This week, I examine whether or not competitive eating can be considered a sport. To be defined as a “sport,” an activity must include the following: competition between participants who are in direct opposition to each other; some level of physical and mental capacity, such as agility, strength or endurance. Competitive eating meets these criteria, and challenges common conceptions of athleticism and the “ideal” body.
The sport’s fulfillment of the first criteria (competition) is straightforward. Competitive eating involves contestants trying to eat the greatest amount of food, with victory being determined by the amount of food eaten or by how fast one eats a certain amount of food.
The nature of the competition involved in this sport is what differentiates it from other sports, and leads some to doubt the validity of the sport. Most sports require participants to engage in “athletic” activities that require physical strength, agility, or stamina. Football players need to have a myriad of physical skills to succeed in their sport—throwing, route running, tackling, et cetera. Even in a less physically-demanding sport, like golf, players need the coordination to accurately aim the ball and execute their strokes.
The skill set required in competitive eating contrast with those in other sports. Competitive eaters do not need to meet the traditional definition of athleticism to succeed. They do not need to have better cardiovascular conditioning or physical strength than their competitors. Instead, they must be able to eat more.
Now, at first glance, this does not sound like a physical skill. However, many professional eaters undergo intensive training to better prepare themselves for competition. For example, Matt Stonie, recent winner of the Nathan’s Famous hotdog eating contest, trains by eating hundreds of chicken wings in one sitting and drinking large amounts of liquids to expand his stomach. Training allows Stonie to eat more, faster than the average person possibly could. This makes competitive eaters similar to other athletes, as they modify their bodies’ capabilities and push themselves past their limits to improve their chances of victory. While athletes in other sports work to increase the strength of their muscles, competitive eaters work to increase the capacities of their stomachs.
The appearance and actions of athletes in most sports are emblematic of Western standards of beauty—athletes work to increase their physical capabilities, which often has the side effect of getting them closer to achieving the “ideal” body. However, competitive eaters are required to do the exact opposite for their sport. Training by eating or expanding the size of one’s stomach has the reverse effect on the body than that of training by lifting weights or running.
Injury is another aspect of sport. Competitive eaters are more likely on average to develop gastrointestinal issues, eating disorders and morbid obesity as a result of their training. While other sports also carry the risk of physical difficulties, they subject their athletes to these risks in a different manner. In conventional sports, athletes are participating in activities the human body was designed to do—run, jump, et cetera—while the human body was not designed to ingest tens of thousands of calories in a short amount of time, as is required in competitive eating.
Competitive eating is a sport in the way that football or baseball is a sport: it is a competition that requires advanced physical abilities. There is something to be said for this sport’s rising popularity, as its physicality is vastly dissimilar to that of other sports. Perhaps competitive eating is symbolic of our society’s tendency towards waste and gluttony. Or, it may just be a guy eating 182 wings in 10 minutes.