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The Guinness Book of World Records Editor Answers Your Questions

Craig GlendayCraig Glenday with Lucky Diamond Rich, the most tattooed person. (c) Guinness World Records.

Last week we solicited your questions for Guinness Book of World Records editor Craig Glenday.

Among other interesting queries, you asked:

Is Barry Bonds in this year’s book? What (besides being in the book) is in it for the record breaker? How much alcohol, exactly, can the shortest man in the world stomach?

Craig’s answers are enthusiastic and frank; he even shared his doubts about the job:

We have two clowns competing doggedly to be the Fastest Balloon Modeler, and we’re having to organize a “banjo-off” to settle a dispute between two of the world’s best banjo players! Some days, I think: life’s too short. Then I realize it’s paying my mortgage!

Thanks to Craig for his entertaining answers and to all of you for the good questions. Here’s a drinking story to start things off:

Q: How many beers does it take to get the world’s shortest man drunk?

A: He can certainly pack them away — chased down with a good few cigarettes!

He Pingping — the world’s shortest mobile man, at 2 feet, 5.37 inches (74 cm) tall — and I were invited as the guests of honor to a dinner hosted by an Inner Mongolia newspaper and co-hosted by a large Chinese milk producer. It was my first experience of a formal Mongolian dinner, and I was overwhelmed by the hosts’ singing (a kind of throat-singing, known as “overtone singing,” apparently), my own singing (I just about managed a rendition of “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” by Robbie Burns), the stabbing of goat carcasses, the toasting, and the constant drinking dry of one’s glass.

As the guests of honor, Pingping and I were continually approached at the table, toasted, then encouraged to down our drinks in one sip with the cry of gambei (“bottoms up,” I guess). I quickly switched from pints of the local beer to half pints, then glasses of milk; Pingping, smartly, was drinking from a petite sherry glass!

With 15 fellow diners, many of whom made repeated toasts — and my own need to toast my hosts — it comes as no surprise to learn that I completely lost track of how many drinks I or Pingping had. We both staggered out, adorned with half a dozen silk scarves, very drunk.

Q: What was the hardest record for you to verify?

A: Some records are easy to assess, and some are incredibly difficult and time-consuming. All records, though, have guidelines that are written specifically for the category, so it helps to focus the mind when investigating a claim.

The most difficult records to verify, I reckon, are those that involve losing contact with the claimant. Take, for example, running around the world in the fastest time. Until the recent advent of G.P.S., and the watchful eye of the global media, it was nigh on impossible to know for sure if someone hadn’t cheated with the occasional taxi ride or flight. We ask for as many photographs as possible, passport stamps, log books, witness statements from people in authority, and so on, but to a certain extent there is an element of faith involved.

Of course, technology helps. Argos beacons and G.P.S. allow us to monitor circumnavigations and other such epic journeys, so it’s getting easier. Still, a recent claim for the most fuel-efficient drive around the world — that is, how little fuel you can use driving a production motorcar around the world — required 10 pages of guidelines and months of weekly, then daily, meetings with the claimants.

Mass participation events can also be a nightmare. Imagine a field of 100,000 people all brushing their teeth simultaneously, or performing aerobics, or dancing salsa. It’s incredibly challenging to contain them in one area, and to count them, but we take particularly stringent methods to get this part right (short of chaining everyone in!).

One last point on this: If we get evidence we can’t fully assess, we have no option but to disqualify the attempt. This can be extremely frustrating for someone who’s invested a lot of time and effort into their record, only to have us say no on a technicality such as an incomplete video, or a missing log entry — but we strive to be as honest and as accurate as possible.

Q: Did Barry Bonds make this years book?

A: He did — for his M.L.B. career home runs and his most bases on balls record. We treat all sporting records the same way: if a governing body recognizes the record, so do we; if they disallow or disqualify a record, so do we.

The I.A.A.F. ruling on Marion Jones is a good case in point. The I.A.A.F. ruled that, following Jones’ admission of using “the Clear” in September 2000, none of her achievements post-September 1, 2000, until the sanctions are lifted in October 2009, will be valid; however, her 4×200 m relay record, set on April 29, 2000, remains.

