A Better Way to Eat: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

This week’s episode is called “A Better Way to Eat.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

Kobayashi and Dubner

Stephen Dubner and Takeru Kobayashi.

It features an interview with Takeru Kobayashi, who revolutionized the sport of competitive eating. So you’ll learn plenty about the tactics — physical, mental, and strategic — that Kobi employed while earning six straight victories in the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. (He has also set world records with many other foods.) But the episode isn’t really about competitive eating. It’s about seeing what the rest of us can learn from the breakthroughs that Kobi accomplished in his training and his thinking. If there’s ever someone who truly thinks like a Freak, it’s Takeru Kobayashi.

For instance, he came to the conclusion that most competitive eaters simply didn’t think about the problem properly:

KOBAYASHI: My honest opinion was that people were just eating as an extension of regular eating meals, and it looked like they were all like rushing to try eat more than they normally could. Just one more hot dog, just a little more. And I thought, “Well, if you just look at it as a way of trying to put something in instead of, how much more can I eat than normal,” then it really just takes a few questions and a little research on my part and experimentation to see how far I could actually go.

He went very, very far — much farther, in fact, than anyone might have thought possible. This leads to another element of the Kobi magic: an unwillingness to accept limits or barriers that may not be worth honoring:

KOBAYASHI: I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide, “I’ve been told this,” or “this is what society tells me,” or they’ve been made to believe something. If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use that method of thinking [about] everything — the potential of human beings is great, it’s huge, compared to what they actually think of themselves.

Since a 2010 dispute with the Coney Island contest organizers, Kobi has not competed in that contest. But he still eats a huge pile of hot dogs in New York on July 4 — this year at 230 Fifth in Manhattan. If you have any interest at all in competitive eating — or problem solving, or doing away with artificial limits — you owe it to yourself to watch Kobi in person.

Special thanks to Maggie James for translating.

Audio Transcript

[MUSIC: Vagabond Opera, “Chimeres Be Met” (from The Zeitgeist Beckons)]

Stephen J. DUBNER: Kobi, can you just like count to 10 in your microphone?

Takeru KOBAYASHI: 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

DUBNER: Maggie, do the same? Or say anything you want, he just needs to get a level. Just keep talking…

Maggie JAMES: 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6…

DUBNER: I’d like you to meet Takeru Kobayashi, known as Kobi, and his translator, Maggie James. I was asking Kobi about his favorite foods …

KOBAYASHI: Yogurt or tofu.

JAMES: Yogurt and tofu.

DUBNER: What kind of tofu?

KOBAYASHI: Soft.

JAMES: Soft ones.

DUBNER: What’s your favorite kind of steak?

KOBAYASHI: Uh, filet.

DUBNER: Filet? You like filet? No fat. You like lean.

KOBAYASHI: Lean.

DUBNER:  What’s your favorite fish?

KOBAYASHI: Fish! Salmon.

DUBNER: Salmon. You like the skin or no?

KOBAYASHI: Yeah.

DUBNER: What’s your favorite fruit?

KOBAYASHI: …Strawberries.

DUBNER: Strawberries? Um. How do you feel about hot dogs?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: During this time is actually a time that I don’t want to think about hot dogs that much.

[THEME]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

[MUSIC: Seks Bomba, “San Mateo Theme Song” (from Thanks and Goodnight)]

DUBNER: Takeru Kobayashi doesn’t like to think about hot dogs much right now because he is preparing to eat a very large pile of them. Not for pleasure. This is what he does for a living. In the world of competitive eating, as the sport is known, Kobi is the biggest star that has ever been.

KOBAYASHI: Maybe.

DUBNER: It began back in Japan. He was a college student at the time, studying economics. A friend signed him up for a televised eating contest.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I really was shocked because at that time I really didn’t think I could eat that much more than the normal person.

DUBNER: But he gave it a try, largely because of the prize money: $5,000 for first place. It was a four-stage eating contest — starting with boiled potatoes and then a seafood bowl, Mongolian mutton barbecue, finishing up with noodles.

DUBNER: Your competitors were also amateurs, right? They weren’t professionals. So did you think you had a chance?

KOBAYASHI: Yes.

DUBNER: Because why — what did you think that you could do better than the other amateurs? Was it mental. or physical, or strategic?

KOBAYASHI [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Total, I thought I could… somewhere in between…

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: There were players much bigger than I was physically even in Japan so I didn’t think it could be just a physical thing — it had to be total mental and physical.

