Obsessed with life's extremes
The sometimes wacky world of Guinness record breaking seems to have an irresistible allure, write Geoff Taylorand Kate Monahan.
About three months ago a Pennsylvanian man went to a favourite lake near his home in Franklin. The water was perfectly calm. Russell "Rock Bottom" Byars, a junior test engineer with a local electronics company, arrived with videographers and a lot of stones. He threw about 40 stones across the water - one with a very special result. That throw saw him skip a stone 51 times over about 76m.
Byars shattered the record of 40 skips set by a friendly rival in 2002. The feat was verified by Guinness World Records last week.
On Monday, in Vienna, a Pakistani boxer called Zafar Gill carried a 62kg weight for seven seconds, from a cord attached to his right earlobe. Apparently Gill let out "only a brief cry of pain" as he carried the weight 10cm off the ground and was awarded a Guinness record.
What makes such people do such extraordinary things? Is the honour of achieving some obscure record in the Guinness World Records really worth the effort?
People certainly seem to think so. Guinness launched its 53rd edition of the book on September 28, - and says it contains 1500 new records.
Editor-in-chief Craig Glenday says last year 100,000 people broke records, many of them strange feats.
How about the largest dog wedding ceremony, the longest distance walked on hot plates or the largest amount of milk squirted from an eye? Then you have the largest underwater dance class, the longest jump riding a lion, or the world's longest ear hair.
But wait, there's more. How about the world's smallest waist - approximately the size of a mayonnaise jar. Or the most synchronised swimming ballet leg switches in a minute, the fastest time to pop 100 balloons, the most shoes tied in a minute.
The desire for the bizarre seems irresistible, the thirst for breaking such records unquenchable.
Glenday, a 34-year-old Scot, seems the perfect man to be at the helm of London-based Guinness World Records. As a 10-year-old he remembers being "fascinated and terrified" by a story he read on Christmas Day of a man who had survived being struck by lightning seven times. Ironically, the man later killed himself. From that moment on, Glenday writes on the website, he became obsessed with life's extremes.
"I'd spend hours leafing through encyclopaedias and almanacs straining to commit snippets of information to memory", he recalls.
To this day, he continues to look for fascinating facts - now to help fill the world's best-selling book. What does he think drives people to break records?
"People tell us that getting in the book is a dream they've had since childhood. It's a fundamental thing about the human condition; people want to push themselves further."
Aspiring record breakers need to have proposals vetted and researched by Guinness staff or external experts. If approved, applicants must meet guidelines and agree to monitoring and evidence gathering. It can take months to have a world record verified.
It took almost a year for young Gemma Pouls to knit her way into the Guinness World Records. -
The Ohaupo School student, then 10, was determined to snag the record for the longest piece of finger knitting, which involves knitting long thin pieces using fingers and the thumb, and no needles.
The project began "as an end-of-term thing, a boredom thing" in August 2003, recalls Gemma, now 14.
Her piece of finger knitting she'd started at school was getting so long it could be worth a record attempt, she remembers joking to mother Anita. "People kept coming over, and saying it was so long - it was only about 50m then," she says.
They looked in the Guinness World Records, contacted the organisation, and decided to give it a go.
The growing ball of wool travelled with Gemma everywhere, kept in a plastic freezer bag until it burst. The knitting went on the school bus, and on family road trips she would prop her books open with a bulldog clip, and keep on knitting. Even the classroom wasn't out of bounds. "My teachers didn't mind as long as I put it away when it was time to do class work," says Gemma. "I did get in trouble a couple of times though."
After months of knitting, by February 2004 Gemma was "sick of it," says Anita, and they sent in the application to Guinness. The finger knitting had reached 1260.97m.
A couple of days later, they found out she was not going to get a record - at least not yet - a group from Queensbury School in England held the record, for 2205.71m.
Guinness wasn't prepared to make two separate categories, for individuals and groups, but the Kiwi kid wanted to go for the record. "We asked, `can she pick up where she left off, from the last strand?' and they said yes," recalls Anita. She sat down and asked her daughter if she seriously wanted it. They decided to go for it.
To complete the record by her chosen deadline, her 11th birthday on June 1, 2004, she calculated she would have to knit 20m per day. Every day, sister Sarah and mother Anita helped her measure progress with a ruler.
Then another hurdle. Gemma was running out of wool. An appeal to the public through local newspapers brought a huge response.
On the day, the mammoth ball of finger knitting was unravelled and laid out across the Ohaupo Hall, a rainbow of yarns. It measured nearly 3km and weighed 4.8kg. "I thought it would be about 2300m, but when it was measured on the night, it was so much longer - 2779.49m. I remember the length off by heart because so many people have asked me so I've memorised it. I was so, so proud, I thought, wow!"
After months of waiting, in December 2004 she received the official certificate from Guinness, confirming the record. "But there was a letter with it." The letter said although Gemma got the record for the longest piece of finger knitting on June 1, only 10 days later the record was broken by a man in Germany, who had finger-knitted 4321m.
