Greetings again from the darkness. It’s hard to beat chowing down on a hot dog at the ballpark, and I’ve even been known to have one too many on occasion(s). What’s impossible to imagine is cramming a few dozen in my mouth in a 10 minute window – while a bunch of others are standing alongside me doing the same thing. That, my friends, is competitive eating. It’s a “sport” that became famous in the United States thanks to a 144 lb. Japanese wisp of a man named Takeru Kobayashi, and then it became even more popular when laid-back California dude Joey Chestnut began breaking records.
Documentarian Nicole Lucas Haimes pays tribute to the impact of both men, while providing the background for each … and still giving the competitions the attention they deserve. The film kicks off in Coney Island on July 4, 2006 at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Kobayashi wins his sixth consecutive World Championship title, and his closest competitor is newcomer Joey Chestnut, who is devastated by his loss – beginning the biggest rivalry in competitive eating.
Throughout the film, we learn more about each man, and just how important the contests are to them. For Kobayashi, who came to America in 2001, he quickly embraced the notoriety and life as a celebrity. A frequent competitor, he joined right into the crazy marketing stunts – once losing to a grizzly bear in 2002. He became part of “The Simpsons”, “Saturday Night Live” and other mainstream vehicles.
2005 marked the first time ESPN covered the Super Bowl of Competitive Eating, and that was also Joey Chestnut’s first time to compete in the Nathan’s contest. He was shocked that a small guy like Kobayashi could out-eat him and was considered a God in the arena. He also learned about preparation, as Kobayashi was all about precision and training. Chestnut’s parents and brother are interviewed and we see how his approach changed as he became more serious. The quiet, somewhat shy Chestnut had his world rocked in 2007, and he has since become more comfortable with the fans and with his secure spot as a legend in the sport.
We are also introduced to George Shea, the director of Major League Eating (MLE), and how his devotion to marketing and hyping the sport, turned it into a televised international battle between Japan and America – all for the “mustard belt” and $10,000 awarded to the champion. Mr. Shea doesn’t come across as very likable or trustworthy, but is given his due for helping the eating competitions attract thousands of attendees.
Kobayashi’s story is a bit more poignant as he explains how hurt he was to be turned into the villain after being idolized as the name and face of the sport. He enjoyed the applause, not the booing and chants of “USA, USA” for Chestnut. Even Kobayashi’s wife and father offer some insight into the man that energized the sport … and who will always be linked to the rivalry with Chestnut. This is a personal story for both, despite the aggressiveness involved with shoving broken hot dogs and wet buns down their own throats.
*** This episode of “30 For 30” airs on July 2, 2019 on ESPN