.”
For all the work of Major League Eating and Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, there’s no question that a great deal of the buzz around eating challenges recently is in no small part thanks to Adam Richman. Host of the Man v
Food franchise that ran in the late noughties, the cult TV programme saw the Yankee food fanatic travel across the United States to taste the nest deep fried fare, with each episode climaxing with Richman facing off against a food contest within the state in question. And yet, in spite of his in uence in breathing life into the competitive eating scene, Richman – who retired from challenges in 2012 – doesn’t share George Shea’s view that eating should be an Olympic discipline.
“No, no, I don’t think it has any place at the Olympics,” Richman laughs. “It’s a little bananas how intense it’s become, but I think there’s a distinction between a big sundae challenge versus something that has a federation, a charter, that’s a real sportlike entity. Look, I’m not saying it’s a physical feat to be ignored or unappreciated, but it’s nothing that I would equate with the 100 metre dash.”
Along with claims that competitive eating promotes obesity, encourages waste and typi es Western greed, one of the general presumptions about the sport is that its ‘athletes’ will by default be ginormous, sloth-like men. On the contrary, much like bodybuilder Randy Santel, competitive eating’s biggest names tend to be svelte by nature – as too much belly fat can in fact prevent the stomach from expanding. And in terms of the eating realm’s marquee celebrities, two men in particular have shone bright in establishing themselves as household names, stirring up a bitter rivalry in the process.
Rake thin, reserved and with a loose command of English, Takeru Kobayashi ies directly in the face of the lardy stereotype of a big eater. A six-time world hot dog eating champion at the Independence Day event in New York, Kobayashi doubled the previous record of 25 hot dogs during his rst appearance in 2001, eating a vomit- inducing 50 dogs. But for Kobayashi – nicknamed ‘Tsunami’ – success has come at a price.
“I now live with jaw arthritis,” he says, via his translator. “Parts of your body are not like knives, where you can sharpen them again. When they become bad, they can’t be xed – like a soccer player’s knees or tennis player’s elbows. For a competitive eater, that’s your jaw. The hinge on the jaw, that part is not going to get better, it’s going to get worse.”
Flying the ag for the USA is Kobayashi’s all-American adversary, Joey ‘Jaws’ Chestnut. With countless titles to his name – hard-boiled eggs (141 in eight minutes), deep fried asparagus (12lbs 8.75oz in ten minutes) and grilled cheese sandwiches (47 in ten minutes) to name just three – Chestnut’s arrival on the scene signalled the beginning of the end for Kobayashi. Stealing his Nathan’s hot dog crown in 2007 – with 66 snarfed to Kobayashi’s 63 – Chestnut was also victorious in ’08 and ’09, before a contract dispute saw Kobayashi banned from both Nathan’s and Major League Eating events from 2010 onwards.
With Chestnut now unbeaten for eight straight years (overtaking Kobayashi’s record of six), the world record now stands at 69 hot dogs eaten in ten minutes, set by Chestnut in 2013. Though Takeru Kobayashi still competes at non-MLE contests (recent feats include 62 slices of pizza in 12-minutes and 130 tacos in ten), fans are left to wonder if the pair will ever lock horns (or rather jaws) on the same stage again. And with no worthy contender for Chestnut in sight, Nathan’s Famous’ contest will continue be a duller place in the absence of the skinny, Japanese chomper.
HUNGER GAMES Randy consumed more than 200,000 calories on a recent tour of the UK
CALORIE COUNTING Top and bottom left: Contestants at the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog contest. Middle: Randy at Pops Pizza, Quincy, USA