Disappointed, Gemma still enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame. She was invited to teach finger knitting at a holiday school programme in Te Awamutu. She also received a Pride of Te Awamutu 2005 award of outstanding achievement.
Three years on, getting the record is a fond memory for the now Year 10 student at Sacred Heart Girls College in Hamilton. "It's never gone away for me. I always think about it," says Gemma. "It's my biggest achievement."
She says most of her classmates and teachers now don't know that there is a Guinness World Record breaker in their midst.
And what will happen to the ball in the future? "I'm going to put it in my will and leave it to my children," laughs Gemma. "Or maybe I will make a rug out of it."
For a man who has attempted not one, but two world records, and failed both, "it is in the trying".
Hamilton man Jamie Moore, 21, organised his first world record attempt in July 2004, at the age of 17.
"I always got the (Guinness) books for Christmas as a child and read them," says Moore. "It was in a previous issue of the Guinness World Records that I saw there were some Canadians who had played a non-stop basketball game for something like 20 hours. I thought, that's pretty achievable."
Moore gathered two dozen friends, and for 30 hours they played basketball at Hamilton's YMCA. "It was easy to get people involved, but hard to get the refs we needed," says Moore, at the Collingwood St offices of his website design company, Evos Group Ltd. "That's why we fell down, in the end. We timed it poorly, and all the refs were at another tournament."
Guinness required video footage of the attempt, and a fresh referee every two hours, but one referee had continued for eight hours through the night, which cost them the record.
"It was pretty gruelling at the end (for players). We were pretty sleep-deprived," says Moore.
For his next record attempt, in late 2004, he roped in friend and business partner Daniel Karaitiana, now 22. Both good skateboarders, they decided to go for the longest distance balancing on the back wheels of a skateboard - a move known as "a manual". "In skateboarding circles, it's not hard to do. It's just hard to do for a long time," says Moore.
They booked the Hamilton Airport in the middle of the night; it was the best flat concrete surface with the prerequisite 0.5< gradient.
At 1am, the two teenagers and a small group of supporters gathered in the dark, along with some surveyors, who were officially measuring the record attempt.
A fire engine was also there, following the pair with its lights on. "We ran as fast as we could, to have some speed, jumped on our boards, and tried to keep our balance. We did about 10 runs, and I think Dan pipped me just at the end."
They didn't beat the record.
"The novelty of getting a chance to be in the book is great," says Moore. "I didn't think about the book initially, it was just a bit of fun, but breaking a record would be cool. That's the amazing thing, out of six billion people, being the biggest or the longest or best at something. Ours wasn't the biggest achievement in history, but it was lots of fun."
And how about the future? "I think I will (go for a record attempt) again at some stage," says Moore.
Some don't view the world's fascination with record-breaking as a positive development.
Dan Fleming, chairman of the Waikato University screen and media studies department, says the idea of record-breaking has evolved in recent years away from purely skill-based events and admirable achievements. Fleming points to celebrity eating as an example. "What skill or admirable quality could be involved in eating two dozen hotdogs in a minute?
"It is now more about making a spectacle of oneself in a literal sense. Traditional record-breakers such as sports stars did this by displaying their special skills."
Fleming says the media - including do-it-yourself media like YouTube - have become the means by which ordinary people can make a spectacle of themselves and gain brief recognition.
"This is a version of Andy Warhol's old idea about everyone getting their 15 minutes of fame."
His screen and media studies colleague Geoff Lealand sums up some people's attitude towards the fixation on breaking records for the sake of it.
"All the interesting records have been broken - mountains climbed, oceans crossed - so what remains is largely silliness, daft exploits which don't really add much to human endeavours. We don't need records broken as much as we need miracles - such as a solution to diminishing energy sources or an end to poverty and corruption in Africa."
The publicity gained by attempted world records can be an attraction for organisations wanting to promote a cause.
On October 18, the promoters of a book launch in Cuba St, Wellington, intend breaking a world record for the most people simultaneously wrapped in cling film, during a launch party.
Wintec public relations manager Anna Carter says the institution considered going for a world record last year to promote Maori Language Week. She says it planned the world's largest Te Reo lesson in Hamilton's Civic Square. Carter says Wintec opted not to pursue the idea because culturally it didn't feel right.
"It just didn't sit right somehow. It seemed a bit crass maybe."
Waitomo agricultural showman Billy Black, a consummate self-publicist, is no stranger to chasing records.
About two years ago Black with his kunekune Don Rash abseiled 75m down the Waitomo Caves to set the self-proclaimed world record for a pig abseil. Black didn't register the record attempt with Guinness World Records. He says he did it partly for a laugh and partly for publicity.
He has also had a go at serious records. A champion shearer, Black was part of a gang of shearers about 20 years ago who sheared 8500 sheep in a day at Lochinver Station near Taupo. The only reason the record wasn't formalised was because not enough judges could attend.
Glenday sees something about record-breaking which is fundamental to the human psyche. It's about pushing ourselves.
"It's why people cross seas and climb mountains, it's why we travel into space and create cures for diseases.
"It also allows you to position yourself in the world. Without knowing the extremities, it is impossible to know where you stand."