The Wagyu Olympics: The quest for the world’s best beef

Held every five years, the Zenkyo beef competition is only partially about winning. It’s also about the Japanese concept of «ikigai» and the search for the Shangri-La of steak.

There’s a unique competition in Japan that’s reminiscent of the Westminster Dog Show, where animals are celebrated for their beauty, breeding and other attributes. But unlike their canine comrades, this contest is about food, these animals are cows, and the winning breeders get the opportunity to sell their cattle and carcasses to the best restaurants and butchers in the world at the highest price.

This is the Japanese Wagyu Olympics, and these are high «steaks». But that’s only half of the story.

The Wagyu Olympics (formally known as Zenkyo) was launched in 1966 to help encourage a high level of cattle breeding, tourism and promote Wagyu beef in and out of the country. The competition takes place every five years and awards cattle farmers with the designation of the best beef in the world.

There are two main competitive categories: Breed Improvement, which judges a cow on its size, proportions and other outwardly visible standards; and Meat Quality, where the carcasses are judged on fat quality and content. At the end of the competition, the best breeding cows and carcasses are sold at auction to the highest bidders in Japan. Beef sales from the auction can run upwards of ¥72,000 (about £442). And if you’ve seen Wagyu beef on a menu and were shocked by the price, this is why.

Both a competition and a trade show, the Wagyu Olympics always starts with a theme. For the 2022 event, the theme roughly translates to «shining a spotlight on the power of regional Wagyu beef», which aims to highlight the diversity of Wagyu beef throughout the country. This year’s competition takes place 6-10 October and will see 41 prefectures competing for the best Wagyu, with the show attracting nearly half a million people during the five-day event.

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