The difficulties of keeping Guinnessport under control are well appreciated at the Manhattan offices of Sterling Publishing, the Guinness book's American command center. Sterling's hustling chairman, David Boehm, is editor of the U.S. edition and the person mainly responsible for negotiating sales of the Guinness greeting cards, puzzles, movies, museums and the rest of what he calls "the ancillary things." A courtly, bearded man who echoes McWhirter's emphasis on the "purity" of world records, Boehm nevertheless ran into trouble two summers ago when he licensed a festival in Atlantic City that was supposed to produce scores of new Guinness records.
What it mostly produced was embarrassment. Four women carried bricks for nine miles along the Boardwalk, only to learn that this "world record" feat had not been properly verified. After playing a pinball machine for a "world record" 91 hours, another participant discovered too late that at the time the book did not recognize such an activity. And contestants in a marathon belly-dancing competition quarreled bitterly over whether a particular belly had stopped dancing. The festival collapsed under the weight of threatened lawsuits, and Boehm now says, "It was ridiculous. The people we had running the festival didn't provide proper supervision. We'll think twice about getting involved in something like that again."
Might a bit of thought also be given to Guinnessport generally? It is clear that the most delightful records in the Guinness book—and there are many—tend to be those that are unplanned and unexpected. If there is pleasure in learning that the tail feathers of the onagadori are a world-record 34 feet, one reason is that the Japanese fowl wasn't trying to get into Guinness. By contrast, the very purpose of Guinnessport is to crack the book's pages. Such attempts tend to be what historian Daniel Boorstin has called "pseudo events," occurrences stage-managed largely for publicity. The listed record-setting 86-foot desperation basket that Barry Hutchings scored for Sutherlin (Ore.) High School was an event. The record 75-hour basketball game played at West Virginia's Bethany College was a pseudo event. Events are better.
Yet there is a certain fascination in reading that Kathy Wafler of Wolcott, N.Y. managed to cut an unbroken apple peel 172'4" long. There is also some comfort in learning that a discrepancy in the record for keeping a Life Saver on the tongue is being straightened out. The British edition gives the record as 87 minutes and the U.S. puts it at 102 minutes. It seems that Boehm wasn't aware of McWhirter's dictum that the clock run only as long as the hole in the middle is visible. A regular Solomon, that McWhirter.
Guinnessport's redeeming feature is that it somehow manages to be at once democratic and exclusive. Yes, you, too, can be a world-record holder. After all, hasn't Roger Guy English of La Jolla, Calif. been in Guinness at various times for dancing the twist, for marathon kissing and for staying awake—three records for a fellow whom nobody would mistake for Jesse Owens? But don't tell Salt Lake City gymnastics instructor Rick Murphy that getting into Guinness is of small moment. Murphy broke the 50-yard handstand record in 1975 and had his name in one edition before somebody else broke the record.
"People ask if I really was in Guinness, and I say, 'Yeah, I was next to the guy with two heads,' " Murphy says. "But deep down, I was proud to make that book. It's the best thing I've ever done."
McWhirter notes that much of Guinnessport, like a great deal of sport generally, is in an early stage of development, which is the primary reason why records are broken so frequently. He unflinchingly predicts that eventually records will improve by ever smaller margins at ever greater intervals. Although more precise means of measurement could probably be adopted to keep the records falling, McWhirter warns, "If you cut records too fine, it becomes meaningless. You're just showing off technology." Somewhat defensively, he adds, "I know that some records are more important than others. What many people don't realize is that only 3% of the book is devoted to zany records. It's just that the media pays so much attention to them." In other words, McWhirter is no indiscriminate record monger.
But McWhirter also points out that all records, even Roger Bannister's historic mile, are, in a sense, contrived. He says, "What made the four-minute mile special is the appeal of round numbers. To say that somebody ran 5,280 feet in less than 240 seconds doesn't sound quite the same." Expressing admiration for Americans for faring so well in Guinnessport, McWhirter says, "It's because Americans have such a high level of achievement. The underachievers are driven into zanier outlets." He adds, "Life isn't all frivolous, I know that. But it's not all serious, either. It's the same with records. There's room for all kinds. I don't like saying something is beneath me."
Which explains, perhaps, why McWhirter was at the sprawling BBC Television Center in London one recent Sunday morning, getting ready for a taping of Record Breakers, a children's show loosely based on the Guinness book. Inside the studio he peppered stagehands, performers and everybody else with odd information. Did they know that there were 17,000 classified odors? Or that Finnish scientists had achieved the lowest laboratory-produced temperatures? Eavesdropping over a monitor in the control booth, Alan Russell, the show's producer, said with a sigh, "Norris can tell you how many shows we've done and how many chips I've had for lunch."
Once the show began, McWhirter proved a dead-game performer. He climbed into one leg of the world's largest blue jeans (waist: 76 inches), then peered out, eyes blinking, like a miner emerging into bright sunlight. He awkwardly hoisted the world's heaviest cat (42 pounds 10 ounces) onto a scale, getting clawed in the process. And he interviewed Christa Tybus, holder of the world Hula-Hoop endurance record (24 hours 30 minutes), who twirled a hoop on her hips as they talked.