Bonds’s case is a can of worms. He is Major League Baseball’s all-time home-run king, though because he set the mark during the sport’s steroid era, many fans discredit the accomplishment. But Bonds is still about 100 home runs shy of the true record-holder’s mark. Sadaharu Oh of Japan holds the professional baseball record with 868 career home runs. Let’s see somebody break that!

Q: The Guinness books contain numerous “First . . .” records — i.e., First Person To Climb Everest, First Balloon Ride Across Atlantic, etc. While these facts may provide entertainment value, they are a different kind of “World Record” in that they are impossible to break (or even attempt). So why include them?

A: Why not include them? We’re a combination of education, fun, entertainment, and trivia, so learning who made the first telephone call on a cell phone is fun when reading about other cell phone achievements. (According to G.W.R., it was made by Martin Cooper of Motorola, who made the first call on April 3, 1973, to his rival, Joel Engel, head of research at Bell Labs, to tell him of his success!)

Actually, the official G.W.R. line is that we don’t acknowledge firsts, except for significant firsts. You may recall I said that records should be “breakable,” but this slice of record-breaking is the exception.

Also, what is deemed “significant” is relative to the topic, so first men on the moon is significant in space technology (and indeed to the history of humankind), but in the world of video games, for example, the first platform game is significant (Donkey Kong, 1981, starring Jump Man before he was known as Mario).

Of course, “firsts” can be broken — take the first alphabet for an example.

The current database entry reads: “The earliest example of alphabetic writing is on clay tablets showing the 32 cuneiform letters of the Ugaritic alphabet. The tablets were found in 1929 at Ugarit (now Ras Shamra), Syria, and dated to ca. 1450 BC.”

But as a result of new research, this “first” was beaten by: “The earliest known example of an alphabet — that is, a writing system in which a small number of symbols are used to represent single sounds rather than concepts — dates back to around 1,900 BC and was found carved into limestone in Wadi el Hol near Luxor in Egypt by Yale University Egyptologist John Darnell (U.S.A.) in the early 1990’s.”

So if anyone wants to prove that they climbed Mount Everest before Hillary and Tenzing, please send me the evidence!

Q: I am probably the heaviest man to raft the upper Gauley, the Chatooga (Section IV), or the Russell Fork Gorge. During the times of these trips (10 years ago or so), I was over 400 pounds.

Can I get listed or something? Hey, it’s not pretty, but it’s probably a record!

A: We’d first of all expect you to have impeccable evidence of this achievement. So, do you have a doctor’s statement confirming your weight at the time of each trip? Video evidence? Photos? Two independent eyewitness statements (not mates who were with you)? Records this old tend to have little or no evidence.

However, this is a classic example of a claim that, if we accepted it, we’d have to open a thousand new categories: the tallest man to raft the upper Gauley, the shortest to do so, the lightest, etc. … Then there’s the heaviest man to raft up the Yangtze, the Nile, the Amazon.

Your weight is not considered an issue, nor is the choice of river. So we might accept the Heaviest Person to Raft (although we probably wouldn’t). We do have the Oldest Barefoot Water Skier (“Banana” George Blair, 90 years, 29 days old) but we don’t recognize where he did it. Well done but sorry, it’s a no!

Q: Do you get a wide range of people attempting to get into the book with a particular record or is it the same people who keep attempting different records?

A: We certainly have serial claimants — Ashrita Furman of Jamaica, Queens, for example, has set or broken 194 official Guinness World Records over the years, and holds 82 current records! He has the Guinness World Record for having the most Guinness World Records! And he’s not alone in his dedication to record-breaking — at least three others turn in claims on a weekly basis.

Repeat claimants are usually those who try to improve upon their own record, or to reclaim their record if their previous attempt was beaten.

The majority of claims, though, are one-offs. Over the past ten years, e-mail has made it easier for people to apply, so we get “chancers” writing to us on the off-chance that the potato chip they’ve just plucked from a packet is the world’s largest unbroken chip, or that the string of words their young child has spoken is the longest sentence by a one-year-old, or that their 400 consecutive pogostick jumps are a record.