DUBNER: Kobi studied earlier contests like this one, with qualifying stages. He saw that most people went so hard in the early rounds that even if they did advance, they didn’t have the energy – or the stomach capacity – to finish strong. So he decided to eat just enough at each stage to qualify for the next. And when it came time for the final round, he blasted past the others, and won. Having tasted victory as an amateur competitive eater, Kobi immediately thought about turning pro. The World Cup of competitive eating, as you probably know, is held every summer in New York City …

GEORGE SHEA: …Only one location at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues at Nathan’s Famous. And why do they come? They come for the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest!

DUBNER: At home in Japan, Kobi began to train for Coney Island. American-style hot dogs weren’t available where he lived, so he used sausages made of minced fish. No hot-dog buns either, so he cut bread down to size. He took his training seriously. Very seriously. He began a long series of experiments. For instance: ripping the hot dog and bun in half, before eating it – a move that would come to be known as the Solomon Method, after the Biblical story of King Solomon, who threatened to settle a maternity dispute by slicing a baby in two pieces.

DUBNER: The Solomon had been done before or no?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: No.

DUBNER: He found another way to speed things up.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Separating the sausage from the bun.

DUBNER: Yeah.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Also eating hot dogs two at a time. I don’t mean two sticks at the same time, I mean breaking one in half and eating two, two halves.

DUBNER: The sausage itself, being slick and dense, actually went down pretty easy. But eating a hot dog bun on its own, without the meat, is harder than you’d think. How hard? You may have heard of the Saltine Challenge. Well, next time you want to win a bar bet, try the Hot Dog Bun Challenge. See if you can get someone to try to eat two hot dog buns in one minute, with no beverage. Here, listen to our Freakonomics Radio production team try it. This is David Herman doing the eating with Gretta Cohn, Suzie Lechtenberg, and Greg Rosalsky providing commentary.

[MUSIC: Summer Villains, “Die a Whig” (from Spacecramp)]

David HERMAN: Ok, I am ready.

Greg ROSALSKY: And, go!

HERMAN: Oh yeah it gets dry!

Gretta COHN: So he’s got half of a half of a bun in his mouth.

ROSALSKY: 35 seconds to go.

Suzie LECHTENBERG: Swallow it.

HERMAN: Blagh! I was so confident.

ROSALSKY: 4, 3, 2, 1 …and it’s over.

COHN: Put down the bun.

LECHTENBERG: Not even one.

ROSALSKY: Not even one, wow.

HERMAN: I am ashamed.

DUBNER: So, to fight the dry-bun problem, Kobi came up with a novel solution.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Dunking.

DUBNER: That’s right, dunking. As he fed himself the bunless, broken hot dogs with one hand, he used the other hand to dunk the bun in water. Then he’d squeeze out the excess water and smush the bun into his mouth, kind of like a bun ball. Not only did this make eating faster, but now he didn’t have to take time out between dogs to drink water.

DUBNER: So breaking, separating, dunking. What about the shake?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I had never seen that before. Maybe somebody was shaking but I had never seen that.

DUBNER: This became known as the Kobayashi Shake.

ANNOUNCERS: Kobayashi now look at him shaking almost like Axl Rose on the stage at the Garden. Did you see the wiggle get there for Kobayashi? Just moving it around like someone put an ice cubedown your back, look at that Kobayashi Shake. Chugging those hot dogs like a freshman at a keg party it’s unbelievable.

DUBNER: Kobi videotaped his training sessions. He charted all his data and analyzed it. He wanted to find out what worked and, just as important, what didn’t work. At one point, he thought he should chew each dog very vigorously – but he realized this not only took too long but was also bad for his jaw. He was tireless in his experimentation.

DUBNER: Why do you think others before you hadn’t experimented so much?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Maybe because they are not as serious as I am? Maybe that’s the only honest answer.

DUBNER: How did  you get so serious?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Simply that I when I tried it I thought the physical action felt like – this is a sport.

DUBNER: A sport, and nobody had treated it like a sport before.

JAMES: And I simply wanted to be number one in the world at this.

DUBNER: Um, no offense but you sound crazy it sounds nuts. And I say that with all due respect because you know how much I love you and respect what you’ve done, but what I mean by this is that you were bringing a level of scientific inquiry to an activity that nobody had bothered before. That’s what I mean by nuts. So did you think it was nuts? Or did it make perfect sense to you?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Now I guess I’m a little older and more mature now because now I can hear that and actually say like, oh and laugh with you but at that time there was definitely not even a miniscule part like a  speck of me that would have thought that that was nonsense, it just made sense.

