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Dogging It  
Our columnist bites into a big problem: Why can the Japanese down more dogs than any American?  

    July 9 —  It was only five minutes and 12 seconds into the most important sporting event of the year when the greatest athletes of their generation—world haggis-eating champion Barry Noble, German bratwurst champ Kai Hoppmann, American eating champion “Hungry” Charles Hardy and even American hot-dog-eating record holder Eric “Badlands” Booker—put down their franks, stopped chewing and just stared in awe.  

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  FOR AT THAT very moment—not even midway through the 12-minute Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest that takes place every July 4—Takeru Kobayashi, a 131-pound kid from Nagano, Japan, had downed his 26th hot dog and bun, surpassing the record set last year by his countryman Kazutoyo “The Rabbit” Arai.
       The man the Japanese call “The Prince” used a combination of speed and endurance that has eluded American competitors for years. He even invented a new eating technique, snapping each hot dog in half, eating the halves simultaneously, and then devouring a moistened bun.

       They’re already calling it “Solomoning,” after the famed Hebrew king who offered to end a custody dispute by splitting a baby in two.
       I know all this because I was the judge assigned to Kobayashi that day, the guy who held up the sign reading “26” as the clock hit “5:12.” And when the contest’s 12 minutes were finally over, Kobayashi’s stomach had gone where no man’s had gone before: He had eaten 50 hot dogs and buns, a new record that will be as easy to break as shattering the sound barrier... in a Chevy.
       To put Kobayashi’s performance in perspective, there is no way to put Kobayashi’s performance in perspective. No context exists, no frame of reference, to explain the sheer magnitude of Kobayashi’s achievement.
       But I’ll try: Remember when America landed a man on the moon on July 20, 1969? Well, Kobayashi’s 50 hot dogs and buns is the equivalent of the Japanese landing 100 men, an IMAX film crew and a huge catering truck on Pluto... on July 21, 1969.
       “I only speak seven languages, but there is no word in any of the languages that I know that can describe this,” said Richard Shea, a Nathan’s spokesman and another board member of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, the governing body of the world’s fastest-growing sport.
       Shea doesn’t speak Japanese, but Kobayashi does. And even he couldn’t explain it.
       “I don’t know how I do it,” he said through a translator after the contest, the world’s media hounding him as if he were a politician under indictment. “I just know I can. I think someday I can eat 20 more.”

       The partisan Coney Island crowd—which in years past has embarrassed itself by taunting Japanese competitors with a variety of colorful racial, ethnic and culinary insults—showed only admiration for the new champion.
       The crowd actually cheered—wildly, in fact—when the number 50 went up on a sign over Kobayashi’s head.
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       “We had to applaud,” said Brooklyn postal worker Lenny Amoroso, who had been pulling for third-place finisher Hardy. “I mean, I know we’ve razzed the Japanese in the past, but not this year. This Kobayashi is the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen.”
       Personally, nothing I have seen in all my years of covering this contest prepared me for the sight of the world’s best eaters putting down their dogs, broken, dispirited men. Indeed, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” I saw the best stomachs of my generation destroyed by Takeru, starving hysterical naked.
       Yes, records are made to be broken, but are they also made to be demolished, humiliated and crushed under the heel like a bug? What Arai had accomplished a mere 12 months ago was considered at the time nothing short of astonishing. No American came close. And now this!
       As you know—as everyone knows—Japan’s annual domination of America’s most-famous contest on America’s most-famous holiday has elicited a protracted round of head-scratching, soul-searching and navel-gazing throughout our nation.
       For four of the last five years, the Japanese have walked off with competitive eating’s coveted Mustard Yellow International Belt—football’s Vince Lombardi Trophy, soccer’s World Cup and the Kentucky Derby’s blanket of roses all rolled into one.
       First, it was Hirofumi “The Tokyo Terror” Nakajima, a 120-pound weakling who repeatedly ate then-American champ, 380-pound Ed “The Maspeth Monster” Krachie, under the table (a table under which Krachie actually vomited after a particularly humiliating loss).
       Then, when Nakajima faltered in 1999 (some say he was drugged, others say he was tired from a torrid romance with his Nathan’s-appointed translator), Arai won back the belt for Japan with that stunning 25 1/8 performance last year.
One year, one family, one planet

       America looked inside itself and found that its heart was heavy and its stomach empty. The sense of loss was profound. No matter where I traveled in this country, people stopped to ask me, How can it be that there is no American who can beat these Japanese eaters?
       Much has been said about America’s annual battle against the Japanese—most of it written about with the same jingoism and fear of Asian domination that we heard during, say, the auto and hi-fi wars of the 1980s.
       There are many theories about why America has lost its edge in competitive eating—that we’re lazy, we lack determination, we’re self-satisfied—and again the car-and-stereo analogy gets played out.
       But there is one theory that is gaining currency: We’re just too damned fat. Months after his final loss to Nakajima, Krachie researched and wrote a ground-breaking paper that proved beyond a doubt that Americans possess a “belt of fat” that prevents the stomach from expanding to the extent needed to hold dozens of hot dogs. We’re just too fat to eat more than 24 of them.
       Krachie submitted his “belt of fat” paper to the Journal of the American Medical Association, but received only a rejection letter instead of the honor befitting a man who figured out where we’ve all gone terribly wrong.
       Medicine is like that. Sometimes the Establishment isn’t ready for the radical solution. So maybe drastic measures are needed. Indeed, at this point, the question is no longer, “Can America find an eater to challenge the Japanese?” The question now becomes, “Will Nathan’s now permit other species of animals—bears, wolves or even half-starved coyotes—to challenge this eating phenom?”

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       George Shea, head of the IFOCE and keeper of the sport of competitive eating’s dizzying oral history, said that Nathan’s would never debase the contest by including wild animals.
       But Shea is simply holding onto a belief popular in America right now that somewhere among our 270 million residents is a man or woman who can eat 51 hot dogs in 12 minutes.
       “He’s out there, maybe in Montana or Milwaukee,” Shea said. “The Japanese always find their guy. We just have to find ours.”
       Maybe, but perhaps we should consider those coyotes. And make sure they’re American. We’ve got a belt to win back!

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post and the author of “HAIR! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness” (Random House).
       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
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