Next is the more serious one-off claimant, who’s strived all his or her life to achieve one goal, and wants it recognized. Or, as often happens, someone will contact us about a family member (all too often a dead one) who they believe should be in the book.

Then we get corporations that apply for records as the basis for some form of human resources team building exercise, or company morale booster. (One of my favorite records is the Fastest Game of Operation, the board game, which was set during the British Association of Urological Surgeons convention in Dublin in 2001: a surgeon completed the game in 1 minute, 2 seconds!)

These are typically successful events, so we get a lot of repeat applications. Procter & Gamble is one such company that springs to mind readily as a repeat claimant.

Q: Roughly how many records are broken/created each year, and how has this number trended over time?

A: We get around 40,000 to 50,000 record claims into the office every year, about 95 percent of which fail to translate into a world record. About half receive the official guidelines and stop there, put off by the scale of the record, or the level of complexity, which is often way beyond a claimant’s expectations. Most of those who do attempt the record are rejected for failing to meet the mark, or for not following the guidelines, or for being too stupid, too irresponsible, too boring, too specific, etc. So, around 2,000 new (by which I mean new categories entirely, plus existing records that are updated/bettered) are added to the database every year.

Historically, we haven’t tracked the number of claims (which is disappointing) but I can say for sure that this number has grown from almost zero 53 years ago (when our founding editors researched claims and didn’t readily accept unsolicited records), peaked about three years ago at almost 70,000 new record claims, and dropped to its current plateau following strategic improvements to our claims process.

The Internet has made it much easier to allow people to contact us, which is great, but there comes a point when we get too many claims — if it’s too easy to fire off an email, we get inundated with more claims than we can handle. We find that the easier it is to apply, the more chaff we get, so we made the application process much more time consuming and detailed — not just to deter the timewaters, but also to solicit more information to allow us to process the claims more effectively and efficiently.

Of course, record claimants are a particularly determined breed, so the change in procedure didn’t do much to help, but it did enough!

The number of claims also seem to peak with the broadcast of our TV shows, or shows containing record-breaking content. We see huge spikes in claims, usually of a certain type, and can trace it back to television. For example, we were inundated over a few days with claims from Russia for heaviest dog, heaviest cat, and other heaviest pets. We then discovered that a Russian TV show had shown images of very fat pets that had won Guinness World Records acknowledgment (although this is not a category we monitor).

I’ll try to post up a graph of claims over time, and successful claims, from the data we’ve kept over the past few years.

Q: Of the records for which you still accept entries, which in your opinion is the most dangerous to attempt? Of the records for which you no longer accept entries, which is the most dangerous?

A: By far the most dangerous record category, in my opinion, is the Banzai Skydive. This involves taking an aircraft to a given height (3,000 meters, so just short of 10,000 feet), throwing your parachute out of the door, then waiting as long as possible before jumping after it. The aim, then, is clear: free fall towards the parachute, catch it, strap it on, and deploy before hitting the ground. The longest wait yet is, incredibly, 50 seconds by Yasuhiro Kubo of Japan.

The question that might be going through many a mind is: why do we accept this yet not allow claims such as fastest drive across America, or longest journey on horseback? This is how we make the distinction, really: if you put your life at risk, then fine; if you put someone else’s life at risk, not fine.

Of course, you could Banzai Skydive straight into a playground of children and flatten a few as you smack into the ground at terminal velocity, but if you’ve followed the guidelines stating to do the attempt away from public places, all will be well (at least for the kiddies). We must also take the law of the land into consideration.

What we cannot accept is when a record claim is irresponsible and likely to put another person or animal at risk. So, as mentioned earlier, we will not entertain claims for fattest (or heaviest) pets, as we don’t want people stuffing their pets endlessly with packs of butter and rice sandwiches; but we’ll happily (try to) weigh you if you’ve overfed yourself to the nth degree. Hence, no more claims for:

Long journeys on horseback (cruel to the horse).
Fastest drives around the world, or cross country, or any point to point (puts other road users at risk).
Youngest surgeons (puts patient at risk; we had to get the police involved in a case recently when a 15-year-old boy performed a cesarian birth in order to set a world record!).
Fastest surgery (puts patient at risk).
Fastest house-building (puts occupants at risk, as buildings that go up fast usually come down fast).
Youngest body builders (we simply don’t trust families not to drug their children with steroids).
Youngest marathon runners (we heard of a family who would train their son to within an inch of his life in order to improve his marathon time; now, the age limit for such endurance is either 14 years old for softer impact sports, and 18 for anything else).

