[Updates Below] And here we go. The annual 4th of July Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest is about to get started, pitting stomach against stomach in what is now being considered a sport (it's on ESPN!) even though you're actually getting less fit as you compete. According to Nathan's archives, the contest has taken place every year since 1916, except in 1941 to protest the war in Europe and in 1971 as a protest to "civil unrest and the reign of free love."

Starting in 2008, the contest time was shortened from 12 minutes to 10 minutes "due to recent evidence suggesting the original contest in 1916 was this length (rather than 12 minutes)"—but the 2008 competition went into overtime anyway. Contestants must be 18 years old and may compete if they fulfill one of four conditions: the defending champion, winners of a regional qualifying contest for that season, qualifying as one of two wildcards or are invited by the International Federation of Competitive Eating. Six-time contest winner Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi will not be competing this year, due to a reported "contract dispute." But that hasn't stopped Joey "Jaws" Chestnut from training for a possible "koby sneak attack." ESPN starts its broadcast at noon!

Our contest winners Michael Bisberg and Laura Silver are already at Coney Island. They tell us they can hear vuvuzelas already...even though they are banned! They also report, "OMG...They're giving out a prize to the best Justin Bieber haircut. Overheard in the crowd: 'What do you think about all this nonsense?'"

[Update 11:59 a.m.] According to ESPN, over 7 billion hot dogs will be consumed during "hot dog season," from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Besides Chestnut, favorite competitors are Tim "Eater X" Janus and Bob Shoudt. It's currently about 94 degrees outside.

[Update 12:03 p.m.] ESPN has a graphic of hot dog eating "Gamechangers," including Kobayashi, who pioneered the technique of separating the hot dogs and buns, and dunking the buns in lemonade. They also say even if Kobayashi showed up, he would not be able to compete. Competitor Pat Bertoletti said, "Without Kobayashi, it's not Nathan's." But Chestnut doesn't seem intimidated: he says he thinks he can eat 70 hot dogs this year. He set the record last year with 68.

[Update 12:11 p.m.] Nathan's is preparing over 1,000 hot dogs for the competitors. From contest winners Michael Bisberg & Laura Silver: "[MLE President] George Shea is singing "99 Red Balloons...in German." The heat must be really affecting everyone. ESPN says this is the largest crowd so far. Police estimated there would be about 40,000 spectators this year.

[Update 12:16 p.m.] ESPN asks if the record can be beaten this year. Given last year's results—with Chestnut finishing with 68 hot dogs, Kobayashi at 64.5 hot dogs and Pat Bertoletti with 55 hot dogs—the competition is really between Chestnut and his own record. One fan from Jersey said, "Exactly one year ago, we saw Joey Chestnut eat 68 hot dogs. He's eating 70 today! USA!" But rookie Ben Monson might make a strong showing; he once defeated Chestnut in a Flautas-eating competition.

[Update 12:23 p.m.] Bob Shoudt says the last time he had solid food was four days ago. He says, "I think it's got to be in the low 70s to take it today," but wants to at least eat his age (45). The announcer keeps calling Joey Chestnut "Joie Chitwood."

[Update 12:28 p.m.] MLE President George Shea is announcing all the competitors, like Bryan "Big Sexy" Beard, Crazy Legs Conti, and "The Lovely" Juliet Lee, who once ate 13.23 lbs. of cranberry sauce.

[Update 12:37 p.m.] Champion Joey Chestnut makes his entrance, mustard belt in hand, to The Who's "Baba O'Riley." So far, no Kobayashi sightings!

[Update 12:41 p.m.] KOBAYASHI SIGHTING! He's in the crowd, but doesn't seem to be making a move to the stage. MB and LS say he is "looking wistful."

[Update 12:43 p.m.] And they're off.

[Update 12:47 p.m.] Five minutes in, Joey Chestnut is at 34 hot dogs, Tim Janus is at 25 and Bertoletti is at 24.

[Update 12.53 p.m.] Chestnut is the champion once again, pounding 54 hot dogs and buns in just 10 minutes. However, it's a far cry from last year's record of 68 hot dogs. Did Kobayashi's absence mean Chestnut took it easy this year? Chestnut took a large chug of Pepto Bismol immediately after the competition. Tim Janus came in second place with 45, and Pat Bertoletti was third with 37. Chestnut said, "I think anyone would have had a hard time beating me today."

Update: Kobayashi was reportedly arrested shortly after the event.