[MUSIC: Espionage, “Girl From Orange County”]

DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: how does Kobi do at the Coney Island hot-dog contest?

WCBS: The kid is incredible. Total beating of the Americans.  He was like a conveyor belt, he was just putting them in two at a time.

DUBNER: And, assuming that you are not interested in following in Kobi’s footsteps specifically, is there something more general that can be learned from his mastery of competitive eating?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide I’ve been told this, or this is what society tells me, or they’ve been made to believe something.

DUBNER: And one more thing: if you don’t already subscribe to Freakonomics Radio — well, I think you should. It’s free. Sign up at iTunes, and you’ll get the next episode in your sleep.

[UNDERWRITING]

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

[MUSIC: Seks Bomba, “Theme From ‘Mondo Edgar’” (from Operation B.O.M.B.A.)]

DUBNER: Today we are telling the story of Takeru Kobayashi, who dreamed a dream of eating more hot dogs than any human being in history. This happens every Fourth of July at Coney Island, in New York City.

WCBS: Nathan’s annual hot dog eating contest is an international event. Champions from all over the world converging on Coney Island.

DUBNER: The contest had been going on for roughly four decades. The world record: 25-1/8 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. 25-1/8 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes! Just picture that for a minute. There aren’t many rules. The competitors can have as much of whatever beverage they want. They can put condiments on the dogs – but no self-respecting eater is going to waste time, or stomach capacity, on ketchup. All the dogs and buns that enter your body must – well, they must stay in your body. If not – this is known in the sport as a reversal of fortune — you can be disqualified. Okay, so it’s July 4, 2001. Kobi  is 23 years old. He’s only 5 foot 8, 130 pounds.

DUBNER: When you showed up that first time to compete did you feel that you belonged on stage with the other competitors? Did you feel you could, you were justified to be there?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I actually didn’t think even about that. I wasn’t thinking about that at all but I was full of the feeling of, I have come here to win.

[MUSIC: Binary, “In Hot Pursuit”]

DUBNER: So the bell rings

ARCHIVAL: 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

DUBNER: And you start to eat and  for 12 minutes you eat and you break and you separate, and you slurp and you dunk and you smush and you swallow and you shake and you do all that. And then the bell rings. And then you see your number. Yes? Were you paying attention to your number before that or did you only see it at the very end?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I only saw it at the end. I wasn’t looking at all at the number.

DUBNER: And what was the number?

KOBAYASHI: 50.

WCBS: The Americans just dropped their dogs in awe. The clear cut wiener: Kobayashi, who inhaled 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Shattering the world record. The kid is incredible. Total beating of the Americans.  He was like a conveyor belt, he was just putting them in two at a time. I saw he was around 30 when I was at around 8. I took my shirt off, started waving the white flag.  I can’t believe it, a new world record. 50!

DUBNER: 50…And the previous record was 25-1/8 right?

KOBAYASHI: Yes.

DUBNER: So you doubled the world record. So nobody doubles any world record, ever!

And what did you think then? What did you think when you saw that number, of 50?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I was actually shocked. I was not imagining at all that I would eat double, so it was super surprising to me.

DUBNER: Everyone was surprised. Some people were skeptical, wondering if Kobi was playing by the rules …

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: They said they that took me to outer space and some aliens had given the man two stomachs.  Um. Oh, he’s taking muscle relaxers.

DUBNER: That you were doping. Did you take muscle relaxers?

KOBAYASHI: No!

DUBNER: Do you have two stomachs?

KOBAYASHI: Eh. No!

JAMES: He thought about it.

[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “Mobley Turnaround” (from Instrumental, Action, Soul)]

DUBNER: He won Coney Island six straight years. And a lot of other eating contests too:

MAN: 106 tacos!

CHEERLEADERS: Go, go, Kobayashi, Go, go, Kobayashi. Go, Go…

WOMAN: 337 wings.

CHEERLEADERS: Go, go, Kobayashi, Go, go, Kobayashi.

MAN: We are setting a world record for the most grilled cheese sandwiches eaten in one minute.

CHEERLEADERS: Go, go, Kobayashi, Go, go, Kobayashi.

MAN: He took down an entire 12 inch pizza in one minute flat.

CHEERLEADERS: Go, go, Kobayashi, Go, go, Kobayashi.

