A Brief History of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest
What’s more American than eating hot dogs for Independence Day? Eating them competitively for Independence Day, of course. And when people think of hot dog-eating competitions (if they think about them at all), there is none more well-known than Nathan’s.
Held annually at Coney Island in South Brooklyn since 1972, this gluttonous tradition has a long and interesting past. In an effort to bring a sense of history and drum up excitement for the event, promoters Max Rosey and Mortimer Matz created a fictionalized account of how it all began.
The legend goes that in 1916, when Nathan’s was first opened by Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker, it quickly became a hangout for other recent immigrants. Some of these newcomers began to debate who was the most patriotic about their new homeland, so they decided to settle it in the only reasonable manner–by eating as many hot dogs as they could. Four men participated in this initial contest, the winner being a man named Jim Mullen.
Other stories include celebrities participating in the early contests, including the inimitable Jimmy Durante and Mae West’s father, Jack. Some of the early judges were said to have been Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker. While the truth of these legends are somewhat suspect–even the initial date is sometimes said to be 1917 instead of 1916–the contest had become a tradition for Nathan’s, and would be held annually every Independence Day save for two.
The first missed year was in 1941, due to World War II. Given the heavy immigrant population of the area, many of whom were from Central and Eastern Europe, the war was controversial. As such, the contest is said to have been canceled as a protest against the conflict that year.
The next missed contest was in 1971, also due to political conflict. This time, the protest was against domestic unrest surrounding President Nixon’s activities as well as the Vietnam War. However, the following year began an unbroken streak of annual contests which has continued into present day.
Though the 1972 contest was the first of the current run, an earlier one was definitely held in 1967, which is only known due to firsthand press releases from the time. It’s said that a 400 pound man, Walter Paul, manage to down a ridiculous 127 dogs over the course of an hour (though the real number is believe to be something like 17).
After Paul’s victory, every contest except for one was won by an American up until 1996. The exception was 1984, when German Birgit Felden–who had never eaten a hot dog prior to the contest–won it. In 1996, Japanese stars such as Hirofumi Nakajima, Kazutoyo Arai fan-favorite Takeru Kobayashi began dominating the contest.
Japanese domination of the sport continued until 2007, when another popular star entered the hot dog-filled arena. American Joey Chestnut. Chestnut has singlehandedly dominated the sport, winning every year save for 2015 when fellow American Matt Stonie bested him by a final score of 62-60. Many fans question what the outcome would be if Kobayashi and Chesnut went head to head, but due to contractual disputes Kobayashi has been unable to participate since 2009.
In 2011, a separate contest was started for females. The first three women’s competitions were won by Sonya Thomas, and the last three by Miki Sudo–both Americans. Prior to the separation of women’s and men’s competitions, women had won a handful of times but the sport had stayed mostly dominated by the boys.
Nowadays, the contest is surrounded by a ton of attention and media as it has become an internationally popular phenomenon. But its roots are still in patriotism as evidenced by its permanent scheduling over Independence Day weekend. Joey Chestnut is the favorite to win it once again in 2017, though Matt Stonie is poised to give him a run for his money. On the women’s side, Miki Sudo is also hoping to continue her domination and there is little sign that any of the challengers will be able to out eat the champ.
In just four days there will be another set of names in the Hot Dog Hall of Fame, further adding to the rich history of this unique sport. This July 4 marks not just another birthday for America, but for one of America’s most beloved pastimes.
Where to Watch Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest
If you want to experience this year’s contest for yourself, tune into ESPN3 at 10:45am (ET) for the women’s contest and ESPN2 at noon for the men’s. The men’s contest will re-air at 7 o’clock and 10 o’clock that evening. You can also watch it online.
(Image courtesy of Michael Tapp via Flickr.)