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Practice makes (urp) perfect

It was the gastrointestinal event of the season. Maybe of the decade. You should have been there.

On the Fourth of July, at the International Federation of Competitive Eating Contest (hot dog division) on Coney Island, a guy ate 50 Nathan's hot dogs.

Including the buns.

In 12 minutes.

He assured everyone he could have eaten 20 more, and most people believed him. He just ran out of time. (The Al Gore defense.)

Fifty hot dogs in 12 minutes? That's double the old record.

Think about that. Paul Newman ate 50 eggs in Cool Hand Luke and Godzilla ate Cleveland. But that was in the movies. (Also, Godzilla cheated. He left large portions of Shaker Heights and Euclid virtually untouched.)

But this guy did something, in front of witnesses, that you'd think is physically impossible.

He is Takeru Kobayashi, a 5-foot-7, 131-pound recent college graduate from Japan. His nickname is "the Prince."

The Prince? I've read Machiavelli's The Prince (at gunpoint), and I can't make the connection. There's nothing in there about eating hot dogs. Or even Vienna sausages. Which is a shame because the book could use the drama.

Anyway, like most Americans, I stood in awe of the diminutive diner. Toward the end, the other 19 contestants stopped eating and watched him. That's respect, baby. Like watching Mark McGwire take batting practice.

Imagine how good this will look on his resume.

Hobbies: Acoustic guitar, jogging, stuffing Nathan's hot dogs in my mouth at the rate of 4.2 per minute, carpentry.

Here's how Kobayashi won: he snapped the hot dogs in half, dipped the ends in water, and shoved both pieces in his mouth. This technique, in which the water lubricates the esophagus, is called the Solomon Method, which medical science ranks right up there with the Heimlich maneuver. (Coincidentally, the Heimlich maneuver was discovered when Heimlich's cousin Freida was choking on a bratwurst while using the Solomon Method.)

Just for kicks, while he was posing for pictures after the event, Kobayashi, 23, ate two more hot dogs.

Because they were there.

Soon after he was finished, someone showed up with a scale. Kobayashi's weight had jumped from 131 to 139.

He had eaten eight pounds of hot dogs, roughly the same weight as the average housecat.

Now there's no question that the Kobster ate 50 hot dogs.

The question is: Did he have help?

Dr. David Weiland, an internist at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, explained that the stomach has the ability to greatly expand. (Examples: John Goodman, Marlon Brando, George Foreman.)

To make most people's stomachs big enough to hold 50 hot dogs would probably require chemical assistance. Specifically, Weiland was referring to Glucagon, a gastric neuro-transmitter that tells the muscles of the stomach to relax.

"Either he has an extraordinary gift for stretching his stomach," Weiland said, "or he got a hold of this stuff."

Performance enhancing drugs in a hot dog eating contest? This is huge. It could cause an international incident, strain relations with Japan and throw the world of competitive eating into a tizzy.

Except that no one is accusing Kobayashi of taking Glucagon or any other drugs.

He probably did nothing more than practice.

The champ has returned to Japan and could not be reached, but Richard Shea, president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, who was at the event, said it was dedication, not drugs, that enabled Kobayashi to win.

"I didn't see any funny stuff going on," Shea said. "These guys (the Japanese) practice more than we do. They have more competitive eating events in Japan than we do."

"We're not doing drug testing yet," he said, "but if contestants appeal, we'd have to do so."

So far, no one has complained.

Maybe that's because of the prize money.

There isn't any.

All the winner gets, besides 15 minutes of fame and the possibility of a near-death experience, is an old, yellow leather belt.

"We call it the Coveted Mustard Yellow Championship Belt," Shea said. "The winner gets to keep it for a year."

How nice.

And how nice for the meat industry. The people on the American Meat Institute's National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (I didn't believe it, either. But it's real.) are overjoyed at the attention the contest received.

"But you shouldn't try it at home," said Janet Riley, vice president of public affairs for the Hot Dog and Sausage Council. And then she added this:

"I have two young boys and feel my children are in training for just such an event."

Excuse me?

"Some mothers play classical music when they're pregnant, and I guess I passed my love of hot dogs on to my kids because I ate them when I was pregnant," Riley explained. "And now my kids exist on them. My 1-year-old can't talk yet, but he can point to a hot dog."

Oookay, let's move on to the question of why the Japanese are kicking the Americans' butts in hot dog eating, a competition that involves eating lots of cheap, chemically-enhanced meat and meat by-products. Americans specialize in that. We invented that.

It's in the Constitution: "Anything that can be done, can be overdone."

But a slightly built Japanese man won the event last year, too. And like this year, he ate circles around the 300-pound American Blutos who entered.

In fact, the Japanese have won four of the past five years, including one champion who weighed a mere 101 pounds and must have looked like a snake who swallowed a Buick.

"The Japanese are very competitive, and they also love American meat," Riley said. "We export significant amounts of meat to Japan, so this is a natural for them."

But eight pounds of food in 12 minutes?

"That's like the size of a baby," Riley said. "I'd hate to think how he felt."

Weiland, our internist, can answer that.

"I imagine he had some gastric distress because of the time it takes to digest that amount of fat. Can you imagine eating an 8-pound steak? Most people feel uncomfortable with a 16-ounce steak.

"He must have been like a house afire that night," he said.

And that would be because?

"Hot dogs are high in salt content and are solid fat," he said. "If you take that much fat into your system, it's not a huge problem for someone his age. If he was older, he could develop congestive heart failure.

"Nathan's makes a good quality dog, but I've been in a slaughterhouse. You don't want to know what goes in those things.

"I mean, when they say pork or beef on the package, they're raising a wide spectrum of possibilities."

That means the Prince not only broke the record, he risked his life in the process.

So even if you are what you eat ... (Sorry. I tried not to do this. I really did.) ... you can't call him a weenie.

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