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Hot dog-eating championship adds contest for ladies who lunch

By Verena Dobnik
Associated Press / July 4, 2011

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NEW YORK - This year’s July Fourth race to stuff your face with hot dogs has a new women-only pigout.

“Serena Williams didn’t have to beat Roger Federer to win the Wimbledon title, and we don’t think Sonya Thomas should have to beat Joey Chestnut,’’ said master of ceremonies George Shea.

Thomas, known as The Black Widow of competitive eating, set a women’s world record in 2009 by stuffing 41 hot dogs into her 105-pound frame in 10 minutes.

Thomas and eight other women will compete today on Coney Island just before the men’s stomach-churning Nathan’s Famous hot dog feast, which this year again features world champion Chestnut, nicknamed Jaws. The 27-year-old from San Jose, Calif., ate his way to a fourth consecutive championship last year by downing 54 dogs for the $20,000 purse.

Notably absent again this year is his chief rival, Takeru Kobayashi, 33, who held the world record for hot dog eating from 2001 to 2007 but plans his own eating contest on a Manhattan rooftop seven miles away.

Three Chinese contenders flew in from Beijing to join the competition, which will be televised live on ESPN.

Thomas has beaten Chestnut in the past. She ate 181 chicken wings to his 169 during the National Buffalo Wing Festival in Buffalo last September.

Nathan’s officials say they feel that women champions like Thomas and Juliet Lee, also weighing about 105 pounds, “are not getting full exposure for their accomplishments; we’re selling them short.’’ Chestnut weighs in at 218 pounds.

Hence, the added competition on the same stage as the men.

“To me, this excitement is similar to when women were given the right to vote,’’ says challenger Larell Marie Mele, a 133-pounder from Long Pond, Pa.

The women’s competition will start at 11:30 a.m.

To add to the day’s yuck factor, a special pink champion’s belt was made for the ladies - by sponsor Pepto-Bismol. The winner of the men’s contest takes home the Nathan’s mustard belt.

Kobayashi, the Japanese star who plans his own eating show today, remains ineligible for the Coney Island event for refusing to sign an exclusive contract with Major League Eating, the fast-food equivalent of the NFL.

Kobayashi spent a night behind bars in Brooklyn after storming Nathan’s stage during the 2010 competition. The celebrity eater, dubbed The Tsunami, rushed the stage and fought police.

He says he wants to be free to enter worldwide events sanctioned by other groups.

Shea said the league has repeatedly approached Kobayashi to discuss his possible return to Coney Island.

“He’s refused to even talk to us,’’ says Shea. “He was always a Major League eater, so for him to say he’s banned isn’t fair or accurate.’’

The diminutive, soft-spoken Kobayashi said through an interpreter he would “be willing to negotiate - if they took the exclusive clause out.’’

Smiling, he sat in the open-air rooftop bar at 230 Fifth Avenue where he’ll eat today, with a giant plasma TV airing the official competition live. Kobayashi’s unofficial face-stuffing feat is to begin at the same time as the Coney Island contest.

Declares Shea: “The world hot dog-eating champion will be crowned on Coney Island’’ - the birthplace of fast food.

The first dog was sold there around 1870 by German butcher Charles Feltman. His Polish-born employee, Nathan Handwerker, opened his own Coney Island business in 1916. Nathan’s Famous is still the backdrop for the contest that started that year.

According to local lore, immigrant men started the competition after arguing about who was most American, settling their dispute by trying to out-eat each other. Irishman Jim Mullen won with 13 dogs.