The hallowed American tradition of competitive eating on the Fourth of July could not be stopped by coronavirus, as the 104th annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog-Eating Contest forged ahead Saturday in the depths of an undisclosed location instead on the Coney Island boardwalk.
Reigning champion Joey Chestnut, 36, broke his own previous world record with 75 hot dogs and buns consumed in the men’s division, and returning champion Miki Sudo, 34, also smashed a world record with 48.5 hot dogs and buns in the women’s division. The previous record had been set in 2013 by Sonya “Black Widow” Thomas for 45 hot dogs and buns.
To deter crowds, the contest was held in a secret location -- rumored to be the basement of Nathan’s iconic restaurant on Surf Avenue in Coney Island -- and televised at noon on Saturday on ESPN in what was touted as “one of the first major televised post-Covid competitive events to be held in the US.” Betting on the event was also legalized in three states, including New Jersey, for the first time ever.
Some of the accommodations made to protect the contestants and staff included a smaller slate of contestants -- five instead of the usual dozen eaters. Plexiglass barriers divided the eating table, and staff wore Nathan’s-branded masks, abiding by state guidelines. Still, as the contest commenced, the ESPN announcers commented on droplets being sprayed by the contestants while eating.
Announcer George Shea lingered behind the leading contestants commenting while wearing a mask, though by the end of the men's competition Shea’s mask slipped off his face entirely.
Sudo said she missed the usual crowds of thousands of spectators. “To everybody watching at home I wish you could be here,” she said in her victory interview.
But Chestnut acknowledged the unusual circumstances made for better conditions for him: “The dogs are cooked really well today,” he said in his victory interview. He added, “they're cooking less hotdogs ... Usually they're cooking like 1,000 hot dogs for all eaters; now it's a quarter of that. So that helped a lot. And being inside helps.”
At least three competitors were kept away from this year’s contest because of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 14-day quarantine policy for travelers from states with spiking rates of COVID-19. Michelle Lesco, who was the women’s division runner up in 2019, is an Arizona resident and Matt “Megatoad” Stonie, who defeated Chestnut in 2015, is a California resident. Gideon Oji, the 5th ranked professional eater in the world, lives in North Carolina.
Chestnut, who also lives in California, said that Major League Eating brought him to New York five days ahead of schedule to deal with the quarantine, which also forced him to cancel his final practice for the contest.
For their first place finish, Chestnut and Sudo will each receive $10,000 in prize money.