Nathan's evens playing field

Women now finally have a chance to ketchup to the men at the annual Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island on the Fourth of July.

For the time in the event's 96-year history, there will be a women's-only competition, featuring 10 to 12 contestants and taking place at 11:30 a.m., right before the men chow down.

"We've had a lot of comments over the years that the women's accomplishments weren't being recognized," said George Shea, chair of Major League Eating. In the past, the men and women competed together in the same contest, but a woman who could eat 40 hot dogs -- an amazing accomplishment -- would get lost in the statistics of the men's results. According to Shea, the championship men usually eat upwards of 60 hot dogs.

"Having a women's-only division is a more fair platform," Shea said.

He points out that having a female-only division, which is being sponsored by Pepto Bismol, will be going against the social stereotype that women should be gentle and shouldn't be participating in such raucous activities.

"I've gotten this 'rock on' reaction," he said. "The fact that there's a women's contest has been really well received by the women."

This will not only be the first all-female Nathan's Famous contest, but according to Shea, July Fourth will mark the first women's-only Major League Eating contest.

MLE was formed in 1997 and today there are more than 500 active eaters who are members. Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, currently ranked No. 5 in the world by MLE, is favored to become the inaugural women's champion.

"I believe having two separate gender divisions at the Nathan's finals is an excellent idea," said Thomas, who points out that she's more excited to compete against all women compared to years past, when she had to face off against both men and women. "Men are much more dominant in hot dogs, as compared to other foods, so this gives women a chance to be recognized on July Fourth without having to top a male superstar like Joey [Chestnut]."

Chestnut holds the world record for hot dogs consumed at the Nathan's Famous contest. In 2009, he scarfed down 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes. The only woman to beat him in an event is Thomas.

At the 2010 National Buffalo Wing Fest, which took place on Labor Day, Thomas ate 4.86 pounds of chicken wings in 12 minutes, compared to the 4.55 pounds Chestnut consumed.

"I felt like I had died and gone to heaven because Joey is the greatest eater in the world, and he rarely loses at any event," Thomas said.

Thomas, who will be participating in her ninth consecutive Nathan's Famous contest, will try to break her 2009 record of 41 hot dogs and buns eaten in 10 minutes. And, get this, she doesn't even train for the event. Thomas eats hot dogs twice a year: at the Nathan's qualifier and then again at the finals July Fourth at Coney Island.

The winner of the women's division will take home a cool $10,000 while the second-place finisher will receive $5,000. The third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishers will bank $2,500, $1,500 and $1,000 respectively. The $20,000 purse equals that offered to the men's field.

The July Fourth participants were chosen from a Nathan's Famous qualifying circuit tour, which visited more than a dozen U.S. cities, plus Beijing and Calgary. The female winner from each city earned a seat at the table on Independence Day.

Shea said he expects the women's champion to consume about 38 to 40 hot dogs.

"It's an amazing number," he said. "You will see records here. They'll be better than many of the males that compete."

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