Fourth of July weekend is officially the end of the major-sports season and the high point of summer fun. LeBron already has his championship, Wimbledon is almost over, and everyone is barbecuing and taking road trips. That is, unless, your name is Gideon Oji.
Oji’s biggest game of the season is on July 4 at the 44th annual Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Championship in Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Coney Island. That’s right. ESPN is carrying full coverage of the Super Bowl of Sustenance, the World Cup of Weight gain and the Championship of Calories. At a time when Michelle Obama is warning us about obesity and most Americans are going to hold back on that extra rack of ribs, Gideon Oji is going to be on a national stage trying to take competitive gluttony to new heights.
If you mention competitive eating, the image conjured in most people’s minds is a bunch of fat guys stuffing wings or pies down their throats at a state fair for a $50 gift certificate from Target. Or maybe some insane reality-TV show challenge that includes cow brains or roaches on a plate.
The reality is that competitive eating has become a real sport, with sponsors ranging from Netflix and Krystal Hamburgers to Pepto-Bismol. Contestants compete to show how many ears of corn, lobster rolls and the aforementioned hot dogs they can throw down in 10 minutes.
“Eating is very sensitive in America because of [obesity], but in other parts of the world no,” says Oji, a 24-year-old Nigerian student who came to America eight years ago and played basketball at Clayton State, outside of Atlanta. “Not everybody plays soccer, not everybody plays basketball, but everybody understands eating. This is a game of survival.”
Oji claims that he was always a competitive eater, even going back to his home in rural Nigeria outside of Abuja. His mother sold street food and he would eat up any leftovers she had. He took on any challenge: dry crackers in the lunchroom, restaurant challenges in the big cities. By the time he came to the United States for college, Oji knew that eventually he’d be back at the table chowing down calories somewhere.
If Major League Eating were dodge ball, Gideon Oji would play for the Purple Cobras. He’s brash, he talks trash and he takes the sport as seriously as any athlete preparing for a championship game. I spoke to him 48 hours before the Nathan’s competition. Oji was already talking about his plans for next year and calling out the lack of competitive fire in some of the other competitors.
“Those guys who want to just sit by Joey [Chestnut] and lose. I’m not that guy. Competition drives sports,” Oji said.
The tall and lanky 32-year-old Californian Joey Chestnut, along with the flashy 38-year-old Takeru Kobayashi from Japan, have been the faces of the Nathan’s championship for over a decade. Chestnut currently holds the record of eating 69 hot dogs with buns in 10 minutes. Oji says he can beat that.
“If Joey doesn’t hit 70 this year? I’m gonna be the guy who hits 70 on the national stage,” says Oji. “If everything falls together, it’s gonna be game time in competitive eating.”
Oji’s confidence is well-founded. He brings the same fire he brought to the basketball court to his competitive eating. Starting in 2015, he jumped from 24th- to 10th-ranked competitive eater in the world in less than a year. He jumped from 20 hot dogs to 33 in only a couple of months of serious training. Which raises the question, how do you train to be a competitive eater? It’s all about stomach capacity.
Most high-level competitors drink a lot of milk or gallons of water to expand the size of their stomachs. Kobayashi is known for his patented “Kobayashi Shake,” in which he wiggles his body to push food down this throat to hit his eating goals. Oji has his own methods.
“I drink soda, a whole liter of soda and keep some of the air—no water; I’m not trying to injure myself,” he says.
He also points out that given his height and weight (220 pounds; 6 feet 9 inches), he has to lean over when he eats because it takes food longer to go through his tall frame.
So what does Gideon Oji plan to do if he can crack the top three at Nathan’s or, even better, win the competition?
“I’m going to bring the belt to Nigeria! I’m going to be that guy,” he says confidently. “I want to use this platform to talk about poverty, corruption. To make my country better and show people what you can do with a competitive spirit.”
If you have the chance to slip away from the grill for just a few minutes on the afternoon of July 4, definitely find a way to watch Oji compete on ESPN. Major League Eating is never going to rival NASCAR, the NBA or Major League Baseball, but it’s certainly the most unique sport on television for the holiday weekend. You might get a chance to see a superstar in the making.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.