May 17, 2017

A World Record for Austin Spooners That Was Not to Be

Reporting Texas

Pictured is a 2010 Guinness world record-setting spooning attempt at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. The current record, held by the Australian Medical Students’ Association, was set on July 10, 2013 and involved 1,108 participants. Recently, three UT-Austin students organized an attempt to top that record, but ultimately had to cancel after Guinness vetoed their boundary method. Photo by Carleton College via Flickr, used under Creative Commons.

Students at Carleton College in Minnesota spooning in 2010. According to Guinness, the current spooning record is 1,108 participants, set in Australia in 2013. Carleton College/Creative Commons

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, spooning occurs when participants lie down and place their arms around the person in front of them, in a hugging position. A “spoon” must last at least five minutes.

It sounds easy enough, or so University of Texas at Austin students Hayes Reed, Maddy Braat and Sean Addams thought when a spontaneous group-huddle at a party in last September turned into a spooning chain, inspiring them to attempt the world record.

The current record, held by the Australian Medical Students Association in 2013, is 1,108 simultaneous spooners. But with 120 eager participants at their housing cooperative and a Facebook event page that gained 600 “going” RSVPs overnight and eventually grew to more than 2,100, Braat says they were confident about snapping the record.

“We were just curious,” Braat, a 22-year-old music education senior, said in an interview. “I Googled it and thought, 1,108? We could totally do that. No big deal.”

But spooning glory was not to be. After more than seven months of planning, the students’ efforts to grasp the prize came to an end in mid-April.

“People think it’s very easy, but there are a lot of logistics involved,” said Reed, who is 20, in an interview. “Guinness is actually very, very particular about what counts as evidence for a record.”

Their attempt, scheduled for Apr. 29 on the LBJ Library lawn at UT-Austin, obtained initial approval from Guinness, but Reed, a radio-television-film sophomore, says the organization ultimately rejected the plan. Just two weeks before the event, Guinness notified them via the company’s online application portal that roping off an area with layers of caution tape didn’t count as a physical boundary.

For outdoor events that count the number of participants, a robust boundary is required “to ensure that all the participants will be present for all of the attempt,” Elizabeth Montoya, a spokeswoman for Guinness World Records, said in an email exchange.

“Due to the high volume of incoming applications we are currently receiving, record application and evidence review processing times are taking longer than usual for all standard claims,” Montoya said. “I apologize for the inconvenience that the attempters had to go through.”

Reed says their next boundary option was hurricane fencing, but at $40 per 100 feet — or roughly $1,500 to cover the LBJ lawn area — it was out of the group’s price range.

“It’s a shame because if we had known [about the boundary requirements], we could’ve planned to raise that money … but it took them six weeks just to get back to us on that question,” Reed said.

Guinness World Records began in 1955 after founder Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of Dublin-based Guinness brewery, attended a shooting party where he was unable to resolve a debate about which game bird was the fastest flier in Europe. The episode inspired him to author a reference book.

Then called Guinness Superlatives, Beaver’s book was intended to solve pub arguments about the “world’s largest” and “world’s fastest” feats long before the answers were a quick Google search away. While many of Guinness’ records today are humorous — such as World’s Largest Yo-Yo or Most Apples Crushed by a Bicep — the company enforces strict guidelines.

After the 12-week application-approval period, Reed says Guinness instructed them to document their effort with video cameras and aerial footage, count spooners on entry ikr4and exit, mark off a clearly defined boundary and have one volunteer coordinator for every 50 people. After the event, they were to send the evidence off to Guinness, where judges eventually would confirm or deny a new record. Reed says he and the other organizers put in over 100 hours of planning and research into their try for a record.

“For such a silly idea, it’s a lot of planning” Braat said. “[We met] once a week to delegate duties to each individual person involved.”

UT-Austin’s spooning hopefuls aren’t the only ones to end up unsuccessful. Montoya estimates that out of more than 45,000 applicants Guinness received last year, only 2,868 became verified records.

Ximena Bernal, a biology professor at Purdue University, attempted to organize a new world record at Texas Tech University in 2011 for the most people wearing frog masks. The record, scheduled for “Save the Frog Day,” was meant to raise awareness of frog species’ decline. Planning for the event took three months. About 700 people showed up to take part.

Bernal says she documented the attempt with photographs, but Guinness rejected the record because of their counting method and lack of a physical boundary to mark the area. After months of emailing with the company, she gave up.

“I filled out all the paperwork online and sent it to them, but then they had more questions, and I’d answer them, but then they’d have more questions,” Bernal said in a telephone interview. “It sounds like something you can pull on a whim and you have this idealized image, but I underestimated the bureaucracy behind it. … It would’ve been awesome if it was official, but I just had to pick my battles.”

With nearly 1,000 applications from around the world each week, a Guinness official cannot judge each event in person, so the contestants are left to police the rules they’re given. The logistical guidelines for each record are determined by a team of records experts at Guinness and can evolve over time, Montoya says.

“Our record categories and policies undergo a continuous process of review and adaptation as the records are attempted and grow, as adjudicators and records managers give feedback and as hobbies, trends and business change across the world,” she said.

Bernal says that despite the failure of her record attempt, she was still able to raise awareness for threatened frog species. She says she would consider attempting the record again now that she has a better understanding of the guidelines.

“[Guinness is] in a position where they don’t need to beg people to do this, which explains why they were so picky,” Bernal said. “I wish it had been easier for me because we did as much as we could, but at the same time, I do understand how people could try to bend the rules. You need rules, and you need clear guidelines.”