In September 2013—as American culture was still caught in the ugly throes of twerking—Guinness World Records (GWR) announced the world record for the most people twerking at the same time when 358 people ‘twerked’ alongside transvestite artist of the bounce music genre, Big Freedia Queen Diva, on Times Square. The event, which was a publicity stunt for satellite television music channel Fuse’s reality show about the Queen Diva, would go down in history.
A month before that, 1,945 people at the Teen Choice Awards in Los Angeles “shook their hips in an up and down bounce motion, twerking in unison” to set their own record. Apparently nearly 2,000 people twerking didn’t jive with Guinness and went unrecognized by the world’s de facto record keeper. Another, lesser known record body, known as RecordSetter, awarded the massive twerk-off.
Why anybody wants the record for twerking is beyond me and a wholly different subject, but the lesson on record setting is clear. If you want it from Guinness, the record itself does not matter much.
My friend, Tameru Zegeye, does not twerk, but he does go upside down. He was born disabled in rural Ethiopia and learned to walk on his hands. When a life changing surgery allowed him to stand upright at 14, he learned to walk on his crutches… also on his hands.
I met Tameru in Addis Ababa in late 2012 when I was contacted by a talent agency to document his incredible abilities. I remember the day he crossed the street bouncing on a pair of rickety crutches with a big smile on his face. After introductions, the next words out of his mouth were ‘You see me, I am evolution’.
Indeed, I would see.
On a stone staircase tucked away in an Arat Kilo neighborhood, I watch Tameru go up and down the stairs on crutches, on hands, skipping stairs… An orthodox priest sat at the top of the staircase watching me film him with a cheap camera. Tameru means ‘miracle’ he explained to me, and the Ethiopian Miracle was born.
I interviewed Tameru for hours over the next two days and was amazed by his ability to recreate the details of growing up a disabled boy in an isolated mountain village. I penned a story about his life, told in first person.
He told me about his quest for a Guinness World Record. It was more than a quest, it was an obsession. I went to work fundraising to buy a pair of SideStix or professional, carbon fiber crutches for this unexpected athlete. The support was tremendous, from South America to USA, from Europe to Africa, people from everywhere pitched in. It was the kind of motivation he needed to start setting world records.
Then on April 14, 2013, a team of professional filmmakers, a BBC correspondent, celebrated Ethiopian Olympic runner Mohammed Aman (the record adjudicator) and a crowd of supporters witnessed Tameru set the record for the ‘longest distance traveled in one minute while balanced on crutches’ at 76 meters.
With such a beautiful video, such a strong effort and the support of so many people, we thought the record was in the bag. We had it all: an adjudicator, at least three witnesses, evidence in the form of photos and film, and the presence of the media. New records are established every day, and until now, nobody had attempted to set a timed-distance record inverted on forearm crutches.
In the meantime, I learned how something so sacred to children growing up in the second half of the 20th century has become nothing more than a line on a budget of a multibillion dollar company that peddles processed food, sells cars and runs radio stations in Canada.
Go back to 1954 when the memorable book was created and owned by the Guinness beer company. Sterling Publishing made it famous in the US. Then in the late 90s the beer market merged into several mega-corporations that wanted to prove how much money they could make. Diageo did not much care about being a world record body, and GWR passed from one entertainment company to another until landing at the feet of the Pattison Group in 2008.
When it became property of the Jim Pattison Group, which also owns the Ripley’s Believe It or Not franchise, GWR began sacrificing talent for dollars in earnest.
Jim Pattison paid $120 million and set out to rebuild Guinness around corporate clients that pay between $7,000 and $20,000 for every record breaking marketing stunt. By awarding records in the interest of profit, Guinness treats talent and people as indispensable commodities. Gone is the history of spotlighting the incredible and inspirational. Today it’s diluted with the corporate mission and the capitalist’s obsession over money. A sad truth in a changing world where very little is sacred.
An example of the dilution can be seen when Twentieth Century Fox paid GWR to set the record for the largest ice sculpture (48 feet) to promote the next sequel of Ice Age the movie on DVD. The previous record was held by Emirate firm Fortune Group—which owns the Burj al Alam tower–and set in 2006 to promote the tower, skiing indoors and all the other record setting attributes of Dubai.
“It’s only fitting that we build a record breaking ice sculpture to go along with the massively successful Ice Age franchise, and unveil it on the day that Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs arrives on DVD,” said Twentieth Century Fox in their press release.
Fitting? Why is it fitting? Because Twentieth Century Fox has a long history and passion for ice sculpting?
The ice sculpture record, or ‘corporate coaching’ is where GWR is going. Corporate clients are good for business, which is good for the Pattison Group. In a hyper-capitalist society, nobody is surprised by fake marketing stunts, but when they carry a name like Guinness World Records, the meaning of the stunt is supposed to carry an awe inspiring feeling.
Sadly, Guinness has lost that awe inspiring feeling.
Fans of Guinness as well as the uninitiated should shudder at the thought that records are being bought and sold not in the name of talent, but in the name of advertising. Guinness sold out to the Man, and you may not care unless a very talented friend has been on the rejection end of a world record application. For GWR, corporate clients receive a much higher degree of service and attention while the truly incredible record setters like Tameru are tossed aside into the wastebasket of history.
***Dear Tameru Zegeye,
Thank you for sending us the evidence for your attempt for the ‘longest distance while balancing on crutches’. Unfortunately, your original proposal for the Longest distance travelled balancing on crutches was not accepted as a new Guinness World Records title. The details included in your original proposal stated that you were able to cover a distance of 70m, this unfortunately would not qualify as a longest distance record according to our criteria.
My team and I took it personal. We wrote letters and phoned the Guinness people every day. One day I was on the phone with Tarela Kentebe, probably an intern that Guinness puts on the calls from disgruntled, talented people.
“You understand that Tameru Zegeye doesn’t have the money to pay the Guinness fees? You’ve read his story. He has no family, no support, nothing,” I explained on the phone.
“We understand that.”
“Is that the reason Guinness won’t accept the record?”
“Guinness is not satisfied with the achievement of 76 meters in one minute,” Kentebe told me.
I doubt Tarela Kentebe has ever tried to stand on crutches on his hands let alone walk on them. Guinness then told me to stage another record attempt, this time measuring the fastest time to walk 50 meters. This, he assured me, would land a record for Tameru.
Tameru is relentless, and Guinness has underestimated this man’s drive. Despite being recognized by other world record bodies Tameru wasn’t happy until he was recognized by Guinness.
In March 2014, Tameru made his second attempt for a world record: the fastest time to go 100m. In a small village in Northern Bavaria, he ‘ran’ the 100m in 57 seconds, beating his earlier record by quite a few meters and earning comparisons with Usain Bolt.
On June 26, 2014, Guinness turned up their sympathetic side and finally accepted Tameru Zegeye into their record-holding family. His ‘Fastest 100 Meters on Forearm Crutches – Inverted’ is officially Guinness, and Tameru never paid any fees or offered any money for the record.
Many of my family and friends made donations to purchase lighter, stronger forearm crutches for Tameru, and this post is an illustration of my personal gratitude. Tameru’s world record put this unlikely hero, a disadvantaged boy from an isolated village in highland Ethiopia, in the history books. And perhaps the record will stand for a very long time, or at least until Twentieth Century Fox makes a movie about Tameru.