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Friday, April 11, 2008


The 60-Second Interview: Richard Shea on competitive eating

Posted by By Chris Rose, The Times-Picayune April 11, 2008 4:00AM

Publish PostRichard Shea

Brothers Richard and George Shea founded the International Federation of Competitive Eating in 1997, establishing eating contests as a legitimate "sport." The federation hosts eating contests all over the globe, from hot dogs to jalapenos -- and a whole lot of stuff in between -- and has created a legion of international cult superstars and curiosities.

This week, the IFOCE-sanctioned Acme World Oyster Eating Championship -- one of power eating's most prestigious titles -- returns to New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. Witness the spectacle Saturday starting around noon at the French Market Farmers Market. The competition itself begins around 1 p.m.

I talked with Richard Shea this week about the meaning of it all.

The oyster eating contest returns! This is almost as big as the Neville Brothers finally coming home.

New Orleans is the only city in America where a bunch of people showing up to eat as much food as they possibly can would signify a return to normalcy. We're excited to come back to the French Quarter Festival and to celebrate the levity of life.

Everyone knows the mythology of oysters.

I think the aphrodisiacal nature of oysters is primarily mental. The biological component would be that they are loaded with vitamin E which is good for your system and certainly prepares one for, ahem . . . "relations."

Sonya Thomas from Alexandria, Va, won the World Oyster Eating Contest by eating 36 dozen oysters in 10 minutes in April 2004.

Is competitive eating a sport, you know, like professional wrestling?

Clearly it is a sport. We have our own shows on ESPN. We're regularly covered by the sports pages and sports radio throughout the country. Beyond that, it is as pure a sport as is known to man. Competitive eaters approach their events with the same discipline a focused athlete would.

How so?

They study their tapes, prepare their strategy and get physically and mentally prepared. Especially when dealing with oysters: You've got the shell, and you've got to use an oyster fork, so technique will come into play, just like any other sport. Just like in football, you've got domed stadiums and you've got the snow in Green Bay. In competitive eating, there are certain distinctions that the region brings to the game.

So, are these professional athletes we're talking about, or amateurs?

Primarily they're amateurs, primarily they're hobbyists, not unlike bass fishing was years ago. But there is prize money. Some of the top-tier eaters can earn between $40,000 and $100,000 in prize money a year. But, for the most part, they all still have day jobs.

Will we see competitive eating at the Olympics any time soon?

We have approached the International Olympic Committee in the past and they took a rather haughty stance. But they should realize that our Fourth of July hot-dog eating contest at Nathan's gets a better ratings number on ESPN than much of what they broadcast in the Summer Games.

Let's look at the big picture: With all the starving children in Africa, how could you?

First of all, you don't have to go to Africa to find starving children, as anyone living in any metropolitan area knows, especially in New Orleans. It's an interesting society we live in. There's a massive energy crisis, yet NASCAR powers on. There are definitely hunger issues throughout the world, and we power on -- and we're lucky to be able to do so. . . . You have to be cognizant of the challenges others face, but also not be afraid to go out and have some fun.

Now an even bigger picture. Competitive eating: Why?

Why not? In life, you want to benchmark greatness; you want to identify greatness in people. How many strikes can a pitcher throw? How many home runs can a batter hit? And how many oysters can a man eat? It's a never ending need for more and more in this world of ours.

Columnist Chris Rose can be reached at chris.rose@timespicayune.com; or at (504) 352-2535 or (504) 826-3309. To read past columns, visit www.nola.com/rose.

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