By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
He's 28 years old, weighing somewhere around 185 pounds. In a backward-facing olive cadet hat perched above his narrow eyes and slender nose, Biller is a soldier in competitive eating's ever-swelling ranks. That so many people are so eager to put themselves through this mess, to distill some personal meaning from the pain, is all to its credit as a sport, but to George Shea, his brother Rich and their business partner Dave Baer—the true godfathers of competitive eating—the IFOCE and its sister organization, Major League Eating, are about the media event, George Shea says, for which clients will pay good money. "You have two primary clients, one of which is the sponsor who's paying for this, the other of which is the integrity of the event."
Eaters rush to register online as soon as a contest opens up, sit on long waiting lists and buy plane tickets at the last minute. Whether it's gyros in Houston, candy bars at Comic-Con or poutine in Toronto, the where and the what hardly matter. It's about stepping up to that table, armed with all the latest breathing techniques and water substitutes—maybe lemonade or fruit punch to wash the food down—with the light tug of remembered wins and the lead weight of old losses wreaking havoc on your empty stomach. It's about learning, once again, how you measure up. "It's a confederation of like-minded and like-hearted people," Shea says. "There's all kinds of internecine craziness, but it is a family."
Along the way, maybe weirdest of all, the sport's attracted a following of dedicated fans who'll follow results online, maybe argue about the rankings and drive hours to watch a 10-minute eating contest. Fantasy leagues sprung up around the sport; at EatFeats.com, an anonymous moderator compiles an exhaustive database of eating results and news. Another site catered to hopeful eaters who didn't want to wait for a contest and preferred to submit webcam movies of their speed-eating travails.
I never went that far, never joined a fantasy league, but after winning a cheesesteak eating contest in 2003, working on a story about an oyster-eating champ in Chicago, I was hooked. I've driven hours to photograph contests—for a bigger project, maybe a coffee table book, someday, I told myself on those long drives. Up front by the table, it's as intense as any other live sporting event. The pictures all end up looking the same; occasionally I'd enter a contest when there was an open slot, and I still have the recording from a grilled-cheese contest in Oklahoma, where longtime IFOCE emcee Ryan Nerz announced my 10-sandwich win: "We have traveled the country, and indeed the known universe, looking for eating talent. And we may have found some here today in the likes of Patrick Michels and this man here in the red Budweiser hat." No greater honor in sport.
The hype peaked two or three years ago, around a bunch of media coverage and—most of all—the epic showdowns each Fourth of July between Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi at the Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island. The sport's potential seemed to be growing with every reality special, rumors of Hollywood scripts and news about an upcoming competitive eating Wii video game. There was hand-wringing too, about whether it was all getting too corporate, or what it signified for our wasteful, morbidly obese American moment.
Years later, the hand-wringers have largely moved on, and we're all over the stories of American excess; now we're all tightening our belts. Every now and then another cable network runs an hour-long eater feature, and in the top ranks it seems like everyone's had their flash of fame, in some one-off TV or magazine profile. If you're Fox, after all, where do you go after your TV special with Kobayashi speed-eating hot dogs against a half-ton Kodiak bear?
Still, Shea says the IFOCE held 85 contests this year—more than ever before—with $550,000 in prizes. Though Kobayashi wasn't even in this year's Nathan's final (apart from the post-contest stage-storming that resulted in his arrest), and Chestnut turned in his lowest winning total ever, the contest enjoyed its best TV ratings yet. Along the way, most eaters stuck with the sport, practicing at home, paying their way to a couple more contests every year, never expecting to get famous. The sport didn't explode, but it didn't fizzle out either. Improbable as it is, competitive eating matured.PHOTOS: Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest at WinStar Casino
In the beginning, there was the Nathan's account. George Shea was fresh out of Columbia with an English degree, loose in New York City, and in 1988 he landed at a public relations agency run by Max Rosey. A press agent legendary for outlandish promotions like novelty weddings and elephants on water skis, Rosey and his business partner Mortie Matz had been running the hot dog contest at the Coney Island Nathan's stand since the early '70s. Shea fell into a role as Rosey's understudy. "There were 20 people in the audience and three members of the media, and maybe eight or 10 eaters," Shea recalls. "You got the eaters who were walking by on the boardwalk."