MAN: Let’s make some noise for the one and only the culinary Houdini the best eater on earth Mr. Takeru Kobayashi! [Crowd roar!]

DUBNER: Kobi was not, however, unbeatable.

DUBNER: Tell me about the bear.

KOBAYASHI: [Laughs]

FOX TV: And now, introducing to my right, his opponent, the beast, he descends from Kodiak Island, Alaska.

DUBNER: Kobi tried to beat the bear in a contest taped for Fox TV.

FOX TV: This beast stands over eight feet tall and weighs in tonight at 1,089 pounds. He can digest over 60 pounds of food in a 24-hour period. He possesses the ultimate appetite for destruction! Meet the beast! The Alaskan Cruncher!

DUBNER: Even against a bear, Kobi thought he would win.

FOX TV: Now again the contest begins as soon as the bear eats the first hot dog…and it is underway. There we go…

DUBNER: In this case the dogs had no buns, right — why was that? Were the buns bad for the bear?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I was told the bear does not eat buns.

DUBNER: Well, tough for the bear! The bear had a better lawyer than you had apparently. So, was there a rehearsal?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Yes. there was a rehearsal

DUBNER: What happened at the rehearsal?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I won at the rehearsal.

FOX TV: When the bear came out I saw a flash of fear for a second in Kobayashi’s eyes…

DUBNER: In the contest itself what happened?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: When the real time came for it the bear was really quick, like very fast. I was so shocked I suddenly kind of almost panicked a little bit.

FOX TV: I don’t see how he can beat this bear….And that is it. We have a winner, the bear, the beast has won, The Alaskan Cruncher is our new champion. [ROAR!]

DUBNER: The bear beat you, the bear won. Did you ever figure out how the bear did so well in competition versus the practice?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES:  Of course that was the first question that I thought, I had to know. So I asked and I was told that the bear keeper had not given him anything to eat for like a day until coming in …

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: So they had actually kind of made the bear very hungry, and when it came in, it was starving. My competitor was a wild beast and animals when they are hungry they are different living things, they are …

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I’m not a strong eater because I’m hungry. Whereas I was competing against a beast that was hungry.

FOX TV: Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you — tonight the bear got Kobayashi. [ROAR!].

DUBNER: How do you handle defeat?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I always change my mentality very quickly. Simply said, sometimes you win because someone is having a bad day and sometimes someone beats you because you are having a bad day. Even winning or losing doesn’t necessarily even mean really that you are the best. So when you look at the long run you can’t think about you and competing against a rival or rivals. That doesn’t even tell you 100% that you are the best. What you can only do is compare yourself to yourself and try see how far you can actually go.

[MUSIC: Seks Bomba, “She Had Her Suspicions” (from Thanks and Goodnight)]

DUBNER: So what did Kobayashi do that was different than everyone before him? Here’s one thing: he redefined the problem he was trying to solve.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: The key to me was that I had to change the mentality that it was a sport. It wasn’t having a meal. It was to me I had to think this is a sport it has nothing to do with how you normally enjoy a meal. It’s just a physical action.

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: My honest opinion was that people were just eating as an extension of regular eating meals and it looked like they were all like rushing to try eat more than they normally could. Just one more hot dog, just a little more. And I thought well if you just look at it as a way of trying to put something in instead of, how much more can I eat than normal, then it really just takes a few questions and a little research on my part and experimentation to see how far I could actually go.

DUBNER: Here’s what the other competitive eaters were asking themselves: how can I fit more hot dogs in my stomach? Kobi asked a different question – only slightly different, perhaps, at least to a layperson, but it changed everything. His question was: how can I make one hot dog easier to eat? But it wasn’t just that. If everyone before him was asking the wrong question, he thought, then maybe he shouldn’t give much credence to the existing world record. Maybe it was an artificial barrier that he should just bust right through …

DUBNER: This contest had been going on for 40 years — why is that it took until you to change the mental and strategic approach to this sport?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I think people have to have a reason to rethink what could be wrong if they only see someone, if 40-something years, or more, people only see someone eating 25 is the limit then someone who can eat 20 might think wow, if I just eat five more I could actually do that and no one would think anything else can be done. But if you see someone suddenly come and eat 50 then everyone knows that there must be a different approach to the problem. And until something like that happens, people don’t question. So maybe I gave them a reason for everyone at the same moment to rethink the problem again.

