Just before the biggest match of his life, Charles Hardy broke from the cameras and the crowds, squeezed his impressive frame into a quiet spot, closed his eyes and meditated.

Because in the end, he explained sitting in his Brooklyn brownstone, every sport is less about defeating your opponents than about mastering your own mind.

Twenty-three-and-a-half hot dogs and 12 minutes later, the 320-pound athlete was the top American competitive eater in the country, and the third-place winner in the Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest.

You may be seeing "Hungry Man" Charles Hardy stuffing his face full of franks more often than on Independence Day. In the past few years, competitive eating has ballooned in popularity like the waistline of a hungry man at a chili-eating contest. In fact, you may soon be ignoring baseball to watch people inhaling food for fame and money on NBC or CBS, according to the five-year-old International Federation of Competitive Eating.

It's already proven to be great TV, IFOCE President Richard Shea said. There are now over 100 eating competitions throughout the U.S. every year, and the Superbowl of them all, the Nathan's Hot Dog contest, was showcased in 220 television shows in America alone and carried live on ESPN this year.

The IFOCE currently sanctions 15 events and hopes to set down guidelines for more in this and other countries, establishing itself as the "NCAA of competitive eating," Shea said.

"As a sport, I think it's limitless," Shea said. "We'd like to see it covered regularly on ESPN eventually. I would like to see networks vying to carry it live."

There's even a ready-made international rivalry that's as contentious as the one between the U.S. and Australia for the America's Cup. Four years out of the last five the Nathan's Mustard Yellow International Belt has gone to the Japanese.

This year's victor, 131-pound Takeru Kobayashi, doubled the previous record, eating an astounding 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes and leaving the judges and his opponents utterly speechless.

"The one thing I think is enormously clear is that size has nothing to do with it," IFOCE Chairman George Shea said. "I don't even know how he does it. What he did was impossible."

Every successful sport depends on its heroes, its Jordans, Gretzkys and Hamms — athletes who combine physical artistry with a hunger for perfection — and, in this case, food.

Competitive eating could do a lot worse than the American champ Hardy, a 320-pound New York corrections officer with a 50-inch waistline. (He primly notes that he lost 60 pounds and eight inches over the last year and is usually a light eater.)

He's been invited to Capitol Hill barbecues, taken part in a Yankees-Mets eating contest and been featured in a television commercial in Japan, where he is greeted as a hero.

"When I go there, little girls chant, 'Hardee! Hardee! Hardee!'" he said.

His foray to Coney Island was his third, and established his place in the inner circle of power eaters. If anything proves that competitive eating is a true sport, the agony he had to endure at that July Fourth contest does, he said.

"It felt like someone was stabbing me in the back when I tried to stand up," he said.

He added that a couple hours later he went to a holiday barbecue where he consumed plenty of chicken, ribs and potato salad.

He got his chops well before that, though, establishing his credentials at such contests as the Ben's Kosher Deli Matzo Ball competition in New York City, winning by munching down on 13 baseball-sized matzo balls in five minutes, and tying a world record in a Japanese competition by eating 15 feet and three inches of sushi in 30 minutes, and 180 bento boxes in 12 hours.

He's looking forward to another Japanese contest, a three-day trial of endurance in which he'll face off against his frequent opponent and mentor, Kazutoyo "The Rabbit" Arai, a 101-pound winner of the Nathan's contest in 2000.

In other words, Hardy is a superstar in a world of competition where prowess isn't measured in baskets or goals or yards but in hamburgers, hot dogs and how many pounds of food you can get down without vomiting. And if competitive eating ever has its day, his full mug will be one of the faces you'll see on the daily sportscast.

"You're looking at the Michael Jordan of competitive eating," Hardy said with a proud grin, towering over his trove of prizes.

Hardy might not be getting his own line of athletic shoes, or his picture on a box of Wheaties anytime soon, but there's no doubt that eating contests have come a long way from the country-fair events where local gluttons could shine.

There's only one downside to his kind of fame.

"I found a place in Manhattan with all-you-can-eat sushi for $19.95," he said. "When the lady sees me coming, she hits the clock and gives me 1 ½ hours."