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Big eaters set to wing it in competition

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dominick Cardo is the man to beat. He's tough. Riker's Island tough, having been a corrections officer there for 20 years. He's in shape, having stretched his substantial stomach muscles.

And he's fearless, having stared down 9 pounds of pickled beef tongue on national television, ingesting 3 pounds, 3 ounces in 12 minutes, thereby snatching the world pickled beef tongue-eating title -- admittedly something you might not put on your resume unless you happen to be a member of the International Federation of Competitive Eating.

When Cardo and other IFOCE "gurgitators" converge on North Fayette for the Frank's RedHot Buffalo Wing Eating Circuit on Saturday, they insist they will be athletes competing in a sanctioned sport, not amateurs in a church basement-style eat-off.

"It's like a runner," says Cardo, who lives in Bartonsville, Monroe County, in the Poconos. "A 12-minute contest is like distance eating."

Wolfing down wings is like running the 1,500 meters? "You train yourself and pace yourself. It's harder than it looks."

Whether you think it is thoroughly entertaining or utterly repulsive, the next big extreme sport or supersizing gone mad, competitive eating is soaring in popularity.

This year, the IFOCE is holding 75 sanctioned events around the world, including wings in Pittsburgh, bratwurst in Frankfurt, pommes frites in London and oysters in New Orleans. Five years ago, there were only about 20 events a year.

Competitive eating may be the latest entrant in you-can-hardly-watch-but-you-can't-look-away genre of TV. IFOCE events have been covered by ESPN; there was the "Glutton Bowl," a Fox special, and "The Battle of the Buffets" on the Travel Channel; and other contests have aired on Discovery and the Food Network. The competitions are complete with purses, often of $1,000 or more, autograph-seeking fans and the weighing of the food to ensure fairness.

"You couldn't make up something loonier than this," says Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who has viewed the eating telecasts.

"My jaw dropped. This is much different than a pie-eating contest -- the sheer quantity of food consumed. It is grotesque, but you are mesmerized by how weird the whole thing is. You can't stop watching it."

Though some critics say competitive eating encourages obesity, Fernstrom, who helps patients battle obesity, disagrees. "It doesn't promote obesity. It promotes stupidity."

But Richard Shea, who along with his brother George founded the IFOCE six years ago, calls it "cool. It's the sport of every person.

"Webster defines sport as any physical activity governed by a set of rules. [Competitive eating] requires oral dexterity, hand-mouth coordination and stomach capacity."

Plus, a champion eater must be mentally tough, he says. "North of 30 hot dogs, it really is a mind game."

The U.S. and International Olympic committees, which Shea petitioned on behalf of competitive eating, aren't convinced, never returning his calls.

Such snubs haven't dampened his enthusiasm. He is the guy who coined such hyperbolic tableside wings-eating commentary such as "the passion was raw, but the poultry was cooked."

Shea also defends the competition against frequent charges of gluttony and grossness. ("More food is thrown away at a Super Bowl party.")

The mere thought of shoveling down that much food brings to mind some unsavory images -- what the IFOCE diplomatically calls the "urge contrary to swallowing," an automatic disqualification. Shea says that if an eater looks green, the officials rule it "unsafe eating" and disqualify him before things gets ugly.

"It's very rare."

No one has ever eaten himself to death at a competition, which usually lasts only 15 minutes or less. Competitors have to be 18 or older. To be safe, the IFOCE "has an EMT on hand, just like football and NASCAR."

Competitive eaters come in all sizes and shapes. The man regarded as the "world's greatest eater," Takeru Kobayashi of Japan, weighs only about 130 pounds. He snarfed down 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes last year at Nathan's frankfurter-eating contest at Coney Island.

At 6 feet, 2 inches and 320 pounds, Cardo is a big man who diets between events. But he is dwarfed by some of the 420-pounders on the tour. Though it's more a guy's sport, there are also some female competitors.

Cardo's eating prowess draws strong reactions. "You're nuts," some say. Others tell him it's great and ask for his autograph after competitions.

"There is a lot of prestige," he says.

Cardo will come to the competition, which will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Quaker Steak & Lube at The Pointe in North Fayette, with an entourage of friends and family with T-shirts with his nickname, the "Doginator."

He is feeling pressure because he has to win here in order to advance to the wings final in Buffalo, N.Y., in August, where there will be a cash purse.

Saturday's winner gets a free trip to Buffalo.

A retiree who is the 10th-ranked eater in the IFOCE, Cardo, 43, is the name to beat. His food credentials are impressive -- 19 3/4 hot dogs in 12 minutes, three pounds of cow brain in 10 minutes (it tastes like pate, he said) and a gallon of ice cream in 10 minutes.

But he will have some competition, including Kevin "Crazy Kev" Lipsitz, the pickle-eating champion of the world, who Shea says has "the strongest jaw in the sport."

And who knows if some upstart eater from Pittsburgh might pull a stunning upset?

This week, Cardo will train by ingesting four pounds of food and a gallon or two of water every day. He also will walk a mile a day to keep the blood flowing.

Will it help carry his domination in beef tongue eating over to wings?

"He is new to wings," Shea says. "You have to get to know the food in a competitive light."

But Cardo is sure he can shovel down wings with the best of them. "I go to Hooters. I put 'em down. I can eat up to 100 with no problem."

Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572.

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