« The Court’s Religious Jurisprudence and Vaccines | Main | Hiring Committees 2018-2019 »

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Is competitive eating a sport?

I should have written this last week, after watching the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4, but I never got around to it. Anyway, is competitive eating a sport? The announcers spent a lot of the broadcast talking about how 11-time champion Joey Chestnut trained and worked his mouth, jaws, esophagus, and digestive tract to take and swallow such large amounts of food.

My four-part definition of sport is: 1) Large motor skills; 2) Simple machines; 3) Competition; and 4) Outcome determined by success in performing skills to achieve some other instrumental end, rather than for the virtue of the skill itself. Numbers 2-4 are satisfied--it is a competition, no machines are involved, and the skill of eating and swallowing is performed to the end of consuming lots of food. So the question is whether chewing and swallowing qualify as large motor skills.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 11, 2018 at 08:55 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


Does tradition count in defining the extension of concepts? If so, here's an argument for the properly "sporting" character of eating: It was conventionally grouped with running, wrestling, and other athletics as a competitive activity. For an illustration, consider Snorri Sturluson's tale of Thor's and Loki's competition with the giant Utgarda-Loki, https://norse-mythology.org/tale-utgarda-loki/ , in which Thor wrestles, Loki eats, and their servant runs in a race to compete with the giant's household.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jul 22, 2018 2:40:31 PM

Demolition derby uses more than simple machines, so it’s out. Wife-carrying is racing with an additional limitation, so it qualifies on all four elements , just as race-walking does compared with sprinting. Ditto for quidditch, which is a funky and more complicated “put object in goal” game.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 12, 2018 11:53:50 AM

Perhaps you need to separately recognize parodic sports, competitions that are entertaining precisely because they play on their adherence to the abstract definition of a “sport” while introducing elements that conflict with cultural expectations about the seriousness and appropriate style of a contest. Other examples would be demolition derbies, Finnish wife-carrying, muggle quidditch, and Ultimate (before it got turned into a “real” sport).

Posted by: RQA | Jul 12, 2018 10:55:19 AM

The winner is determined by the effects of the skill, as opposed to the quality of the skill itself. It is not how well you run, but who makes it to the finish line first or in the shortest amount of time; a runner with bad form could beat a runner with perfect form. This is distinct from competitions in which the winner is determined by the intrinsic (usually aesthetic) merit of the skill, so the skater who performs the less-perfect triple toe loop will not beat the person who performs the perfect triple toe loop.

And yes, this eliminates many Olympic events. This parlor game started years ago with debates over gymnastics and figure skating.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 12, 2018 9:59:08 AM

Obviously not. Look to Wittgenstein, it wouldn't be accepted as a sport in colloquial American use. Imagine telling someone you were an athlete and then further specifying that you were a competitive eater; you'd get laughed out of the room. (Alternatively, imagine someone who says they're really into sports and then specifies that they follow competitive eating -- again, the result would be somewhere between confusion and mockery.)

The line between skills performed for some other instrumental end versus for their own sake also seems ... thin. What is the skill in running the 100m dash? Is it moving your legs rapidly? If so, you're golden per your standard: the skill is performed to a distinct end (running 100m as quickly as possible.) But if the skill is running, then it seems to get trickier (the end is to run 100m as quickly as possible -- I think that's judged on the thing for its own sake, though you could reasonably disagree.)

It also disqualifies at least a few Olympic sports (figure skating, synchronized swimming, diving, gymnastics, snowboard halfpipe -- basically anything with a subjective judging component that doesn't involve fighting in some capacity.)

Posted by: Evan Rocher | Jul 11, 2018 9:44:41 PM

Bugling does not involve large motor skills. And victory is determined by an evaluation of the skill itself (drumming or bugling) rather than something external achieved through the skill.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 11, 2018 5:53:25 PM

Interesting. So does drum and bugle corps competition meet your definition? Are the instruments "simple machines?"

Posted by: Donald Caster | Jul 11, 2018 4:15:25 PM

Interesting , but you lack one major component in your four part definition , and it is simply the spirit . The sport meant to elevate the spirit , to overcome so , significant physical challenges . It does train and educate spirit or mentality , for discipline and endurance and tolerance and more. Now , can it be said , that eating such quantity of hot dogs , doesn't demand hell of determination and endurance ?? I think that the answer is pretty clear.


Posted by: El roam | Jul 11, 2018 10:40:51 AM

It’s a crass and disgusting form of entertainment for the hoi polloi who too often succumb to “bread and circuses” rather than individually and collectively directing and refining their various energies, capacities and capabilities toward the emancipatory ends of human flourishing or fulfillment, thereby helping to forge the anti-democratic (because capitalist and technocratic) chains than bind them (us).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 11, 2018 10:29:06 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.