Kobayashi's injury won't be the last. Thanks to increasing prize money and media exposure, there's incentive now for competitive eaters to challenge the physical limits of the body. Most eaters aren't challenging those limits by trying to mimic Kobayashi's jaw and esophagus—that part of the champion's game is probably innate—but by stretching their stomachs with huge volumes of chugged liquid (water, milk, etc., up to two or more gallons at a time). On account of this capacity training, it's clear that the future of eating injuries lies not in the jaw but in the gut.
In addition to a theoretical risk of gastric rupture—a burst stomach, a rare and usually fatal event—capacity-trainers are endangering their future ability to digest food normally. Nobody knows how stretching will affect the gut five or 10 years down the line. Indeed, a new documentary on the National Geographic Channel, Science of Speed Eating, suggests that the stomach of one speed eater—filmed in real-time by a curious gastroenterologist—has adapted to capacity training by basically paralyzing itself. Of course, this also means that capacity training works. Two years ago, Kobayashi was the only person alive who could eat at least 40 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. Now, three young American eaters can too: Joey Chestnut (59.5), Patrick Bertoletti (46), and Tim "Eater X" Janus (41.5). Chestnut now holds the world record for hot dogs, having beaten Kobayashi's prior record of 53.75 at a June qualifier. He predicts he'll eat 65 franks on Wednesday.
Kobayashi surely felt the same way—hence his overtraining for Coney Island and subsequent mandibular shutdown. At this point, he is unlikely to take back his record from the young guns. Chestnut is 23. Bertoletti is 22. Both have been eating for only a couple of years. Kobayashi is 29, with more than seven years of eating-related wear and tear. Essentially, he's an old man—think of Roger Clemens, his groin acting up, his fastball no longer so punishing at age 44, or Jimmy Connors running on empty at the 1991 U.S. Open. As athletes get older, their weapons break down. The great athletes replace those weapons with new ones: mental focus, guile, experience, the ability to overcome pain. These sporting tropes are the same ones that eating-contest impresarios use faux-heroic language to satirize and mock. These are the tropes that Kobayashi now embodies, and through which he lends competitive eating a new kind of pathos. He is the declining prodigy, his body held together by pain pills, protein shakes, a mouthpiece, and willpower.
The apparent frivolity of competitive eating has always colored our response to its bad health outcomes. An eating injury or death has never seemed tragic or heroic, just … sad. Kobayashi's injury ought to change that. It deserves to move competitive eating past the joke/jeremiad dichotomy and into the framework of actual sport—with all of sport's narrative dignity, its metaphorical richness, and, most importantly, its empathy for the human bodies it churns through and spits out. The squeak of the Tsunami's jaw grinding against its joint isn't the sound of a freak meeting his end. It's the sound of his sport limping, heavy-gutted and mumble-mouthed, into a new Golden Age.