It’s not in our interest to see people kill themselves or others for a record. We’re an entertaining, educational Christmas book! Don’t take life so seriously, please!

Q: What’s the definitive criteria to establish which record is accepted and which is not?

A: We have a basic set of criteria for what constitutes a good Guinness World Record. A claim must be:

1. Measurable: so we don’t accept the category for Ugliest Dog (subjective) but we do accept the claim for the Most Wins of the Ugliest Dog World Championships (you can count the wins). We get so many claims for Most Beautiful this, the Most Indulgent that, but if you can’t take a tape measure to it, or weight it, or count its constituent parts, then we’re not interested. Therefore, we need a:

2. Superlative: We’re after the -ests: largest, smallest, heaviest, lightest, darkest, etc., so we need just one superlative description. Out, then, goes the Tallest, Fastest Man, the Oldest, Most Translated Author, and so on. Keep it simple. (The only exception to this rule I can think of is the Most Powerful Trebuchet, which we judge based on the weight of the object and the distance it is thrown — for which our science editor uses the “single” unit of kg/m (or lb/ft) allowing you to catapult a small thing far or a heavy thing not so far and still be considered for the record.)

3. Breakable: Apart from those rare cases in which we except “significant” firsts — such as First Men on the Moon, First Circumnavigation of the Earth (significant being determined by the category, so First Magic Stamps may sound insignificant compared with the Moon landings but in the philatelic world, this was a major bit of news!) — we want our records to be breakable.

We’re in the business of encouraging people to set themselves goals, achieve them, then set new, more impressive goals, and strive to beat those too. So, we like break-ability.

4. Specific/Focused: The biggest bugbear for us is the claimant who runs a marathon with a book on his head, gets the world record for Fastest Marathon Run with a Book on the Head, then comes back next year demanding that we recognize his claims for the Fastest Marathon Run with Two Books on the Head. He wants two records, not one, for effectively the same achievement. So we say no, and he says, well, what about the Fastest Half-Marathon with a Book on the Head. No! We ask that you accept our limiting categories and respect the reason we do so: to prevent our database containing millions of records of minutely varying difference.

5. Interesting: My principle job is to create the world’s best-selling book, and I’m not going to achieve that if I fill the book with boring achievements. As a company, we might still recognize the odd dull accomplishment, but there’s no guarantee I’ll ever print it in the book. Records have to be relevant to as many people as possible. We had a claim for the Longest Wall of Sausages, a traditional creation in, I think, a small village in deepest Hungary. As well as failing to make the grade on so many levels (what’s to stop you entering a Wall of Cheese and a Wall of Bananas, etc. — see previous point) it’s just too specific to one village. And too weird.

As I said before, we reject 95 percent of what we receive. There’s a common myth-conception that you can just write to Guinness and we’ll recognize any-old-thing. It’s not true.

Q: Is there any other revenue-generating part of your business besides book sales?

A: We are a commercial venture, not a charity or a government body. All too often, the public gets it into their heads that they’ve paid their taxes and now they want their record! (A recent claimant, who’d played a church organ for something like 33 hours non-stop, had his claim rejected — his parents were the “independent” witnesses — so he actually wrote a letter to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to complain! We only heard about it after the Queen’s secretary passed the message on to the Department of Trade and Industry, and they then got in touch with a bemused response!)

The main annual records book provides up to 90 percent of our turnover, but we do have other ways of exploiting our database. We have an over-supply of content, as the number of approved claims, plus the number of classic records that our readers demand to see every year exceed the space we have in a single book. But we have ways of ensuring the records are published one way or another.

Q: What record(s) would you like to see attempted?What record(s) do you think will never be broken?What was the best attempt to fraudulently get a record in the book?

