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CONEY ISLAND (CAP) - Joey Chestnut has done it once again, polishing off 68 hot dogs to grab yet another title at this year's annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. One year removed from "only" downing 62 franks, Chestnut continues to inspire scores of youngsters who hope that one day they, too, can ingest more than nine pounds of hot dogs in one sitting.
"He's amazing - the most I've ever eaten is 20," said Jimmy Flengerton, 10, of Cold Spring, N.Y., who was on hand to watch Chestnut's victory at the Coney Island contest. "But that wasn't for a contest or anything. I just love hot dogs."
And Flengerton isn't the only one. A recent survey sponsored by Kayem Foods, Inc. showed that close to 500 schools and youth organizations nationwide have formed competitive hot-dog eating teams, a number that is growing every week.
"The intense training involved really teaches the kids discipline and the value of hard work," said Mark Merclativich, principal of the Anadarko, Okla., Middle School, whose top eater - Billy "The Stomach" Stomkins, 14 - managed an impressive 40 hot dogs at the Oklahoma State Fair in 2008.
"Plus, Kayem paid for our new cafeteria," noted Merclativich.
Like in many sports, sponsorship is a big component of competitive eating. In addition to sponsoring local teams like the one in Anadarko, companies vie to represent professional eaters like Chestnut, whose current sponsor is Kraft, Inc., owner of Oscar Mayer.
"You'll find our logo on items like official Joey Chestnut mustard and relish and things like our new Joey Chestnut clothing line," said Kraft representative Michael Hirschberg, holding up a mustard-yellow apron emblazoned with the words "Kiss Me - I Just Ate 50 Hot Dogs!"
The Kraft logo, along with Chestnut's face, are also prominent on promotional items like key chains, bottle openers and Joey Chestnut "barf bags" distributed to competitive eating teams at schools and colleges.
Asked about health concerns involved in competitive eating, Hirschberg said the values taught by the sport far outweigh them. Besides, he said, "Hot dogs are an American tradition, like apple pie, and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and angioplasty."
Young Oklahoma champion Stomkins agreed. "I'm definitely more disciplined than I was before I started competitive eating," he said, adding that the popularity that's come with his success hasn't hurt either. "Now I'm not just another fat kid - I'm a fat kid who can eat 40 hot dogs without puking," he noted.
The trend has also caught on in other parts of the world, even becoming a form of protest against totalitarian regimes. Protesters in Iran this week were spotted mounting impromptu hot dog eating contests in the streets, using contraband frankfurters smuggled into the country, where pork is banned. A video of the eaters squirting mustard into the eyes of policemen has become a YouTube sensation.
As for Chestnut, the man who started it all? "I'm truly honored and humbled by all the BLAAAGHHH!" said Chestnut, projectile vomiting onto the reporter.
"Geez, sorry," he added. "That happens sometimes."