Every Fourth of July, Coney Island stages an event featuring two of America's biggest loves: hot dogs and competition.
The two pastimes merge Sunday afternoon by the Brooklyn boardwalk for the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest.
This year's competition is going on without six-time champion Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi. The world's No. 3 professional eater has refused to sign a contract with Major League Eating — the fast food equivalent of the NFL — to be free to compete in contests sanctioned by other groups, said George Shea, host of the Coney Island event televised live on ESPN.
"It's like Tom Brady saying he wants to be in the Super Bowl, but then wanting to go compete in Arena football," Shea told The Associated Press. After months of negotiations, he said, "we're at an impasse."
The favorite is the No. 1 ranked eater and three-time defending champion, 26-year-old Joey "Jaws" Chestnut of San Jose, Calif. The 230-pound-man is going for the bejeweled, mustard-yellow belt plus a $20,000 purse — aiming for 70 dogs and buns in 10 minutes.
Among his beef-gobbling rivals is No. 2 ranked Bob Shoudt.
The top female contender, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, is a 98-pound Korean-born American whom Shea calls the "leader of the Four Horsemen of the Esophagus."
Americans enjoy 150 million hot dogs each July 4 — "enough to stretch from D.C. to L.A. more than five times," said Janet "Queen of Wien" Riley, president of the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council.
During the competition, however, contestants take just one or two big bites at most.
Absent from Friday's weigh-in at City Hall was Kobayashi, a 160-pound Japanese with a special technique: breaking each hot dog in half and ingesting it in one gulp, then literally wiggling the contents into the stomach.
Last year, Chestnut ate 68 dogs in 10 minutes, breaking his own world record and winning three consecutive Nathan's titles. Kobayashi downed 64. That's about as many as the average American eats in a year — 60, according to the council.
Kobayashi, 32, told Japan's Kyodo News on Friday he wanted to compete in the event, but he wrote on his blog that signing a contract "would have severely limited the ability to eat and eating behavior itself."
Chestnut said he wouldn't be surprised if "Koby" just showed up "in hopes of catching his competitors off guard."
In recent years, a crowd favorite is New York window washer and nude model Crazy Legs Conti, the star of a 2004 documentary whose dreadlocks bounce as he dances and speed-eats.
Sunday's shenanigans include a two-hour preview show featuring three circus acts by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, rapper Badlands Booker and Shea crooning the 1980s pop song "99 Luftballons" (99 Red Balloons) — in German. He's doing it to fulfill the wish of an elderly woman who had e-mailed him, nostalgic for her visit to Coney Island in the '80s with her late husband.
Then, at noon, comes the highlight of the Fourth of July on Coney Island — said to be the birthplace of fast food.
The first hot dog was sold here around 1870 by German butcher Charles Feltman. His competitive, Polish-born employee, Nathan Handwerker, opened his own business in 1916 — Nathan's Famous, still the backdrop to the contest started here that year.
According to local lore, immigrants arguing about who was most patriotic settled their dispute by testing who could eat more franks. Irishman Jim Mullen won with 13.
After watching the stomach-churning feast, some of the tens of thousands of spectators might well need some Pepto-Bismol — a new 2010 sponsor — before they join the demolition-derby crowd of bodies bumping their way through Surf Avenue in sweltering heat (temperatures are forecast to be in the 90s).
The way Shea sees it, a hot dog-eating contest and America's biggest city were made for each other: "New York is a jewel built on the dream of greatness, and that same dream is driving every competitive eater."
And it ain't over till it's over — till the hot-dog "Tsunami" hits Coney Island. Or doesn't.
Major League Eating: http://www.ifoce.com
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