Ever since Guinness World Records (GWR) released its first edition of men and women with extreme distinctions in 1955, it has remained a measure of all wonderful (and sometimes outlandish) things human beings can do. Seventy years later, despite the Internet changing the game, GWR has held its own by documenting extremes through a carefully thought-out process of verification. In town to reveal the world’s shortest man, 21-year-old Afshin Esmael Ghaderzadeh from Iran, GWR’s editor-in-chief Craig Glenday talks at length about the documenting humankind’s greatest achievements through seven decades.
The first book of Guinness World Records came out in 1955. How has it evolved over a period of time?
The processes, of course, have changed a lot. When the very first book was created, the idea was to distribute it in pubs. There would be men arguing there about who the highest paid footballer was or which was the tallest building in the world. The idea was that instead of arguing, they would read the book. Twins Ross and Norris McWhirter were hired to compile the book, but it would be given away for free. In 1954, there were about 80,000 pubs in the UK and the idea was to give the book to them for free. It became so popular that people began stealing it. It was then decided that the book would be sold. Back then, it was pretty much Ross and Norris deciding what should be featured.
The guiding light was focus on superlatives. They described it as extracting the ‘-ests’ from the ‘-ists’, meaning sourcing data on the tallest, fastest, strongest, heaviest, etc. from experts like archaeologists, conchologists, myrmecologists, zoologists, etc. They would contact professionals from different fields and ask them what are the extremes in their world and compile the information in traditional encyclopedia format. In terms of curation of content, the main difference is that it’s not so much about an opinion that two people share, but there are fixed criteria for each category. Having a single superlative is also important. You can have the heaviest man, but you cannot have fastest heaviest man because if he is very heavy, he cannot be fast. We are reflecting what society is doing, not dictating anything. Having said that, we also reject 95 per cent of what we get because it does not meet our criteria. For example, we get bizarre entries like licking the elbow most number of times. There is no superlative there.
The Internet has made accessibility of information easier. In general, it has also spawned a category of its own — like the most streamed show, or the most number of downloads on Spotify. For a period, we had a lot of people who were interested in fidget spinners, before that it was twerking, and prior to that selfies were a thing. In the history of the books, you can see the society being in constant change. Looking at the world through the lens of superlatives is a way of taking a snapshot of the world as it really is. News media looks at the world through a pessimistic lens whereas we celebrate good news.
This week, the story of Afshin Ghaderzadeh is just a nice change from Covid or Russia news. We are celebrating someone’s existence here.
Speaking of Afshin Ghaderzadeh, who was recently named the world’s shortest man at 65.24 cms, certain categories demand greater sensitivity so that the subject is not ridiculed or objectified. How do you go about ensuring that this does not happen?
The family contacted us. We wanted to meet him and take him to the doctor, get the sense of who he is, what his limits are and how he should be promoting himself. We have a duty of care to these people, especially in these key categories like tallest or shortest person. We told the family that Afshin would be inundated with press requests, they seemed to understand.
Recently, I went to the US to meet Diane Armstrong, who is from Minneapolis in Minnesota, and claimed to have the longest fingernails that are 1.3 metres-long. But she has never really been photographed and does not want any attention. So it was important for me to go up to her and say, “We can give you the record, but let’s just talk about the implications.” We don’t want them to be hounded. There is so much cruelty on social media these days.
Afshin is small and has conditions that demand you to be careful. It’s a life-changing thing for them. We want to say that by awarding you this distinction, we also become responsible for how you are treated. Afshin will get his full check-up done at the Ahalia Medical Group.
You are literally meeting people from different parts of the world.
Yes, these are the most interesting people in the world because by definition they are the most extreme examples. The best part of the job is to meet them face-to-face, understand them, meet the families. In Afshin’s case, there is less choice because he is the shortest man by medical default, whereas the fingernail lady has chosen to grow her nails. So it begs a question — how does she carry out her daily tasks? It’s fascinating to collect these stories because it reflects how the world really is. The book sells because other people are fascinated by it.
How many copies of the book are sold every year?
About three million. It’s sold in 20-25 languages in about 100 countries. It is a fundamental human trait to break records. We are the only creatures in the known universe that document and record. It sounds like a grand statement, but this is how you progress as a race. This is how you get better. Yesterday, when the world met the new extreme man — shortest, in this case — there was an excitement because record making and breaking is fundamental to us. What baffles me is that the idea of recording human achievement like these only came in 1950s, when it has been such a fundamental part of human nature. What was happening before is that people were curating encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Brittanica is packed with biographies of saints because someone decided it was important to learn about saints. I might just be more impacted by learning about someone who runs the fastest because I can’t. It’s about finding your place in the world. Guinness World Records is also popular among young people aged between 10 and 12 because they have just come to realise that they are not at the centre of the universe. When you are very young, everything is about you. And then you begin to ask questions and that’s when the world opens up for you. Something like Guinness World Records helps open it up further for you.