A: I could be trite and say that I hope the record for the largest charity donation is beaten again soon (currently Warren Buffet‘s 10 million Class B shares from his Berkshire Hathaway company worth approximately $30 billion donated to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). But in terms of classic record breaking, I’d like to see someone climb Everest all the way from sea level; or see the first person to circumnavigate the globe on land, by whichever means, through the continental extreme points; there are still big mountains to be bagged: the biggest unclimbed, to date, is Gangkar Punsum in Bhutan, at 7,570 meters (24,835 feet), ranked as the world’s 40th highest peak — on saying that, though, mountaineering is outlawed in Bhutan, so you’ll have to try Saser Kangri II (east face) in Indian Kashmir, which reaches an altitude of 7,518 meters (24,665 feet).

And no-one’s yet eaten a Terry’s Chocolate Orange in record time. (Do you get these in the U.S.A.?)

Re: fraudulent claims, we’ve seen the classic video of someone running around a race track, yet disappearing out of shot for most of the time, only to jog past the camera every few minutes! There was a moon-walking video where you couldn’t see the walker’s feet! And we’ve read log books from runners who cross continents at what would have to be hundreds of miles per hour if their times are to be believed!

But the best “spot” we had recently came from a tip off by one of our existing holders who disputed a record we’d accepted. It was for the most pint glasses balanced on the chin. It’s notoriously hard to balance so many glasses on the chin, as the whole construction bends and sways; it inevitably ends in the whole lot crashing down to the ground and making a terrible mess, although by then if the record is achieved, the claimant is more than happy to clean up after themselves. So, we should have been suspicious of an attempt carried out on a baseball diamond, during a professional game, between innings! The claimants managed to beat the record by about 20 glasses — it had stood at 75 glasses — and even managed to set the whole lot down neatly on the ground afterwards: surely a first in pint-glass balancing.

Eventually, we reviewed the footage and followed up with witness statements (one of which came from a man of the cloth!) and we found that the “glasses” were actually acrylic and therefore much easier, lighter, and safer to balance.

This case was not fraudulent, I’m sure, but it does go to show how one could push the limits of the guidelines. (I must just add that our repeat claimant, and good friend, Ashrita Furman, currently holds the record with 81 glasses, which he balanced for more than the required 10 seconds!)

Q: There’s a movie, King of Kong, which exposes the politics behind record setting fame; at the extremes of hardcore record chasing, do you think it’s the personal challenge, or the desire to beat the other guy that drives record chasers?

A: I know King of Kong well — I actually appear briefly in the middle of the movie giving my opinion of Twin Galaxies, the company that has monitored video game world records for over 20 years.

It’s impossible to generalize about record claimants, as they come from across the entire spectrum of society. We do have “types,” such as the serial claimants, the one-offs, the chancers, and so on, but what motivates them all is different. Some do it for their own private, spiritual enlightenment; others do it to chase their 15 minutes (or megabytes) of fame; others just like seeing their name in a book (do they rush out and get the phone book every year!?)

The one generalization I will make is that almost every record holder will say they’re not doing what they do to beat the other guy — it’s all about beating themselves. It’s a very personal crusade — about knowing their own limits and pushing them further. About not wanting to sit through life as a casual observer but to grab at every opportunity to try something new or push themselves to new limits.

Look at someone like Sir Ranulph Fiennes. He has a massive heart attack then runs seven marathons on seven continents — in seven days! Here’s a man who — after a polar expedition in which he suffered frostbite — locked his fingers in a vice in his garden shed and hack-sawed them off to relieve the pain. A man who, not content with fighting communists in Arabia with the Sultan of Omar, discovering the lost city of Ubar in the Empty Quarter Desert, and trekking the extremes of the Earth, now wants to start climbing mountains! This isn’t a man driven by petty competition against fellow man. He’s a true hero, pushing himself to greater and greater extremes, living life to the fullest by pushing himself up to the very edge of death.

Who wouldn’t be (even secretly) pleased at knowing you’re the best person in the world at doing what you do. Ultimately, I don’t think I care what their motivation is — as long as they enter into the true spirit of record breaking and conduct themselves honestly.

