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America, land of the clueless and hungry

Thanksgiving Day heralded the start of three sporting seasons: shopping, vacationing and eating. The first two are for amateurs. In recent years, the latter has become a professional pursuit.

Before the advent of competitive-eating events, wherein people try to ingest the most food within a prescribed period of time, gorging was a personal, rule-free indulgence. And being the best at eating the most wasn’t something reasonable people found laudable.

Then God invented cable TV, media executives sought to feed the programming maw, and it was open eating season. On Thanksgiving Day, in honor of the holiday, Spike TV broadcast a turkey feeding frenzy. But perhaps nothing exemplifies the competitive-eating spirit better than the words of one exuberant announcer, who concluded a July 4, 2006, broadcast on ESPN: “America needed a hero, America has a hero in Joey.”

Please.

This was the network formerly dedicated to sports broadcasting. This was the play-by-play of a fake war in the theater of Coney Island, where our “hero,” Joey Chestnut, finished second to Japan’s Takeru Kobayashi.

Usually, when win-obsessed America honors a loser, it’s because there was nobility in defeat. Chestnut’s noble act? He ate 52 hot dogs in 12 minutes at the annual Nathan’s competitive eating circus (Kobayashi ate 53 3/4). This year, he was an even bigger hero, winning the contest outright by consuming 66 dogs and buns.

In a widely televised event last month, the champ was again Our Hero, who consumed 103 burgers in eight minutes, besting Kobayashi’s 2006 record of 97.

— This year, 854 million people worldwide wake up hungry.

Last year on NPR, Jason Fagone, author of “Horsemen of the Esophagus,” weighed in on the growth of this train-wreck amusement. “In a way,” he said, “you hate to see all these very clear human desires poured into something like an eating contest. But it’s kind of inspiring that we’re creative enough and resilient enough to make it work. It’s both an American horror show and an American success story.”

— Last year, more than 26 million Americans used food stamps each month. More than one in 10 U.S. residents live in households that experience hunger, including 12.6 million children.

The International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) and a few lesser-known competitive eating “leagues” have branded what they contend is a sport with athletes who train for competitions that involve strategy and technique.

At best, they have created an infrastructure for serial freak shows. At worst, they have elevated gluttony and conspicuous consumption to breathtakingly clueless proportions. America, land of plenty. America, land of the oblivious.

— In the real world, a person dies every 3 1/2 seconds from hunger-related causes.

George Shea founded the IFOCE. He promotes competitive eating the way Liberace promoted rhinestones. It’s entertainment, he says, that “fits a certain brand — youthful, fun, light-hearted.”

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