Competitive eating legend Takeru Kobayashi devoured the American dream until it chewed him up and spat him out again.
Now a new documentary on American sports media network ESPN is inviting viewers to digest the details of his remarkable career and take a closer look at the man who has been dubbed “the godfather of competitive eating.”
“At first, I kept refusing to take part in the documentary,” Kobayashi tells The Japan Times from his home in New York. “But I had heard it was a great series, so I’m very proud that it allows me to explain to people what I have done so far in my career.”
The documentary, which first aired in the United States earlier this month, is part of ESPN’s acclaimed “30 for 30” series and is titled “The Good, The Bad, The Hungry.” Viewers in Japan cannot currently watch it, but ESPN hopes to make it available in the future.
It charts the story of Kobayashi, a skinny kid from Nagano Prefecture, and his archrival on the competitive eating scene, Joey Chestnut. Competitive eating involves participants racing to eat the most amount of a certain type of food in a set time, with the showpiece Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, an annual July 4 event held in New York’s Coney Island, described as “the Super Bowl, Masters and World Series rolled into one.”
Kobayashi stunned American audiences in his Nathan’s debut in 2001, wolfing down 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes to double the previous record.
He went on to win the competition six years in a row and became a household name in the U.S., only for Chestnut to emerge as a contender for his crown. Bad blood developed between the two and the fans turned on Kobayashi, shouting racist abuse at him at one point.
Kobayashi also feuded with George Shea, the co-founder of Major League Eating, with whom he had a contract that he believed to be unfair. He pulled out of the 2010 Nathan’s contest in protest and turned up in the crowd wearing a “Free Kobi” T-shirt, only to be arrested after trying to storm the stage.
Kobayashi has not taken part in the Nathan’s event since, and he has harsh words for both Chestnut and Shea in “The Good, The Bad, The Hungry.” Animosity is never far from the surface, and it is clear in conversation that the documentary has not exorcized all his demons.
“I didn’t really get to give my side of the story as much as I would have liked, which is frustrating,” says the 41-year-old. “But the documentary did give me the chance to say things that no one had wanted to listen to before, so, overall, I like it. I just feel like it wasn’t quite enough.
“The documentary showed my rivalry with Joey Chestnut, but I had more of a problem with George Shea,” he says. “He used Joey Chestnut to conceal the fact that he had a problem with me. George Shea was employed by Nathan’s, so if you look at the bigger picture, the problem was really between me and Nathan’s. That doesn’t come across in the documentary.”
Kobayashi says he now has no contact with either Shea or Chestnut and doesn’t watch the Nathan’s competition, which Chestnut won for a record 12th time earlier this month. Instead he prefers to focus on his own career, and now competes in only one event — a taco-eating contest— a year. He spends the rest of his time appearing as a guest competition judge and giving eating demonstrations.
Widely credited for turning competitive eating into something approaching a legitimate sport, Kobayashi’s training regimen approaches Olympic standards.
Three months before a competition, he begins a routine of regularly drinking large amounts of fluid to expand his stomach, gradually increasing the volume until he is able to drink 12 liters in one sitting. Only then will he start to practice with actual food.
“I don’t feel like I’m going to vomit when I’m competing,” he says. “If ordinary people eat a lot of something, they start to feel sick or the taste makes them feel sick. In my case, during a competition I don’t really taste the food, so that’s one reason why I never get sick.
“Another reason is that my stomach is very stretchy,” he says. “If your stomach doesn’t stretch, the food you’ve eaten feels like it’s piling up and it makes you feel sick. For me, my stomach stretches out so the food doesn’t feel like it’s coming up. Through training and competitions, my body has gotten used to it.”
Kobayashi, who maintains his slim, sculpted physique through regular weight training, has developed a Zen-like mastery of his own body. He urges anyone wishing to follow in his footsteps to cultivate a similar understanding.
“Of course, the ability to eat a lot of food is a quality that a competitive eater has to have,” he says. “But it’s not just about that. The important thing is to be able to control your body. Real strength isn’t about eating bigger and bigger portions. It’s about calculating nutrition and calories and learning how to control your body.”
Kobayashi would like to help move competitive eating in a more organized direction in the future, with better-defined rules, standardized judges and stronger protection for competitors.
He is currently fronting a promotional campaign for a new carrot-based vegan hot dog available in New York, and he has no plans to resume his rivalry with Chestnut or go back to competing at Nathan’s
“I actually like hot dogs,” he says. “I don’t like junk food hot dogs, but I like hot dogs that taste good.”
For updates on Takeru Kobayashi, follow him on Instagram @kobayashitakeru.