(Head to head competition is rare but often fun. We have two clowns competing doggedly to be the Fastest Balloon Modeler, and we’re having to organize a “banjo-off” to settle a dispute between two of the world’s best banjo players! Some days, I think: life’s too short; then I realize it’s paying my mortgage!)

Q: What are the worst attempts at getting into the Guinness Book of World Records?

A: The most frustrating — and therefore, for us the worst — attempts are those that are simply not records. “I can lick my elbow,” is common. We also get lots of attempts that fall way short of the mark.

The standout record for me is pogosticking. We get countless claims for hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands — or hour after hour — of consecutive jumps; the record to beat, however, is a phenomenal 177,737, by Gary Stewart at Huntington Beach, California, on the 25-26 May, 1990. A mind-blowing number!

Q: Which country has the most number of records?Which country has the most number of records population-wise? How do you elect/select the judges to verify the various records? Are they divided into categories?

The U.S.A. is the source of the most claims — about 30 percent. The top ten countries are: U.S.A., U.K., Canada, Germany, Australia, Japan, France, China, Italy, and The Netherlands.

Per capita, the Vatican City is the richest source of records, with an average of nine claims per year (from a population of ca.920 people)!

We have a team of 10 records managers in the office, each focusing on different areas (“big” topics such as mass participation records, sports, entertainments, collection, and so on). This team is supported by an international board of consultants who are very much experts in their field. Expert witnesses, as used in court, can also be a good source of consultancy.

Q: What record has been broken the most?

A: Our top four most popular records to break, with the most current:

Longest radio DJ marathon (23 successful claims since 1999). The longest radio DJ marathon was one of 135 hours by Stefano Venneri (Italy) on the Radio B.B.S.I. station in Alessandria, Italy, from 21 to 26 April, 2007.

Longest reading aloud marathon by a team (20 successful claims). The longest reading aloud marathon by a team lasted 202 hours, 2 minutes, 2 seconds, and was completed by Nasser H. Burdestani, Fadhel H. Abdulrasoul, Taha H. Safar, A. Redha M. Haji, Jassim R. Al-Abbasi and Sadeq H. Safar at the Bahrain Social and Cultural Society in Manama, Bahrain, between 24 June and 2 July, 2007.

Largest finger painting (17 successful claims). The largest finger painting measured 1,523 meters? (16,400 feet?) and was created by 650 people from the local community at an event organized by BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha at the Brent Respect Festival in Roundwood Park, London, U.K. on 8 July, 2007.

Largest group hug (16 successful claims). The largest group hug involved 6,623 participants who gathered in Chamizal Park in Juarez, Mexico on 25 September, 2005.

Q: Aside from having your name in the book, are there any other benefits to being a record holder?

A: Well, first of all, a reminder: securing a Guinness World Record doesn’t guarantee you entry into the book (as it says in the small print on the certificate)! The only one thing you’re guaranteed is your certificate.

The benefits depend on your record and how much you are willing to push your achievement. So there’s the satisfaction of seeing your name in print in the book or on the website. This will be seen by literally millions of readers, and if the right person picks up on your record, you could find yourself on TV shows, in circuses, being cast in movies, and so on.

Some record holders have given up their day jobs to focus solely on their record-breaking achievements. Elaine Davidson, for example, the world’s most pierced woman (with 4,225 piercings over and inside her body as of 8 June, 2006) closed her restaurant business in Edinburgh, Scotland, to devote herself to showing off her piercings at conventions, on TV shows, and so on. She managed to make a career of it. Same too with Garry Turner, who has the most elastic skin (actually, he has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder). He gave up work as a pub landlord to join the circus and tour the world.

Others have become movie stars. Example: Matthew McGrory, who until his untimely death in 2005, had the largest feet (he died wearing size 29? shoes), was featured in the Tim Burton movie Big Fish as the giant. Being the world’s shortest stuntman also hasn’t hindered the career of Kiran Shah, who at 1 meter 26.3 centimeters (4 feet 1.7 inches) acted as a perspective double for Christopher Reeve in the Superman movies, and doubled for Elijah Wood in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.