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Extremes of achievement have always fascinated us. The Guinness Book of Records has made a fortune documenting the outer boundaries of human experience with the implicit message that competition brings out the best in all of us, unlocking our pent up potential. While many of the Guinness records are indeed worthy acknowledgements of human accomplishment, some are testament to low points in the human experience.

Among the bottom feeders of Guinness notoriety are the “champions” of modern day excess – competitive eaters.

Among the bottom feeders of Guinness notoriety are the “champions” of modern day excess – competitive eaters

The International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) acts as the central resource for the ‘sport’, enabling such noteworthy world record eaters as Dominic “The Doginator” Cardo, Ed “Cookie” Jarvis, and Bill “El Wingador” Simmons to earn awards and recognition for their gluttonous prowess. The IFOCE counts thousands of competitors in its league, including top-ranked eaters such as Joey “the Jaws” Chestnut, Sonya “the Black Widow” Thomas and “Notorious B.O.B.” Bob Shoudt.

The video below features Bill “El Wingador” Simmons, 5 time Philadelphia Wing Bowl champion. Bill is looking forward to shooting a pilot TV series called “America’s Biggest Eater”.

It’s not only the competitors and their handlers that grab my attention – it’s the thousands of engaged, adoring fans. The lovely young cheerleaders, the children in the crowd, what are they thinking?

Speed eating ‘legend’ Takeru Kobayashi holds the records for fastest time to eat a bowl of pasta, most Twinkies eaten in one minute, most hamburgers eaten in three minutes, most hot dogs eaten in twelve minutes, and most meatballs eaten in one minute.

As a young high school student I was intrigued by the short story The Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka, which was required reading. Set in a circus sideshow tent in 1920, the “hunger artist” starved himself for all to witness. Each day was marked on a slate, and the performer was determined to break the all-time record for food deprivation. Drawn to perform by the need for money, his motives evolved as the days passed and weakness and delirium set in. His determination to break the record became a matter of personal pride, but as he diminished in size and vitality so did his audience. In the end, the hunger artist’s great achievement went unnoticed as he sunk into his hay throne, uncrowned, dead and forgotten.

The days when circus goers would pay to watch a man starve are thankfully gone, but the pendulum has swung to its opposite extreme. Watching a man stuff himself to the point of sickness is an assault on human dignity, demeaning to contestants and viewers alike.

It may seem petty picking on this thin slice of the entertainment world, but reinforcing the notion that “over-eating is OK” is not what we need these days. With our rising levels of obesity and its long-term health implications, glamorizing consumption is irresponsible. When considering how many people are starving in the world, eating competitions make our culture appear wasteful and self-absorbed.

Competitive eating, for all its spectacle, is entirely lacking in taste.