It’s news that’s hard to swallow
Fans all over the world itching for the rematch between Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi and Joey “Jaws” Chestnut at next week’s Nathan’s Famous July Fourth International Hot Dog Eating Contest – coming just days after Chestnut beat Kobayashi’s hot dog-eating world record – are reeling from the bombshell that an acute jaw pain may sideline the six-time champion in his quest for more gold.Like Neil Armstrong taking a step on the moon and Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch, people everywhere remember where they were the first time the 110-pound Japanese man with Tang-orange hair shoved 50 wieners in his mouth in 12 minutes in 2001, shattering the previously held record of 25 and one-eighth dogs. Since then, Kobayashi has gone undefeated in these July eating binges, taking home the coveted mustard-yellow belt each time.When the news broke earlier this week that Kobayashi had developed an arthritic jaw, the reaction from the world of competitive eating was universally despondent. Once called by ESPN2 commentators the “finest eater on the planet” who devours “rhythmically” and “never loses comfort,” he has what’s become a trademark body wiggle known as the Kobayashi Shake, which he uses to help compel the likes of bratwurst and lobster rolls down his esophagus.Arturo Rios Jr., a driver for the New York Daily News who last Sunday at the New Jersey State Fair won the Pigs’ Feet-Eating Contest (featuring 11-pound trays of pigs’ feet and pigs’ knuckles boiled and spritzed with lemon juice), tips his hat to both Kobayashi and Chestnut, against whom he competed in the annual world hamburger-eating contest in Chattanooga, Tenn., last year. Of them, he says, “They’re amazing eaters. To stand next to them is an honor.”Even Kobayashi’s fiercest rival has respect for the man who also holds records in downing the most rice balls and cow brains (though not at the same time). “He could come to the Fourth of July with his jaws wired shut, and I’m sure he could still do all right. He’s that good of an eater,” Chestnut told The New York Times on Wednesday.Kobayashi’s injury also brings to light the darker side competitive eating: overtraining. His diet is loaded with cabbage and water to stretch his stomach, and ultimately it has left his mouth all but paralyzed.Like other athletes at the top of their sport, Kobayashi has expressed his desperation to heal in time for the July 4 contest, inarguably the marquee event of the competitive eating year. Making matters worse, he blames himself for allowing his injury to progress so far, writing on his website, “I feel so ashamed that I didn’t hear the alarm bells ringing in my own body … I was continuing my training and bearing with the pain, but finally I destroyed my jaw … [it] refused to fight anymore [and] has abandoned the frontline.”The International Federation of Competitive Eating, like Major League Baseball, the NFL and NBA, claims to consider the safety of its players (and the occasional network deal) above all else. The IFOCE guidelines clearly state that all competitive eating matches must be sanctioned and in a controlled environment. Only those 18 years or older may compete and an emergency medical technician, and a bottle of Tums, must be present at all times. Speed eating at home is strongly discouraged, unless trying to get through a plate of week-old scrambled eggs or if it’s elimination night on “American Idol.”One thing is for sure – if Kobayashi does compete on Wednesday, there will be few dry eyes among the 30,000 spectators expected to gather at the competition on corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues in Coney Island. Less clear will be if Kobayashi’s own tears will be the result of his spirit of determination or from the sting of swallowing the vomit that must inevitably spring up into his throat after eating more franks than there are weeks in a year.Kobayashi’s manager told The New York Times a few days ago that his client has been treated by a chiropractor for his jaw pain and will, indeed, compete on Wednesday. But if not, there’s always mayonnaise. He’ll just have to take on the reigning champ Oleg Zhornitskiy, who once scarfed down 128 ounces of the creamy white stuff in eight minutes.Gentlemen, take your spoons.E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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