Brian "Yellowcake" Subich, a top-twenty eater, tells a story about a baked-bean contest from the summer of 2004. The field included Sonya, Subich, and Cookie Jarvis. After just two and a half minutes, George Shea announced that Sonya was almost done with her 8.4 pounds of beans. "I said, 'You have to be freaking kidding me,'" Subich told me. "What does she do? Pour ’em down her shirt? Put 'em into a plastic bag?" At Shea’s announcement, Jarvis lifted his head, glanced at Sonya, registered what Subich calls "the most crestfallen look you could ever imagine," and vomited beans through his nostrils.
Sonya was forcing a realignment in American eating. When asked for the secret to her success, she would just wink and describe her love for her adoptive country, as if that explained everything.
"In America," she told me, "if you have desire you can do anything. Is big. Big." She holds her hands out wide. "Big country!"
Sonya Thomas is known as the Black Widow. She's not the only personality on the eating circuit, though. Besides Kobayashi and her, the organizer of the major competitions, George Shea, also seems like a character for the ages. He narrates the events like some kind of postmodern auctioneer. The effect inspired the Atlantic's writer, Jason Fagone, to some lofty prose:
Shea’s eating contests are poetic in their blatancy, their brazen mixture of every American trait that seems to terrify the rest of the planet: our hunger for natural resources that may melt the ice caps and flood Europe, our hunger for cheap thrills that turns Muslim swing voters into car bombers. If anti-American zealots anywhere in the world wanted to perform a minstrel show of our culture, this is what they’d come up with. Competitive eating is a symbolic hair ball coughed up by the American id. It is meaningful like a tumor is meaningful. It seems to have a purpose, a message, and its message is this: Look upon our gurgitators, ye Mighty, and despair. Behold these new super-gluttons, these ambassadors of the American appetite, these Horsemen of the Esophagus.
...Here on the gluttony circuit, atop the same cultural terrain that made me feel, in my bitterest moments, ashamed to be an American, the eaters were planting their dearest desires—for fair and honest competition, for a pat on the back, for a chance to get noticed, to prove themselves, to make their kids and spouses proud.
Some statistics, for future reference to just how disgusting the sport is (going back to the original meaning of disgusting):
The key benchmark of greatness in competitive eating, akin to rolling a 300 game in bowling or scoring under par in golf, is to eat twenty Nathan’s hot dogs in twelve minutes. This is called "doing the deuce." By the time an eater has done the deuce, he or she has consumed 4.4 pounds of solid food and a few pounds of water, has taken in 6,180 calories, 403 grams of fat, and almost 14 grams of sodium, and is ready to lie down someplace air-conditioned, close to a toilet.
More analysis from elsewhere on the web:
It is possible to train ahead of time for an eating contest, although the IFOCE does not recommend it. Competitors can train their brains to ignore the "full" feeling (actually the stomach muscles relaxing as they stretch) by repeatedly filling the stomach with large meals or through water training. Water training requires drinking an entire gallon of water in 30 seconds. The water stretches out the stomach. Supposedly, this makes it easier to down food in huge quantities. Neither of these activities is healthy. The water exercise can be very dangerous, resulting in perforations of the stomach lining and water intoxication, which is potentially fatal...
When small eaters like Thomas and Kobayashi first arrived, some eaters developed the theory that fat actually hinders competitive eating. The idea was that a lot of fat around the mid-section made it too difficult for the stomach to expand. This theory was originally proposed by eater Ed Krachie. His paper on the subject, "Can Abdominal Fat Act as a Restrictive Agent on Stomach Expansion? An Exploration of the Impact of Adipose Tissue on Competitive Eating," was rejected by numerous scholarly journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine. However, a 2003 Popular Science article supports the theory: "The size of the stomach at rest is inconsequential. All that matters is the stomach's ability to expand, to adapt itself to the amount of food being shoved down the esophagus. A skinny man's stomach has little fat to push against it and fight the food for space" [ref]. Some eaters believe that a muscular abdomen hinders stomach expansion as well, although Kobayashi's muscular body would seem to contradict this theory.
I've never bought that explanation; I think instead they've got some kind of smooth muscle constriction defect or loose pyloric sphincter. But the closest thing I can find to a scholarly approach to competitive eating is this master's thesis -- sadly, it's for a degree in fine arts -- the document is a story.