"Serena Williams didn't have to beat Roger Federer to win the Wimbledon title, and we don't think Sonya Thomas should have to beat Joey Chestnut," said master of ceremonies George Shea.
Known as "The Black Widow" of competitive eating, Thomas set a women's world record July 4, 2009, by stuffing 41 hot dogs into her 105-pound frame in 10 minutes.
Thomas and nine other women will compete Monday on Coney Island just before the men's stomach-churning feast, which this year again features world champion Chestnut, nicknamed "Jaws." The 27-year-old from San Jose, Calif., ate his way to a fourth consecutive championship last year by downing 54 dogs for the $20,000 purse.
Notably absent again this year is his chief rival, Takeru Kobayashi, who held the world record for hot dog eating from 2001 to 2007 but plans his own eating contest on a Manhattan rooftop seven miles away.
Three Chinese contenders flew in from Beijing to join the competition. It will be televised live on ESPN.
Although women don't compete directly against men in most sports, Shea said, Thomas has beaten Chestnut in the past. She ate 181 chicken wings to his 169 during the National Buffalo Wing Festival in Buffalo last September. "She can certainly compete against the men."
Nathan's officials say they feel that women champions like the diminutive Thomas and Juliet Lee, also weighing about 105 pounds, "are not getting full exposure for their accomplishments; we're selling them short." Chestnut weighs in at 200-plus pounds.
Hence, the added competition on the same stage as the men.
"To me, this excitement is similar to when women were given the right to vote," says challenger Larell Marie Mele, a 133-pounder from Long Pond, Pa.
The female competition will start at 11:30 a.m.
To add to the day's "yuck" factor, a special pink champion's belt was made for the ladies - by sponsor Pepto-Bismol. The winner of the men's contest takes home the Nathan's mustard belt.
The pink belt made its debut at the annual contestant weigh-in Friday morning outside City Hall, with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg presiding.
About 40,000 spectators this year will enjoy state-of-the-art Italian-made rides that are part of the redevelopment of the "People's Playground," the Brooklyn neighborhood by the boardwalk that fell into seedy disrepair in recent years after serving as an escape for generations of Americans.
Last summer, Luna Park kick-started the renewal, which is part of Bloomberg's vision of turning the seafront into an amusement and entertainment mecca with restaurants, movie theaters, retail stores and hotels.
The "Scream Zone," opened this year includes the first new roller coaster since the iconic Cyclone rose in 1927. The Soarin' Eagle propels thrill-seekers to speeds of 40 mph in about two seconds. Another fresh ride, the Sling Shot, shoots riders 150 feet skyward.
The city has invested $6.6 million in Luna Park and the Scream Zone, working with an Italy-based engineering partner, Zamperla USA, on the designs for the cutting-edge amusement park.
Kobayashi, the renegade Japanese star who plans his own eating show on Monday, remains banned from the Coney Island event for refusing to sign an exclusive contract with Major League Eating, the fast-food equivalent of the NFL.
Kobayashi spent a night behind bars in Brooklyn after storming Nathan's stage during the 2010 competition. The celebrity eater dubbed "The Tsunami" rushed the stage and fought police.
"Kobi" says he wants to be free to enter worldwide events sanctioned by other groups.
Shea, the emcee, says he doesn't understand how that benefits Kobayashi. As a Major League member, Kobayashi earned six figures, according to Shea - as much as Chestnut does participating in league contests around the country, ingesting everything from matzoh balls to tempura-fried asparagus.
But barred from the actual event, "Kobayashi has earned only about $20,000 or so a year," Shea said.
"That's just not true," Kobayashi countered. "I'm doing very well, if you count other events like food-eating demonstrations." Or gobbling tacos, which he'll do in August in Los Angeles, alongside the U.S. Open of Surfing.
Shea said the league has repeatedly approached Kobayashi to discuss his possible return to Coney Island.
"He's refused to even talk to us," says Shea. "He was always a Major League eater, so for him to say he's banned isn't fair or accurate."
"I'd be willing to negotiate - if they took the exclusive clause out," the diminutive, soft-spoken 33-year-old told The Associated Press on Wednesday, through a translator.
Smiling, he sat in the open-air rooftop bar at 230 Fifth Avenue where he'll eat Monday, with a giant plasma TV airing the official competition live. Kobayashi's unofficial face-stuffing feat is to begin at the same time as the Coney Island contest.
However it goes, bar owner Steven Greenberg is paying Kobayashi just to show up against a panoramic view of Manhattan and the Empire State Building - as an ad for his business. He wouldn't disclose how much he's paying.
But the Fourth is not about Manhattan.
Declares Shea: "The world hot dog-eating champion will be crowned on Coney Island" - the birthplace of fast food.
The first dog was sold here around 1870 by German butcher Charles Feltman. His competitive, Polish-born employee, Nathan Handwerker, opened his own Coney Island business in 1916. Nathan's Famous is still the backdrop for the contest that started that year.
According to local lore, immigrant men started the competition after arguing about who was most American, settling their dispute by trying to out-eat each other. Irishman Jim Mullen won with 13 dogs.
The eaters have come a long way since then - especially the women.