How a 6-time Nathan's hot dog eating champion forever changed the classic July 4th contest with a simple mental shift

Mario Tama/Getty ImagesTakeru Kobayashi’s groundbreaking technique was as much mental as it was physical.
  • In 2001, Japanese competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi forever changed the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, a Fourth of July tradition.
  • Before Kobayashi ate 50 hot dogs with buns in 12 minutes, the record stood at 25 1/8 in the same amount of time, but after his performance, the record was regularly broken and now stands at 72 in 10 minutes.
  • In an episode of the podcast “Freaknonomics Radio,” Kobayashi argued that his success was more psychological than physical, and that by setting a vastly bigger record, he redefined what people thought was possible, allowing them to push themselves.

The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every Fourth of July at Coney Island in Brooklyn since 1967, is like the World Cup of competitive eating.

Last year, American Joey Chestnut not only claimed the championship title for the tenth time, but set a new record for the second year in a row by finishing 72 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes.

It’s become normal to expect competitors from around the world to eat such ungodly amounts of processed meat and their doughy rolls at rapid speed.

But it wasn’t until a 23-year-old from Japan named Takeru Kobayashi entered the scene in 2001 and ate 50 hot dogs and buns that anyone believed this was possible. Before Kobayashi, the record was just 25 and 1/8 eaten in 12 minutes.

In a 2014 episode of the podcast “Freakonomics Radio,” host Stephen Dubner interviewed Kobayashi and got insight into his goal-setting and motivation that’s applicable far beyond such an extreme contest.

As Dubner put it, “He redefined the problem he was trying to solve.”

“Here’s what the other competitive eaters were asking themselves: How could I fit more hot dogs in my stomach?” Dubner said. “Kobi asked a different question: How can I make one hot dog easier to eat?”

When Kobayashi was in college in Japan, a friend of his enrolled him in a competitive eating contest on a lark, but Kobayashi decided he’d give it his all. He paced himself better than his competitors and won.

Realising that it was his psychology more than the size of his stomach that allowed him to win, he made a giant leap and decided he would be the greatest competitive eater in the world, and would one day be crowned at Coney Island.

“The key to me was that I had to change the mentality that it was a sport – it wasn’t having a meal,” he told Dubner. Kobayashi said he noticed previous competitors in the hot dog eating contest ate as if a friend had dared them to eat a bunch of food, whereas he saw an opportunity to dissect the physical action of eating and optimise it for speed and efficiency.

Kobi began intensely experimenting with different techniques for sausage (American-style hot dogs weren’t available in Japan) and bun consumption. It was during this time he crafted the game-changing bun dip, where he dipped the hot dog bun in a cup of water to break down its starch, squeeze out the excess water, and toss it into his mouth as a ball. It wasn’t appetizing (or visually appealing), but it worked.

Takeru kobayashiCindy Ord/Getty ImagesKobayashi may no longer be the champ he once was, but his mark on competitive eating is permanent.

That year, he more than doubled the existing championship record with the 50 hot dogs he ate in 12 minutes. He would win six years in a row before Chestnut dethroned him as the dominant force on the Coney Island circuit in 2007.

What was even more remarkable is that the same people who previously averaged around 25 hot dogs were now pushing themselves to 40 or 50.

Some mimicked Kobayashi’s approach, but more importantly, he had redefined the limit itself. As Dubner noted, Kobayashi had broken a 40-year artificial barrier.

“I think people have to have a reason to rethink what could be wrong,” Kobayashi said. “I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is, and they decide that, ‘Well, I’ve been told this or this is what society tells me’ – they have just been made to believe something.”

Kobayashi told Dubner that he found his days on the competitive eating circuit to be more profound than most would think.

“If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use that method of thinking for everything, the potential of human beings, I think, is really great,” he told Dubner.

You can listen to the full podcast episode below.

This is an updated version of a story that originally ran on July 3, 2017.

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