Ruptured Stomachs: The History of Competitive-Eating Injuries

Previously published Slate articles made new.
July 3 2008 12:57 PM

Death by Cheese and the Dreaded Ruptured Stomach

The past and future of competitive eating injuries.

On June 24, Japan's Takeru Kobayashi posted some troubling news on his blog: The greatest eater in the world could no longer open his mouth. The culprit? An arthritic jaw. Kobayashi, who has dominated every Fourth of July hot-dog-eating contest since 2001, later blamed the injury on wisdom teeth that had grown in crookedly, coupled with overly vigorous training. As the Google translation put it, "Long time strength training, becoming big stress in the jaw, it is to be accumulated." Sounds reasonable—and if Kobayashi's jaw had crapped out six months ago, few would have noticed. But this is hot dog season. When the champ implied that he might not compete in this Wednesday's big contest at Coney Island, the 29-year-old's refusenik mandible was the lead story on the New York Times' Web site. A few days later, he beat a quick retreat. "Thanks to everyone's support," he blogged, "I am able to aggressively pursue treatment for my condition. ... I look forward to facing my fellow competitors on July 4th!"

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

It's rare, to say the least, for a competitive-eating injury to rate coverage on CNN and ESPN. Eating-related maladies tend to be chuckled over by newscasters and DJs, who see eating contests as fodder for light human-interest stories, and exploited by op-ed jeremiahs, who see competitive eating as the apotheosis of a litany of American sins: gluttony, obesity, our love of dumb spectacles. Honestly, most eating injuries are pretty unsurprising, arising from health conditions you'd expect to find among the professionally hungry (obesity, diabetes) or from the poor choices of inexperienced eaters who get in over their heads. But Kobayashi's sore jaw deserves all the attention it's getting and more. It is something new to competitive eating: a true athletic injury. By introducing a tragic dimension to a phenomenon that has always gorged on irony and slapstick comedy, the man they call "Tsunami" is doing competitive eating a great and useful service.

You can't say the same for the eaters of yore. The annals of gurgitation are dotted with strokes and blocked windpipes, of guts literally busted. Go as far back as you like. The novel The Golden Ass, written around A.D. 200, tells of an ancient food fighter almost choking to death on a piece of cheese. The native Tlingit peoples of Alaska used to hold raucous eating contests at their potlatch feasts; one such bacchanal came to a tragic end when a warrior ate a box full of dried hemlock bark and washed it down with water. According to a turn-of-the-century ethnography of the Tlingit, "This caused the hemlock bark to swell and his stomach to burst."

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As for more recent harms, you can't top Mort Hurst's Guinness World Record attempt in 1991. Hurst, a MoonPie-eating champ from North Carolina, suffered a stroke after eating 38 soft-boiled eggs in 29 seconds. He recovered and went on to compete again. Others weren't so lucky. In 2002, a 14-year-old schoolkid in Japan raced his friends at bread-eating, choked, and died. In 2004, a Japanese housewife choked to death on a wheat-rice cake at a contest in Hyogo prefecture. And just this January, a 28-year-old woman in California died of water intoxication after drinking almost two gallons of water in a contest sponsored by a morning radio show. She was trying to win a Nintendo Wii.

Kobayashi's invalidism is interesting because it doesn't fit any of the prior templates. It's not related to obesity or cardiovascular unhealth; like other top eaters these days, Kobayashi is a gym rat. Rather than the sudden trauma of an amateur, the Japanese eater's jaw distress seems to be a form of temporomandibular joint disorder either caused or exacerbated by sheer overuse of the jaw. This makes sense. In recent years, American eaters have nearly matched the great one in raw stomach capacity, meaning that the champ has been forced to rely more on the physical attribute that makes him unique. Kobayashi's go-to body part isn't his stomach, as many mistakenly believe, but his uncommonly strong jaw, coupled with a loosey-goosey esophagus that he can apparently relax at will. On his blog, he compared his sore jaw to a pitching injury. It's like Orel Hershiser tearing his rotator cuff in 1990. That shoulder just frayed and frayed and then finally ... ripped.

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.