Best of Josh — The Newest American Hero

March 7, 2008, 11:00 am; posted by
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Originally published July 6, 2007.

This year, for the first time, I watched the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Contest. It wasn’t so much an intentional decision as it was happenstance — I turned on the TV just as it was coming on.

I already knew some of the backstory leading up to the event. Kobayashi, the longtime Japanese champion of the event (by large margins, for several years running) was being challenged by American Joey Chestnut, who had broken the world record in another contest a few weeks back. News then leaked of a Kobayashi jaw injury and possible withdrawal, leading many to wonder if he was ducking competition or preparing excuses. Kobayashi apparently then had acupuncture and showed up ready to compete.

As the event began and these two men raced to a lead on the rest of the field at a record-setting pace, I had a hard time watching. I’m a bit squeamish by nature and the contortions of the human body necessary to consume a hot dog and bun every eleven seconds are perverse to observe. At the same time it was riveting — I couldn’t stop watching.

I focused mainly on the graphic that continually updated the score, averting my eyes from a direct view of such significant self-abuse. After what seemed like an interminable period of forced gluttony, Chestnut had built a lead of five hotdogs and seemed to be in control. Then I looked at the clock and saw there were more than eight minutes remaining. Twelve minutes is a long time to eat without stopping.

The drama built until, with less than a minute left, Kobayashi had come back to tie, and the two men matched each other dog for horrible dog. But then, in the closing seconds, Kobayashi suffered a “reversal.” I’ll spare you too many details, but must mention that this great competitor continued to try to reverse this reversal, even after the bell had sounded and spitting seemed a far more desirable option. After the judges consulted instant replay — I almost wish I was kidding — Kobayashi was given a small penalty and Chestnut was officially victorious, 66 to 63. Both men shattered the previous contest record of 53½, as well as the former world record of 59½.

But perhaps the best part of the entire spectacle was the announcing. Regarding Joey Chestnut, one announcer remarked, “You Google ‘American hero’ tomorrow, you’re going to get Abe Lincoln, possibly Neil Armstrong, Taylor Hicks, and of course this man — Joey Chestnut.”

That’s right. American heroes — the man some consider the greatest American president, the first man on the moon, the American Idol winner from two seasons ago, and a guy with great control of his upper abdominal muscles. That about covers it. (Incidentally, actually Googling ‘American hero’ yields results for the TV show The Greatest American Hero, Ronald Reagan, and of course, G.I. Joe).

Aside from repeatedly calling Chestnut an American hero — even before the contest was over — and referring to his triumph as the greatest moment in the history of American sport, the announcers really kept things in perspective. But it was all part of the extravaganza, and as Joey Chestnut stood there smiling and sweating, stomach roiling, draped in our flag and basking in the adoration, I couldn’t help but find the whole thing uniquely, absurdly, and comically liberating.


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