There was a time when to be featured in the Guinness Book of Records, as it then was, meant everything. It was the ultimate badge of respect. Make it in to those hallowed pages and your feat was official. It was founded by the McWhirter brothers 70 years ago and originally it was chiefly concerned with the big endeavours – fastest man, first person to step on the moon, cross an ocean etc.
But sometime that all changed. No longer was it the compendium of who’s done what for armchair sports fans. Instead it started including freak show acts and stunts, like how many Big Macs you can eat, longest time spent playing Grand Theft Auto – that kind of thing. If it makes an entertaining read, that’s fine by me, but why do adventurers still see it as the ultimate badge of honour?
The other day the polar explorer Ben Saunders proudly shared his official Guinness certificate on Instagram. Just to be clear, Ben and Tarka L’Herpiniere deserve every plaudit going for their incredible return trek to the South Pole, following the original route of Capt Scott in 2014. But is Guinness the best arbiter of adventure records when it has no direct involvement in adventure? By contrast, the Piolet d’Or climbing awards – themselves not uncontroversial – are made up of a panel of climbers while other records in aviation are overseen by sports’ respective governing bodies such as the FAI for aviation or those on water by the WSSRC.
And Guinness sometimes get it wrong. In the 2016 edition of the book, under circumnavigation records, it singles out Colin Bodill for being the first to fly around the world by microlight in 2000. Brian Milton, who was awarded the Segrave Trophy for his 120 day flight around the world in 1998, a story described as ‘one of the last great adventures of the millennium’ by Sir Chris Bonington in his book: Quest for Adventure, is understandably aggrieved.
Milton wrote to Guinness World Records to set the record straight but they told him that because his original co-pilot dropped out and he continued alone – harder in most people’s book – it wasn’t really a first. “They required me, when Keith [Reynolds] abandoned the flight in Siberia, to go back to London and start again,” Milton told me.
Following this logic the 16th century circumnavigator Juan Sebastian de Elcano should have returned to Spain and started his journey again when Magellan died in the Philippines before he could claim the world’s first circumnavigation.
Online it’s no better; Guinness currently list Bodill’s 99-day flight as being the fastest circumnavigation by microlight. This was actually bettered by a pair of Indian Air Force pilots who made the journey in 80 days, albeit in a fixed wing closed-cockpit microlight. This is where it starts to get complicated – illustrating why records (and firsts) should be ratified by a body of peers. [I should point out that the folks at AdventureStats do a grand job at keeping track of adventures at the poles, oceans and on Everest.]
I also know of one quite well-known adventurer who has a Guinness certificate for being the youngest Briton on Everest when – if subjected to a ratification process – that claim might not have stood up to scrutiny. But the bigger issue is, since when did being ‘the youngest’ become a record anyhow? It’s thanks to Guinness this is taken seriously at all.
Traditionally in climbing there are just three noteworthy achievements: making the first ascent, putting up a new route or repeating a route in a better style. Nothing else counts, certainly not how old you are. There was a time when your age wasn’t the focus of your deed – it was what you did that counted!
In 1975 the British climber Peter Boardman was part of the team to make the first ascent of Everest’s South West Face and he was in the second party to summit. He was 24. Today we have an ever increasing number of kids wanting to be the youngest, and Guinness is partly responsible for encouraging this.
A few years ago there was a spate of teen solo round-the-world sailors. Between 2009 – 2012 Michael Perham, 17, Jessica Watson, 16 and Laura Dekker, 16 all made various circumnavigations. I remember meeting the man from Guinness when Perham reached Portsmouth in 2009 and presented him with his Guinness certificate (below). But by the time of Dekker’s achievement Guinness had publicly distanced themselves, saying they no longer recognised ‘youngest’ as a category.
The delight in getting a Guinness certificate is understandable; it’s acknowledgement and adventure athletes could all do with some more of that. But it’s also very subjective and arbitrary and risks trivialising adventure sports (remember extreme ironing?) Record-chasing also also encourages frauds such as the recent Martin Szwed, whose laughable claim to reach the South Pole was recently refuted – but not before he got his limelight in the media. Ultimately, the reward of adventure should not be a framed certificate but that inner glow on the inside. Proving it to yourself should be enough. Do you agree…?