Which is the fastest game bird, the golden plover or the grouse? This simple question posed on a shooting party in Ireland over 60 years ago to which no one knew the answer led to the creation of a book that has become a global phenomenon.
The Book of Guinness World Records was the brainchild of Sir Hugh Beaver, then managing director of Guinness Brewery, who was one of the party. Astonished that there wasn’t a reference book that could provide the answer to this and similar questions, he recruited Ross and Norris McWhirter, identical twins with an eye for facts, to create one to keep behind the bar of every pub in the land as an advertising gimmick for his beer.
It proved so popular that it quickly became available for sale and today holds its own world record, as the best-selling copyrighted book series of all time – its sales beaten only by the Bible and the Koran.
The book is an Aladdin’s cave of human stories, and behind each entry lies a tale of the enduring human quest for recognition. Inside Guinness World Records explores our drive to be unique and break records. It’s the first time cameras have been allowed behind the scenes to document in detail the people who confer the records and those who receive them.
From 77-year-old Edith Connor – the world’s oldest living female competitive body-builder – to Alain Robert, the so-called French Spider-man who climbs the world’s tallest buildings with his bare hands, we met numerous people who push themselves beyond the boundaries of human endurance to break records and give meaning and purpose to their lives.
Alain Robert recently turned 50 and has been climbing buildings since the age of 11 when he found himself locked out of his parents seventh-floor apartment and chose to climb his way back in. “As a young boy, I wanted to be courageous like Zorro and D’Artagnan,” he says. He became a mountain climber and although a couple of serious accidents in his 20s left him in a coma and with multiple broken bones and with permanent vertigo, he wasn’t deterred.
“When I’m up 200 metres in the air and I feel my balance is not so good, it sucks,” he says mildly. “There are just two options, climbing and living, or falling and dying, so even if I don’t feel well, I am still fighting to stay alive.”
Alain holds Guinness World Records for climbing the world’s tallest buildings, from the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. He prefers to climb without ropes or harness – “too boring with them” – and as this is usually illegal, he’s been arrested over a hundred times. “This is the language of our modern society, no risk, zero risk,” he says. “When you’re about to climb a building you feel very much alive because you’re also very much dead.
“It’s a paradox, you’re living a countdown to your own death but on the flipside you’re also very much alive and fighting to stay alive. When you reach the top it’s like you’re reborn, a very interesting feeling, it’s kind of amazing.” He holds several world records, but it’s this need to live on the edge that drives him.
Ashrita Furman, meanwhile, holds 148 records accumulated over 35 years of endeavour. They include the Guinness World Record for holding the most Guinness world records, such as bouncing the fastest mile on a space hopper along the Great Wall of China; a sack race with a yak in Mongolia; juggling in a tank with sharks in Kuala Lumpur and skipping with a tiger in a monastery in Thailand. And when we met him he was preparing to skip a half-marathon in Portland, Oregon.
Hearing his exploits feels like falling into a Dr Seuss book and each carries an implicit health warning: “Don’t try this at home!” So what drives him to do it?
Now aged 58, Ashrita was born Keith Furman in New York, where he still lives and, when he’s not trying to break records, he manages a health-food shop. He always felt there had to be a deeper meaning to life and his quest for “truth” led him to Sri Chinmoy, an Indian spiritual master who believed you could make spiritual progress by doing sports.
At the age of 23, Ashrita (which means protected by God in Sanskrit) took part in a 24-hour bicycle marathon and rode 405 miles while chanting and meditating. “I was having a spiritual experience on a bicycle,” he says. He promised himself that he was going to break world records, not to get his picture in the book but to tell people about meditation.
“I can go out doing a crazy thing like skipping with an orang-utan and I sometimes have a real deep experience of God and it’s amazing. It’s not success that gives people happiness, it’s progress and training for these records gives me tremendous joy because I’m making progress.”
While breaking records is Ashrita’s yoga, Midlands-based Paddy Doyle is convinced it’s saved him from prison. “Before getting involved with Guinness World Records, I was drinking, getting involved in fights, getting cautioned and warnings; it was going the wrong way.”
The 47-year-old holds 52 Guinness World Records (more than anyone else in Britain). His records include the most squat thrusts in a minute, the most punch strikes in an hour and the most push-ups in a year. Why? “It’s wanting to be the best in the world,” he says, “being at the top of your game, being number one.”
When Paddy was four, his mother left home. His father brought him up with a stepmother with whom he had a troubled relationship. Paddy breaks down as he remembers his attempts as a child to make peace with his stepmother by buying her gifts. After this unhappy childhood, Paddy found refuge in the army and it was there that he discovered his talent for endurance training, now he trains others in fitness and self-defence and his record-breaking has helped him structure his life and give it purpose.
There are about 40,000 Guinness World Records in the database, of which only 4,000 appear in the book in any given year and each, like Alain, Ashrita and Paddy, has a distinctive story to tell. The guidelines for winning a record are carefully set and monitored by the authenticating team and adjudicators travel the globe to meet the often extraordinary people who will go to unusual lengths to attempt world records.
However, notwithstanding the team’s encyclopaedic knowledge, none of them was able to tell us which is faster, the golden plover or the grouse…
Olivia Lichtenstein is the producer and director of Inside Guinness World Records – starting tonight at 8:00pm on ITV1