‘Gustatory gladiators’ Documentary on speed eating is fun, informative and a little hard to digest


NEW YORK -Shall we just get the obligatory pun out of the way? An hourlong special on speed eating may not be something everyone can stomach.

It’s entertaining – and timely, for this is a momentous week in the world of speed eating, with Joey Chestnut triumphantly cramming 66 hot dogs down his esophagus and dethroning six-time champ Takeru Kobayashi in the annual Nathan’s Fourth of July contest.

It’s also not a pretty thing, unless you find it pretty to see adults treating their digestive tracts like garbage disposals, shoving in appalling amounts of food.

And they’re just the ones who manage to keep it down. One of the choice factoids presented by “Science of Speed Eating,” an absorbing documentary airing on the National Geographic Channel at 9 p.m. EDT Sunday, is the lingo insiders use for what most of us would call “throwing up.” They call it a “reversal of fortune.”

Which is just what happened to Kobayashi, the defending champ in Coney Island. Though he had his 64th dog in his mouth at the 12-minute buzzer, he finished with 63 because of his “reversal.”

Watching these “gustatory gladiators,” as the show calls them, brings a few basic questions to mind. Why do people subject themselves to this torture? More importantly, how do they do it (when most of us would get sick after, oh, four hot dogs or six waffles or a dozen ribs)? And is there any long-term harm?

The first question is pretty simple. Why do people do it? As with many things, the desire for fame and money. Prize money at some events can be $30,000 for the top player, and the Nathan’s contest, for example, gets an hour of Big Event coverage on ESPN.

Still, there must be something deeper, the fiercest of competitive instincts, motivating Sonya Thomas, the most unlikely speed-eating champ you’ll ever see. The woman they call the “Black Widow” weighs 105 pounds. Yet, she can consume one-sixth of her body weight, routinely defeating guys three times her size.

Some of these men are so big, “it looks like they have their own ecosystem,” says the witty George Shea, who with brother Richard runs the International Federation of Competitive Eating. Thomas, in comparison, “looks like she couldn’t finish a tin of cottage cheese.” (Spoken like a man who probably never eats cottage cheese … since when does it come in a tin?)

Thomas is an assistant manager at Burger King, which in terms of speed-eating training seems as good as it can get – kind of like Andre Agassi growing up on a tennis court.

She has a ready smile and an iron will. “I wanna beat them. I wanna kill them,” she says cheerfully of her opponents.

Even more amazing is her description of her 29 world titles. “Five hundred fifty-two Louisiana oysters in 10 minutes,” she recites proudly. “Sixty-five hard-boiled eggs in 6 minutes 42 seconds.” And check this out: “Forty-four lobsters in 10 minutes.”

Is there something Thomas and others have done to their bodies that gives them an edge? Yes, this show suggests. It follows doctors from the University of Pennsylvania as they conduct medical tests on Tim Janus, a world record holder in cannoli, tamales and tiramisu.

Janus, a Wall Street day trader, is as fit as they come, with abs of steel, hardly what you’d expect. A young doctor, Geoff Spencer, serves as the control. In the first test Spencer stops after seven hot dogs. Amateur!

With barium in his system, Janus undergoes a scan. It shows that his stomach, at the 36th hot dog, has stretched much, much larger than Spencer’s. He’s trained it to do just that. It means his brain won’t give him a signal that he’s full until much later.

“Spectacular!” one doctor exclaims, viewing the scan. “His stomach has become this giant flaccid body bag, filled with all kinds of fluid and debris.” (Yes, that seems meant as a compliment.)

Another test shows Janus able to drink a huge amount of water – another training method used by speed eaters. But this is risky: one could suffer from intoxication, which could lead to seizures and even death.

Loren “Bubba” Yarbrough seems unconcerned by this as he trains. A big-hearted rookie, he seeks his breakthrough performance, but training isn’t going so well. A practice run at home stops at 12 hot dogs, and what’s worse, “I was nauseous from the fifth dog.” Clearly there’s work ahead.

Is there long-term harm from what these guys are doing? The show raises a few possibilities: stomach perforations or esophageal tears; ingesting too many calories (sometimes 10,000 at a pop); the impact on cholesterol.

And this: Janus has developed a slowed-down digestive system. It’s good for now, but the doctors wonder if it could lead to paralysis of the stomach later.

It seems that most of these gurgitators, as they’re also called, aren’t too worried. But at the end of this enjoyable and only sometimes revolting show, one is grateful for its most intelligent piece of advice:

“Do not try these competitive eating techniques at home.”