Thursday, July 15, 2010

Now Available: O-1 Visas for Competitive Eating

Many will recognize Takeru Kobayashi as the six-time winner of the annual Nathan's hot-dog eating competition held every July 4th in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York. Despite his diminutive frame, Kobayashi has marveled spectators and competitors alike with his eating prowess. That prowess has earned him an O-1 visa.

Kobayashi was recently in the news for storming the stage at this year's competition, after he was barred from participation. He was barred for refusing to sign a contract with a professional league called "Major League Eating,"which sanctioned the event. An MLE contract would have restricted Kobayashi's earning from outside sources such as sponsorships.

MLE is no longer a joke. In the last year, it has organized 85 contests with nearly $600,000 in prizes. It has secured sponsorships from Coca-Cola, Harrah's, Netflix, Orbitz, Pizza Hut, Smirnoff, and Waffle House. This year, it recruited Pepto-Bismol, Old Navy, and Heinz to sponsor the hot-dog contest. In addition to MLE's TV programming for Fox, SpikeTV, and other networks, ESPN now pays the league to broadcast the hot-dog contest, with 40,000 spectators on hand and another 1.5 million households watching.

The most interesting part of the story from the immigration perspective is that Kobayashi was able to secure an O-1 visa on the basis of his "extraordinary ability" to eat. He was granted the visa despite the fact that he has not joined the major league in the sport (Major League Eating). One wonders if the P-1 visa would also be available to other contestants in the MLE. Most likely, foreign participants in eating contests would utilize a tourist visa, which is allowed for amateur events involving per-event prize winnings. However, if Major League Eating comes to feature a string of professional events year-round, visas of a longer duration might be attainable, even for competitors of lesser renown than Kobayashi.

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