New Yorker Richard Shea is at the microphone inside a shopping mall on the northern edge of Calgary. He is wearing an early 1900s-style suit and straw hat and is introducing the contestants with a beefy bravado.
He saves his best material for Meredith Boxberger, a 5-foot-8, 130-pound small business owner from Barrie, Ont., who has flown west with one goal in mind: to eat as many hot dogs as she can in 10 minutes and not be disqualified for a reversal. Think of eating in reverse.
"She's the love child of Cookie Monster and Miss Piggy," Mr. Shea barks as Ms. Boxberger takes her place on stage with Saturday's 11 other competitors. "She ate 21.5 hot dogs and finished fourth at the Nathan's finals last year. She's eaten 82 chicken wings in eight minutes. She's Canadian born and bred – and she eats the bread. Give it up for … the Deep Fried Diva."
The crowd cheers. It's feeding time.
Say what you want about competitive eating events – they're gross, unhealthy, a sure sign of the apocalypse – it does pack them in, so to speak. At this summer's Fourth of July, more than 40,000 people are sure to attend the 98th annual Nathan's international hot-dog eating contest at New York's Coney Island, the so-hailed Super Bowl of Major League Eating.
Not only that, close to two million people will watch the MLE finale on ESPN, a legitimacy some mainstream sports would chew their arms off for. (Bloomberg Businessweek estimated that the ESPN-driven advertising equivalency for MLE is $300-million, all figures U.S.) And the eating world's biggest name, Joey (Jaws) Chestnut, routinely earns more than $200,000 plus had a $100,000 endorsement deal with Pepto-Bismol. Not even former baseball player Barry Bonds managed that, although he did turn a lot of stomachs.
"Competitive eating has been around since the dawn of time, like running and jumping," says Mr. Shea, the MLE co-founder whose organization is at the top of the genre's food chain. "It's not an Olympic sport. The IOC is too pretentious for it. We want to advance the sport safely – and I do believe it's a sport."
Many would argue that point, yet there is something to be said for those who are good at speed munching: surprisingly, they're mostly small to average in size. While MLE's early events attracted heavyweight entrants – "buffet busters" Mr. Shea called them – nowadays it's the small fish that out-eat the big ones. Case in point: 98-pound, Korean-born Sonya Thomas, known as The Leader of the Four Horseman of the Esophagus, also The Black Widow. She holds the women's world record consuming 45 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Mr. Chestnut, at 218-pounds, has the men's record: 68 dogs in 10 minutes. Both have stomachs "stretched tighter than a pair of Lululemons on a Kardashian," Mr. Shea squawks.
It's enough to make a tapeworm cry with envy.
To get to Coney Island this July, competitors have to win a specified tour stop event, Calgary being the only one in Canada. As friends, family and curious onlookers gather inside the CrossIron Mills mall, Mr. Shea starts the countdown … three, two, one. And the frenzy begins.
Calgary's defending female champ, Nicole Anderson, suffers a near-reversal on her first hot dog and is disqualified. Next to her, Victoria Chang dances while she munches, as if trying to shake down another bite. Chris Kyriazis eats while wearing a ball cap and sun glasses; Ms. Boxberger has earplugs in listening to tunes. "Pump-up jams," she says later. "It hypes me up."
Quickly, Aaron (A Train) Osthoff, from Dubuque, Iowa, and the Deep Fried Diva pull away from the field. Ms. Boxberger eats the wieners first then dips the bun in water to soften them. It's a two chow-hound race; Ms. Boxberger hits the 20-mark with 2 ½ minutes to go. She finishes at 23. The A Train throws down 31. Sadly, no one plays We Are The Champions by Queen.
"I haven't quite figured out how I do it," Ms. Boxberger admits after earning another shot at the coveted Nathan's mustard-yellow title belt. "This was on my life list [of things to do]. I don't practice a lot. I don't eat 20 hot dogs at a time. I'll take two or three and practice technique."
You mean there's technique?
"I like the athletic way of doing it: I watch a lot of game tape. I look at a few different people and how they eat," she said.
Mr. Osthoff collects his trophy and heads for the door. He has a plane to catch to return home. He says he's okay to fly after eating so much.
"I don't bring it up [that he once ate 66 cup cakes in six minutes] but I live in a small place and I'm the town celebrity. Some people even see my name and go, 'You're the eating guy.' "
He is, and he's proud of it. So is Ms. Boxberger, whose game-day philosophy is a fresh take on a time-honoured sports theme.
"I just take it one dog at a time," she says. All the good ones do.