What has been your most interesting encounter with a record-breaker?
I feel very moved by the fact that we helped the tallest man in the world Sultan Kösen, who hails from Turkey. I met him in Ankara in 2009 and he was 8 foot 1 inch. He set the record and all was well. The following year, he came to London and I measured him again and he was 5 cms taller. I told him, “You have really stretched.” He was in his late 20s and should have stopped growing. The tumour on Sultan’s pituitary gland was still causing an excess production of growth hormone. His doctors had said it had stopped. But it was still growing, which meant it was still there. Had he not been measured every year by Guinness World Records, he wouldn’t have known. As a result, his internal organs were growing. A doctor came forward after watching him on TV to do gamma knife surgery on the tumour that ultimately stopped it.
He did not like smiling because he had crooked teeth, and a dentist came forward to give him a new pair of teeth. All he ever wanted was to wear a pair of jeans. We got a tailor in New York to make him those. Now he gets his shoes made by a German shoemaker. He had fallen over because he was so tall and had to walk with crutches, which were made for people of average height. One hospital came forward to make crutches that were apt for his height.
This is what I hope for people like Afshin, they should get exposure. It does not matter if this record gets broken in a few years. The fact that you have come to the attention of the world means more people can come forward to help you. If people don’t know you exist, they will not be able to help you.
What does the process of verification entail?
It really depends on the record, but the standard process is that you have to apply to us before you do the record, so that we can send you the guidelines. If it’s a new idea, and if we like it, we send the rules and then attempt the record. Very basic requirements are video footage, independent eyewitness statements, maybe some expert witness (if it involves degree of technicality beyond an average person’s understanding). My first duty as an adjudicator was most number of henna tattoos. I know nothing about the subject. So we found an Indian lady who was a master henna artist to make sure all tattoos were correct. A team sifts through the evidence and checklist. There is no money in it, you don’t even necessarily get into the book because there are more records coming in every year and we have limited space. So my team’s job in London is to choose what gets put in the book, which is a difficult task because you are going to disappoint a lot of people. The book is curated on the basis of themes.
Which has been the most challenging record for you to verify?
I had an experience in Mexico with a martial artist who wasn’t able to beat any of the records. That was awkward because I travelled to Mexico to meet the world’s heaviest man. I thought I could meet him too and adjudicate his records. He wanted to break 10 different records, but only broke one of them. So it was difficult to see this person fail again and again. People invest so much of themselves into achieving this and then when the adjudicator comes, they are not able to do it.
Then there are categories which are difficult to monitor because you need to have some degree of faith that you are not being cheated. A lot of people do not necessarily cheat. Personally, we want videos and eyewitness statements. We put in as many checks as we can. Every record has its own set of rules. We had a famous church organ player who played it for 24 hours, but his only witnesses were his mum and dad, which we could not accept. A lot of people find it difficult to get the evidence. But we need it to maintain our integrity. The point of Guinness World Records is that it is proven. There is a huge wave of information, and disinformation, because of the Internet. It can give you answers on who’s the tallest or strongest man in the world. But Guinness World Records can be a filter and say we are a bit more sure of what the right answer is.
What are the challenges of keeping the book up-to-date?
That job is also done by us reacting to what the public is doing. If it’s a thing that has competition, we keep our eyes on it. For example, everyone can make paper planes and throw them. But there has been, for years, a world championship for paper planes in Austria, and if people are doing it as a competition and thousands are participating, it may not be Olympics, but it is still a thing. So we have to take note of it and look at who has won it the most number of times, what is the farthest it has flown. Even in the first book, we had records for things like how long can you stay rocking in a chair.
At a time when anything or everything can be a record, how does Guinness World Records stay relevant?
We have rules and can compare one attempt with another through the history of the company. That, to me, is a very important distinction. It is difficult and expensive to adjudicate, but it is worth it. There are other books of records where you can record anything. We are saying we want to create rules and guidelines, and there is a degree of international interest in the pursuit rather than it being a self-serving ego trip.
Sometimes, we receive requests that are outright illegal. For example, we have children doing surgeries (surgeons who let their children do an operation as a gift so that they can become youngest surgeons in the world). We say we will call the police on that one. We invented the idea of curating facts in the form of superlatives, of describing the world through superlatives — it just hadn’t been done before in print form (and some languages just don’t have the word for ‘record’, or they use the English word).
So how many submissions do you have from the UAE at the moment?
There are about 550 records from the region that have been verified, and Dubai has 60 per cent of those. There are about 1,713 applications right now — things like fastest crossing of the UAE by bicycle or kayaking around Palm Jumeirah, most amount of Swedish people gathered around the UAE, etc.
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