Dog Watching: Q&A with a Nathan's Judge

Laura Kusnyer

The ESPN cameras were perched; some 40,000 fans eagerly awaited their heroes' valiant return to the stage; and the referees prepped for 10 minutes of death-defying, face-to-face action. It was the annual Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on the Fourth of July, yet another of Coney Island's prized quirks and freakish delights. After two years on the front lines, Ken Podziba, commissioner of the New York City Sports Commission—one of the event's many judges—knows the competitive-eating contest better than most. See what he has to say about the outcome, the future of the sport and the inevitable dangers of rapid overeating (professionally called "the Roman incident method").

Joey Chestnut wins again! Did you expect Takeru Kobayashi to take back the belt, or is Chestnut too unstoppable?
Going into the contest, I really didn't know. Before Joey Chestnut stunned the world in 2007 by defeating the unstoppable Japanese eating machine, there were reports that Kobayashi was suffering from jaw arthritis that emerged from improperly grown wisdom teeth and years of intensive training from all of his eating competitions. Then last year they tied at 59 dogs each, and Chestnut prevailed in the overtime five-dog eat-off by just a bite. Saturday's competition solidified Joey's dominance. There's no doubt he's the undisputed Hot Dog King!

Third-place winner Pat "Deep Dish" Bertoletti had a stellar performance at 55 dogs. Emcee George Shea called him "the future of the sport." Do you agree?
Of course. He recently silenced both Chestnut and Kobayashi at a chicken-wing contest in Las Vegas that appeared on Spike TV. He has a real sweet tooth and, at only 24, holds nearly every pie record on the books. He's also demonstrated his versatility by becoming the jalapeño-eating champion of the world. As long as this gurgitator stays healthy, trains hard and works out, he will definitely be a force to be reckoned with.

As a judge, what exactly is your role up there?
My role is to count each hot dog consumed by a particular contestant. There are two judges per contestant: one counts while the other turns the number chart. Since my partner didn't show up, I was charged with performing both functions this year. The International Federation of Competitive Eating [IFOCE] doesn't allow slow-motion replays, so the judges must get it right. This year, I was the judge for rapper Eric "Badlands" Booker. I knew he didn't have a shot. The previous day he was part of a three-person team that was publicly humiliated by Bunny, Minnie and Susie—three elephants from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus—in the humans vs. elephants Nathan's Famous bun-eating contest. I could tell he was feeling emotionally deflated having just let down his species. As much as I wanted to lift his spirits, I took an oath to be fair and impartial—so I kept quiet and empathized with him in silence.

Have you ever been hit by any, um, debris?
I had a close call while judging in 2007. During the final seconds of the competition, defending champion Kobayashi had a Roman method incident [IFOCE's term for regurgitating—no, seriously, that's what they call it]. He wasn't the guy I was judging, but I was right next to his judge and fortunately saw a few bits flying, so I moved a step to my right. Kobayashi knew that could be the end for him, so he desperately consumed almost everything he'd unexpectedly discharged. It still wasn't enough for a victory, though, and this pivotal moment proved to be the end of Kobayashi's reign and the commencement of Chestnut's dominance.

Some people don't accept competitive eating as a serious sport. What would you say to convince them otherwise?
No one was more critical of Major League Eating than I. In fact, I hated the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. It felt unfair that other sporting events didn't get nearly as much attention. Then, in 2005, when Mayor Bloomberg wasn't available to host the annual weigh-in contest, I was asked to fill in. The outrageousness of the characters seduced me—they reminded me of the professional wrestlers I loved in my youth. I now see how competitive eating fits in as a sport.There's a great deal of exertion both physically and mentally while having to contend with the throngs of fans. And like any sport, strategy is key—just look at how Kobayashi pioneered the "Solomon method" by breaking each dog in half and then eating the two halves at once before consuming the bun. And all sports fans love rivalries: Yankees vs. Red Sox; Ali vs. Frasier; Chestnut vs. Kobayashi! I can even envision a Competitive Eating Hall of Fame someday.

The energy before and during the contest was phenomenal, a real showcase of Coney Island pride.
With all the changes Coney Island has gone through over the past century, Nathan's and its hot dog–eating contest seem to be the one constant. And just as the hot dog-eating contest is getting more and more popular—40,000 passionate fans squeezed by Nathan's to watch live, and it was ESPN's highest rating of the day—so is Coney Island. I take my family there on weekends, and I'm amazed at how many fun activities there are—the rides, beach, aquarium and now the circus! I love walking on the boardwalk—it's so alive, and such a great place to people-watch.

Who do you predict will win next year?
I think Joey Chestnut will take the coveted Mustard Yellow Belt for the fourth consecutive year. Right now, he's the gastric gladiator to beat!