Ever since curling found its way into the Olympics, our concept of sport has so devolved that ESPN is now televising darts. Call me old-fashioned, but when I turn on ESPN and people are throwing darts, they had better be aiming at each other.
Where could they possibly go from here? Steam room endurance? Tiddlywinks? ...
Answer: competitive eating.
ESPN now broadcasts four gorge-a-thons, including Nathan's International Hot Dog Eating Contest, which I recently watched with keen interest ... beside my barf bag.
Nathan's is sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating (no, seriously), which also handles, among other things, crab cake, baked beans, butter-just-butter, spam, tiramisu, and -- brace yourself, PETA -- cow brains.
At least with cow brains you know what you're getting. Scientists still don't understand what holds together a hot dog. Right now they are focusing on a reaction between shoe polish and tripe.
Of course, one cannot talk hot dogs without mentioning undisputed champion of the world, Japan's greatest pride outside of Mount Fuji, Takeru "The Tsunami" ... Kobayashi.
In terms of consecutive world titles, you've got Lance Armstrong, Martina Navratilova, the '59-'66 Boston Celtics, and Takeru Kobayashi, who not only wins every year but often laps the competition (and by that I mean lifts them up with his tongue).
Yet Koby could pass as a wrestler: stony biceps, trim waist, that orange-blonde hair that looks so natural on Japanese men. Certainly this wasn't the record-holder for hot dogs, lobster rolls, hamburgers, bratwurst, and rice balls.
IFOCE president George Shea, who promotes his events the old-fashioned way -- in a straw hat -- stomached my questions.
"We're seeing a changing of the guard," he said. "The older, heavier eater is being replaced by athletes like Koby."
Enter femme phenom Sonya Thomas, who, for her Tinkerbell physique, has outscarfed 300-pound men to win titles in tacos, ravioli, chicken nuggets, jambalaya, and pulled pork sandwiches.
Having seen frankfurter sludge ooze out of eaters' nostrils, I can only shudder at the thought of pulled pork sandwich.
I had to get closer, but not so close that I lost a finger.
"Crazy Legs" Conti received me like a professor ... in dreadlocks. Conti has gobbled his way onto "The Today Show," CNN, "The Sopranos," "Emeril," and "Good Morning America"; he even beat David Letterman in an oyster-eating challenge (459 to 3).
How does one eat 459 oysters without spewing on national TV?
"The stomach can fill up," said Legs, "but the mind never can."
I could just see Yoda training Crazy Legs in some forgotten swamp: "Hmm, the bile strong with this one is."
The Fine Art of Oinking Out
Every food poses it own challenge (example: butter is made of butter), but hot dogs are eaten in one of three ways: 1. The Solomon Method, breaking the dogs in half; 2. Tokyo Style, eating wiener and bun separately; and 3. Dunk 'n Dip, soaking the meat in what appears to be sewer water.
I'm not sure which method is favored by Miss Manners.
By IFOCE policy, regurgitation -- "remnants" -- amounts to disqualification. One of Koby's records was stained by controversy over remnants, a clear-cut cry for instant replay.
"And here, Bob, you can see the projectile splooging out of Koby's ear and -- stop the tape -- yes, bouncing on the table."
Some say that Koby lines his intestines with aloe; others suggest that his stomach was surgically altered by the Japanese government, still sore for losing ground in car production.
Koby's translator just acts like he doesn't understand the questions. So it goes.
The only American to keep up with Takeru Kobayashi is Joey "Jaws" Chestnut from San Jose, California. Joey actually led Nathan's hot dog contest by two links until, in the tenth minute, he got the "nitrate sweats" and convulsed in a way that made you look around for an ambulance.
Koby, in contrast, found his rhythm, at which point you just had to sit back and let the man do what the good Lord intended him to do. By the twelfth minute, Joey could only shake the meat down seagull-like, falling short by 13/4 franks. And as hard as it must be to finish second, Joey could take comfort in the fact that he was not the guy measuring the 1/4 hot dogs.
My favorite part was the six-foot mascot Frankster, who kept massaging the backs of the eaters. Can you imagine eating 30 hot dogs and then, in a swoon, turning around to find a giant hot dog rubbing your shoulders? Bad trip, man.
When the horn sounded, Koby and Joey raised their fingers in the universal vomit gesture before Kobe wiped his nostril sludge and lifted his shirt for the belly shot. It looked like he had a bun in the oven. 533/4 buns, to be exact.
Frankster waved goodbye to the scattering crowd, which would never eat again, and the contestants were free to slink back to their tents and discharge bodily gases. Koby would let go a belch, Joey would burp a little louder, Sonya would break wind, and before you knew it ESPN would be there with television cameras.