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Back page: A hot dog eating contest built on lies

NEW YORK (AP) — Nathan’s Famous may be in the hot dog business, but for decades they’ve been peddling a whopper.

Showmen behind Nathan’s annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest have long claimed the tradition began in 1916 as a showdown between patriotic immigrants on the Coney Island boardwalk.

That would make this Monday’s contest a centennial, except for an inconvenient truth: The contest and its backstory were invented in the 1970s by PR men trying to get more attention for Nathan’s, which had just become a publicly traded company.

“Our objective was to take a photograph and get it in the New York newspaper,” acknowledges Wayne Norbitz, who served as president of Nathan’s for 26 years and still sits on the board of directors.

Norbitz is careful to say that the company’s source for the 1916 story is “legend has it.” He says the first contest actually happened in 1972, and the early chowdowns were all small, sparsely attended affairs.

“We’d honestly wait for a couple of fat guys to walk by and ask them if they wanted to be in a hot dog contest,” he says.

The legend of the hot dog contest conveniently dates to 1916, the same year Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker opened his Coney Island hot dog stand using a $300 loan from two friends.


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