Faster. Higher. Longer. Stronger. There is no question that the quest to excel runs deep. That is why, several months ago, I leapt on the chance to help break a national record. This was no Olympian-style endeavour – it involved learning the steps to a dance, dressing up as a zombie and heading to a town called Lithgow, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.
The event was part of Lithgow’s Halloween celebrations, and an official attempt to smash the Australian record for the largest number of costumed people dancing in unison to the Michael Jackson song ‘Thriller’. It stood at 450 dancers, according to the town’s website, and with thousands expected as grizzly ghouls from every tomb, what could possibly go wrong?
When the big day came the crowds were huge and the atmosphere electric. Jason Jackson, billed as Australia’s top Michael Jackson tribute artist, performed a high-voltage set of Michael Jackson songs and readied himself to lead the ‘Thriller’ record-break attempt.
Sadly, things did not go according to plan. Jackson and his dancers strode onstage to lead the attempt but too many in the audience seemed unaware that this was no run-through – it was the real thing. Before you knew it, the moment had passed. “We tried our best,” said a disappointed Jackson afterwards. The ‘Thriller’ record would have to be broken another day.
Some record-breaking attempts fail far more spectacularly. When media company BuzzFeed broke Facebook online viewer records by live-streaming its employees putting rubber bands around a melon until it exploded, others found themselves inspired to repeat the stunt. One attempt by a Chinese duo went wincingly wrong, leaving one man in hospital after a piece of fruit hit him in the face while hundreds of thousands of people watched on.
Facebook has turbo-charged other, more laudable, record attempts. In November 2016 Australian actor Samuel Johnson used the Facebook page of Love Your Sister, the breast cancer fundraising charity he launched when his sister Connie was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, to announce that it was time to tackle a new world record. Johnson already had skin in the game. In 2014, he completed the longest ever unicycle journey, peddling 15,955 kilometres around Australia over 364 days and raising almost $1.5 million for cancer research.
This time the idea was Connie’s: to break the world record for the longest line of coins using four million five-cent pieces. For that they would need almost $196,000. Within 24 hours, supporters had donated almost $160,000.
“I can’t get this silly grin off my face,” wrote Connie on Facebook about the phenomenal support for their world record attempt. “It’s possible that I am not only the happiest cancer patient in the country right now, but that I am the happiest person, full stop.”
Records come in all shapes and sizes. In 2016, Adelaide’s Dulwich Bakery created the world’s biggest-ever custard slice, an enormous sweet treat measuring 1.94 metres by 6.04 metres, with a depth of 55 millimetres and a weight of over 804 kilograms.
This year Didga, a cat from Tweed Heads in New South Wales, became a Guinness World Record holder for performing 20 tricks in a minute – the highest number ever officially established. The tabby, which can do everything from high-fiving, spinning and rolling on command to jumping over a bar while on a moving skateboard, belongs to Robert Dollwet, a former Hollywood animal trainer who claimed that she has since broken her own record by another four tricks.
Persistence and inventiveness are crucial. In 2016, Australian rugby player Drew Mitchell, having made a new year’s resolution to get his name on the record books, failed at an ultra-fast biscuit-eating challenge and an attempt to put on more than 48 socks in 60 seconds. Success eventually came all on the same day – March 3, 2016 – when he secured four world records by crushing 14 apples with his bicep in a minute, passing a ball to fellow player Matt Giteau a record 98 times in a minute, scoring the most rugby drop goals ever recorded in three minutes (29, in tandem again with Giteau) and then smashing the 100 m record while wearing clogs in just 14.43 seconds.
There may be more to come. Chayne Hultgren, an Australian extreme circus performer, broke his first world record in 2008 by swallowing 17 swords at the same time. He now holds 44 Guinness World Records (GWR), making him Australia’s most prolific GWR holder. “I am hooked on the record-breaking bug,” he says. “I just love it.” Asked for recent milestones, he reels off a breathtaking list. “The longest electrical man-made lightning bolt to strike a swallowed sword,” he says. “The highest chainsaw juggling, the most swords swallowed on a unicycle … the most swords swallowed under water (that’s four)… There are a few.”
Hultgren began unicycling at age eight, grew up fascinated by the Guinness Book of Records and says he always wanted to be in it. Since 2008 he has been in every issue. The performer stresses that he goes into each attempt with a lot of preparation, has broken pre-existing records and also created new ones. He describes the first record he invented as “the most weight dragged with hooks in the eye socket: a cart with six girls in it and a pile of cement slabs. The total weight was 411 kilograms and I had to drag it for a minimum distance of ten metres.”
Asked if anyone has since broken that record, he laughs and says simply, “No.”
Guinness World Records editor-in-chief Craig Glenday suspects Hultgren’s aim may be the GWR’s world record, held by American Ashrita Furman, who has around 200 standing records to his name. Hultgren has a way to go, he says, but anything is possible.
The appetite for record-breaking seems unquenchable. “We get about 1000 applications a week from all over the world and at least half of them will be people suggesting new ideas,” Glenday explains. “While we prefer people to break existing records so we’re encouraging competition … we will look at new ideas and think, ‘Do they fulfil our key criteria?’”
Achievements must be measurable, provable and breakable but also interesting, he says, adding that while this is subjective it also means applications arrive from all walks of life.
“You can be in with Usain Bolt even if you can peel an apple well; we’re saying that’s as impressive in a different way,” he says. “The Olympics is an arbitrary selection of sports … but why are they any better that someone who can ‘space hopper’ 100 metres?”
Records are becoming more extreme and also reflect changes in society, with the latest book including selfie-taking and twerking. A record-breaker himself (he once held the record for the longest stretched Curly Wurly, a chewy chocolate bar), Glenday says that for some people it is a “bucket-list thing … a lifetime effort.” For others it can be “a bit like tattooing – once you’ve had one world record, you want another”.
Having worked at the GWR since 2002, has he come away thinking that some people are simply bonkers?
“Yes but in a good way,” he replies. “They’ve a good sense of humour and a sense of perspective. They’re trying to be forward thinking, bettering themselves and trying to better the human race, even if it’s in a very small way like juggling chainsaws.”
Life should be about having fun, he adds. “If that’s how you want to do it, by breaking records, well great, because it means you are making people happy and making them think.”
Helen O’Neill travelled to Lithgow with assistance from Lithgow Tourism.