DUBNER: So I’m curious if you could look around the world, at whether it’s something having to do with money or government or education — can you point to something where if people could only rethink the problem, redefine the problem, like you did and not accept the limit of the old world record like you did, can you think of an instance where it might not be so hard to do that where we’d all be better off if people could do that?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: I think it should be used for everything. I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide I’ve been told this, or this is what society tells me, or they’ve been made to believe something. If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use that method of thinking to everything the potential of human beings is great, it’s huge, compared to what they actually think of themselves. That is a factor that…If everyone could use it for everything, everything could be much better.

[MUSIC: Heavy G and the Boogaloo Communicators, “Theme from Green Scarab” (from Makin’ It Happen)]

DUBNER: There’s a good bit of evidence that Kobi is right about how artificial barriers can hold us back. He no longer laps the field in competitive-eating contests. In fact, Kobi was beaten for several years Coney Island by an eater named Joey Chestnut – who’s still the reigning champion – and the guys who used to eat just 15 or 20 hot dogs now routinely eat 30 and 40. Some of them use Kobi’s methods; all of them benefit from knowing that the old limits weren’t real. As for Kobi himself? He lives in New York now, but still travels the world, eating for a living. But you won’t find him in Coney Island on July 4th any more. A few years back, he got into a contract dispute with the organizers. So he’s started his own hot-dog eating contest, which also takes place in New York on July 4th. This year he’ll be eating at the Rooftop of “230 5th” bar in Manhattan. These days, the hot-dog eating contest runs only 10 minutes – but the numbers are even higher.

DUBNER: How many do you think you’ll eat this year?

KOBAYASHI: More than 72.

DUBNER: More than 72. So more than six dozen hot dogs and buns in ten minutes on 4th of July. What will you do then on the 5th of July?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: Just resting. I think just resting.

DUBNER: How long does it take to recover?

KOBAYASHI: [Speaking in Japanese]

JAMES: It depends on how I feel, but…I like to rest for at least half a day.

DUBNER: Oh that’s it? You must be a great athlete because most of us with even three hot dogs we need to rest for a whole day. So not only are you better on the front end — you’re better on the back end too.

CREDITS

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  1. superfancy says:

    When I first heard about the Coney Island Hot Dog eating contest, featuring some amazing eaters, I thought to myself: “This sounds like the story of a PR guy who travels the world looking for supereaters.

    A few months later I met my then-neighbor, Richard Shea, who quickly confirmed my theory.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. Julia says:

    What they did to the bear kind of sounds like animal abuse..

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 5
  3. David Meyer says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 22
    • KarlPA says:

      Large amounts of food are thrown out everyday unfortunately. In America, in order to keep shelves stocked and people spending, excess reserves of meats are always on hand in case another consumer is ready to resupply. Because of spoilage, a lot of this excess is thrown away. I would rather see a larger portion get eaten, even in this gluttonous food sport, than see it thrown out.

      The real problem isn’t the food sports and competitive eating, but actually with the meat companies and their inability to produce “enough” for the population. But when it costs less than a penny to make a hotdog, it makes no difference to the companies if it is thrown out or not. It is worth more to make it and take the risk of it being bought or wasted due to spoilage. Maybe a responsible limit on production is what we need. Maybe there is another solution.

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  4. DrewInVA says:

    Every elite competitor has developed skills that can probably benefit most of us: determination, the ability to challenge normal human limits, or a refusal to fear failure. But I tend to agree that glorifying those who participate in such clearly unhealthy activities diverts us a bit from the pursuit of a more enriched and enlightened society, which I like to believe is what we’re all trying to do – each in our own way. Happy post-Independence Day, and cheers to our great nation.

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  5. David says:

    Where is Steve Levitt?

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  6. gary says:

    In the 60′s a late night movie show in Cleveland used to have a pizza eating contest, one on one. The champion was “Mush Mouth Mariano Pacetti.” Thrashed all comers for many weeks until they brought in a German Shepherd. The dog won, but was disqualified for some reason or other. In eating contests never bet against the animal.

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  7. caleb b says:

    I liked the podcast and I think it is a funny contest, but I’m willing to bet that we won’t have a contest like this in 2020.

    Someone is going to die by bursting their stomach or some other horrible gastro problem and that will be the end of basically all eating competitions. (that little waiver they sign will NOT stop a massive lawsuit – plus, no product wants to be associated with death).

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  8. Ben says:

    Might want to consider the attached story of a man who died in one of these competitions

    http://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/latest-news/388033/Walter-Eagle-Tail-chokes-dies-hot-dog-eating-contest-Custer

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