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Ditch the Daredevilry--Guinness Is Socially Conscious

February 19, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stefan Sigmond recently placed his life, limbs and lungs on the line for 15 words of fame.

By stuffing 800 cigarettes into a funnel and puffing them through a tube.

By leaping into a lake from a 135-foot cliff.

By chilling Cool Hand Luke and gorging 29 hard-boiled eggs in four minutes.

But what Sigmond had here was a failure to communicate with the Guinness Book of Records. Had the 29-year-old man just asked in advance of his smoking, leaping and gulping, editors would have told the risky Romanian to go jump into a lake. Figuratively.

For in this era of elevated consciousness, their 40-year-old compendium of dubious and dangerous doings no longer has space for death defiance by amateurs, the politically incorrect or the morally indefensible.

Such as smoking. "Not environmentally friendly," says Carole Jones, speaking from Guinness' suburban London office.

Such as gluttony. "Taken out in 1990," Jones continues. "Even how many pancakes can be eaten in a minute can be quite dangerous to the individual. Also, with so many people starving in the world, it's not really diplomatic."

Such as life-threatening activities. "We just don't want to encourage records that are gratuitously dangerous," says Peter Matthews, consultant editor for Guinness. "Having said that, we do list the record of a Russian who fell out of an airplane without a parachute at 35,000 and lived.

"We really don't think that is something a person would do voluntarily."

But climbers conquer Everest voluntarily. Nobody forces astronauts to walk in space. Their records are listed, by golly, by Guinness.

"True," Matthews agrees. "Yet these are not things for the ordinary bloke to have a go at."

Nor are ordinary blokes likely to challenge Monsieur Mangetout, the Frenchman with a stomach doubling as a junkyard. Since 1966 he has eaten--as part of an iron-rich diet of 2 pounds a day--10 bicycles, seven TV sets, six chandeliers, a shopping cart, a computer and a low-calorie Cessna. Also one coffin, handles and all. Empty.

Nor do we envy "Sparky" Sullivan. That's Roy Sullivan, the former Virginia park ranger struck by lightning seven times. Sullivan committed suicide in 1983 after apparently being smitten by love and striking out.

These are classics among the 15,000 oddballs, true achievers, accidental adventurers, acts of God and luck of the devil currently accepted as Guinness records.

Of equal interest are those who have not made the book.

Who could forget salesman Mel Lastman, the Willy Loman of North York, Ontario? Last year, he journeyed into the Canadian Arctic and became the first drummer to sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo.

Harrod Blank drew one after covering his van with 1,705 cameras. The El Cerrito, Calif., filmmaker spent $10,000 and one year building a Kodak moment that wasn't.

"Then there was the man who wrote to say that he hadn't spoken to his wife in 47 years," Jones recalls.

Presumably, his "I do" was conversation enough.

All joking aside, Matthews knows there is a deadly seduction attached to his Guinness book. A boy was crushed to death in Germany last year when a mass tug-of-war went awry. A Texan died with his boots on after chug-a-lugging half a gallon of bourbon.

Their intentions, Matthews says, were not presented in advance to Guinness representatives. Had they done so, the requests would have been denied.

So, he says, follow the rules:

* Read the book and go after existing records. Such as the number of gallstones (23,530) removed during a single surgery or the highest mileage (1,442,044 miles by a Volkswagen Beetle still puttering around Pasadena) by one vehicle.

* Check with Guinness two months in advance for guidelines and to make sure a published record hasn't changed.

* Produce documentation, newspaper clippings, witness statements for all stages.

Matthews isn't sure why billions of jumpers and jugglers, the world's venom milkers and chicken pluckers, the Estonian pumpkin growers and Vermont pie bakers, lust for a Guinness mention. Possibly because the book is there.

Matthews does know that his work treads a million fine lines crossing myriad gray and treacherous areas. Gluttony remains an unacceptable entry, but he admits that someone "eating 2,444 baked beans one at a time with a cocktail stick in 20 minutes is quite fun."

He's pulled the plug on harebrained feats, but Guinness recently embraced bungee jumping "because it is well-known and worldwide and we need to be there."

With limits.

"Somebody might take a 105-year-old out of a nursing home, tie on a bungee cord and push her over a cliff," Matthews says. "I really don't think I want to encourage that."

It is worth noting that the Guinness book is a high achiever rich with its own records. More than 77 million copies have sold, making it the world's best-selling copyrighted book.

And it is believed to be the volume stolen most from public libraries.

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