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Going for Gold?

Does anybody care about World Records anymore? In light of a recent record set by students in UCD on Science Day, Gav Reilly examines the good, the bad, and the ridiculous world records and UCD’s connection to record holding

There is an opening scene in a recent episode of The Simpsons where Lisa, watching a mock-up satire of the Guinness World Records: Primetime show (featuring a man who holds the record for the least number of faces, with zero), bemoans the fact that once upon a time to hold a world record actually meant something worthwhile; that it was a valuable achievement worth cherishing. As much as many would belittle such sentiments, how many readers would actually like to hold one? With the mass-influx of wacky glory-hunters setting records for the oddest of things, a once illustrious clique of uniquely talented people are losing the respect they once earned.

There are, as anyone can guess, quite a few major categories of world records: the high-profile athletics and sporting records (Asafa Powell’s 100m record of 9.77secs springs to mind); the rather more stagnant records of the natural world and wildlife; those that are masteries or human engineering and then there are those that beguile all human senses and make the reader wonder just why people would ever desire to hold such a record. All joking aside, does anybody really envy India’s Radhakant Bajpai who holds the ignominious distinction of having the world’s longest ear hair, extending over five inches in length? Thought not.

The world at large, of course, is familiar with most of the world’s record holders through that most noble and absurd of publications, the Guinness Book of Records. Even more legendary is its history: Sir Hugh Beaver, who in 1951 was Managing Director of the Guinness brewery in London, was out on a shooting party when he became embroiled in a rather heated debate (one wonders the logic of starting an argument when all parties have easy access to firearms…) over whether Europe’s fastest game bird was the golden plover or the grouse. With a flash Beaver realised that having a book, packed with such statistics, resident in every pub in bar in the world, would solve such disputes far more easily. The brewery hired twin brothers Norris and Ross McWhirter to compile a book of world records in the manner and hence the very first edition appeared in London’s bookstores and bars on the 27th of August, 1955, going on to top the Christmas non-fiction bestseller list of that year. The rest, as is a cliché, is history, with the book still claiming its title as the world’s bestselling non-copyright book – at least until the Harry Potter series claims the record at some point this year.

If course, this topic has a particular resonance to UCD this month in the aftermath of Science Day, where as a fundraiser, Liam O’Reilly, broke the world record for most hugs received in an hour (727). But Ireland – and indeed UCD itself – is no stranger to world record breaking: once upon a time UCD held the distinction of having the world’s largest single LAN network. Last December, meanwhile, Carlow YM Badminton Club sent the new benchmark for the longest game of mixed doubles in history, playing for 24 hours and 21 minutes in aid of Temple St Children’s Hospital; and in a similar attempt to raise Tsunami funds, Belfield’s own Karl Falsey (2nd B&L) smashed the record for the longest competitive singles tennis match, playing for a gargantuan 30 hours and one minute. Holding a record is something Falsey, for one, takes great pride in. “It means everything to me to be classed as a world record holder,” says the Meathman, “and there is almost no better feeling than to be in that category.”

Such testaments of human endurance are part of what makes holding a world record and appearing in the Guinness Book of Records such a special achievement: naturally there is an endless pride in the knowledge that throughout human history, nobody has ever done anything quite as quickly, or just as long, or with as much sheer brawn as oneself – which is why so many people are eager to hold such records, however inane or bizarre the records are. Those with a penchant for reality TV will recall Big Brother 2 when, as a task borne out of sheer boredom, housemate Dean O’Loughlin built the world’s tallest sugar cube tower. Such records, though, pale in comparison,and Falsey acknowledges that “a world record is a world record… it takes far more effort to become the fastest man on earth than having long ear hair.” While obviously the new century brings new records to break (The Ricky Gervais Show, which finished just yesterday, was recently crowned Most Downloaded Podcast with an average of 261,670 downloads for each of its twelve episodes), there are obviously hose like Bajpai who cultivate aural hair just to be included in their midst.

So if you fancy entering the Guinness Book of Records, either play competitive tennis for thirty hours and two minutes; or eat three cream crackers, dry, in 82 seconds. Just don’t blame the author if you’re put to shame by meeting the holder of a more respected record should you choose the latter.