Akira Ono  /  AP file
Takeru Kobayashi of Japan, right, stuffs into his mouth one of 44 1/2 hot dogs and buns that he ate in 12 minutes during the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest July 4, 2003, on Coney Island, N.Y. Kobayashi came in first place while third place finisher Eric Booker, left, consumed 29 hot dogs and buns.
updated 6/17/2004 3:51:04 PM ET 2004-06-17T19:51:04

He’s taken on sumo wrestlers. No contest. Former NFL star William “The Refrigerator” Perry, three times his size, took up the gauntlet. Not even close.

Nobody, but nobody, can eat hot dogs like Japan’s Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi. And, once again, he’s in training to devour the field at one of competitive eating’s most venerable battles — the annual Fourth of July hot dog wolfing contest on Coney Island.

“It’s like any other sport. You really have to be dedicated to win,” Kobayashi, who has won the New York City contest an unprecedented three straight years, said this week from his home in Nagoya, a city in central Japan.

Everything from asparagus to tacos
Not to be confused with your average armchair gluttony, competitive eating is starting to look like a potential Olympic event. It has its own governing body — the New York-based International Federation of Competitive Eating — and branches in the United States, Japan, England, Thailand, Ukraine, Germany, Canada and Ireland.

Hot dogs aren’t the only food on the plate, either.

Along with such mainstay categories as ice cream, doughnuts and tacos, the IFOCE maintains world records for everything from deep fried asparagus (5.75 pounds in 10 minutes, by Alexandria, Va., native Sonya Thomas who weighs just 105 pounds) to baseball-sized matzo balls (21 in 5 minutes, 25 seconds by 460-pound Eric Booker, a New York subway conductor).

For serious hot dog eaters, technique can be pivotal. Kobayashi swears by the “Solomon approach” — he breaks his wieners and buns in half before shoving them mouthward. “It saves me half the chewing effort,” he said.

Kobayashi, who weighs 155 pounds, says competitive eating requires a special brand of bodybuilding.

Training starts months in advance
“You have to gradually build up your gut by eating larger and larger amounts of food, and then be sure to work it all off so body fat doesn’t put a squeeze on the expansion of your stomach in competition,” he said. “I start my regime about two months before a big competition.”

As the sport grows, so do the controversies.

Kobayashi’s victory at Coney Island last year was marred by allegations he used the “Roman method,” a strictly banned technique involving a failure — deliberate or otherwise — to keep everything down.

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Disgruntled opponents have also questioned whether he isn’t using performance-enhancing drugs — muscle relaxants.

But the strength of Japan on the world piggery circuit is hard to dispute.

Japan’s dominance of the Coney Island contest, held since 1916, began in 1997, when Hirofumi Nakajima won the first of his two championships. Kazutoyo Arai won in 2000, and the title has belonged to Japanese eaters ever since.

Perhaps that’s because Japan holds its competitive eaters in special regard. Eating competitions have been a staple of TV game shows for at least a decade, with competitors most commonly called on to inhale noodles, rice or boiled eggs.

'The prince of gluttony'
The best eaters, like Kobayashi, are celebrities. Hailed by his fans as “the prince of gluttony,” the 25-year-old earned an estimated $150,000 in prize money last year.

“Japan owes much of its strength in competitive eating to the fact that TV shows put up big money, and so people trained themselves to a high level,” he said.

Kobayashi got his start four years ago on the weekly prime-time “TV Champion” event. Later that year, he set the Japan record for eating Chinese dumplings by downing 400 in one hour on another show. He won his first hot dog eating contest — setting the world record of 50½ in 12 minutes — four months later.

Though currently without serious rival — the record for an American is a mere 30½ — Kobayashi is confident he can push himself to do better at Coney Island, where he swallowed 44½ hot dogs in 12 minutes last year.

“I think I can do it,” he said. “I’m shooting for 51.5 hot dogs.”

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