How to do the Impossible

September 2003: Want to have your name in the record books? Here's the way to do it...

Advertisements for comedy shows and movies often promise "non-stop laughter" to the audiences. Of course, this is a slight exaggeration. To laugh non-stop for 90 minutes would require astounding reserves of energy and physical fitness.             Last year in Munich, Ethiopian strongman Belachew Girma took up the challenge. Laughing for an hour and 40 minutes (seemingly at nothing), he worked the crowd into a lather of shared hysteria -- and broke the world record for laughter. After his triumph, he lay on the ground, too exhausted even to smile.

            No doubt he was smiling once he recovered -- not just at his own victory, but also at the events which surrounded him on that day.

            The Impossibility-Challenger tends to inspire people that way. Here is a sporting festival where nobody wins fame, fortune, or major sponsorship deals. (At least, not yet.) However, many of the competitors are the best at what they do. The organisers are students of Sri Chinmoy, and the object is in keeping with Sri Chinmoy's axiom: "to overcome human limitations and to challenge the seemingly impossible."

            For many (though not all) of the athletes, the game is "Guinnessport". This term was coined in the seventies, to describe the daredevil antics that earned a place in The Guinness Book of World Records, the world's best-selling book. An annual event during the 1980s, it returned last year after a decade in hiatus.

            Over the space of a single day, the impossible happened - numerous times. A Slovakian muscleman juggled three 7.25kg shot putts, keeping them in the air for 52 minutes. A Czech juggler set 124 records in 100 minutes, using various parts of his body to move everything from dice to coconuts. An Austrian 'cello virtuoso played continuously for over 11 hours. A yoga instructor did a 32-minute head-stand, hands behind the head.

            The king of Guinnessport - and the chief drawcard - was not about to be upstaged. In the space of a few hours, American athlete Ashrita Furman (also one of Sri Chinmoy's students) broke not one record, but three: one mile of hula-hoop spinning, one mile of lunges (in which the knee had to touch the ground at every step), and standing on a gymnastic ball. (He remained balanced for two hours and 11 minutes, bettering his own previous record by over an hour. Not simply a token record, but a significant leap.)

            Guinnessport followers have come to expect the impossible from him. Ashrita has broken so many records, in so many disciplines, that in 1987, Guinness editor Norris McWhirter presented him with the title "Mr. Versatility", and allowed him a bonus record: the most world records in unrelated categories.

            Subarnamala Riedel, director of the new Impossibility-Challenger, remembers the previous event back in 1990, when Ashrita broke a record for playing the most hopscotch games in 24 hours. At that same event, karate masters sliced blocks of ice, and one daredevil rode a bicycle backwards while playing the violin. The Impossibility-Challenger was nothing if not diverse.

            In bringing back the event, Subarnamala wanted a return to the magic of that eccentric, but nonetheless inspiring meet. Obviously, the idea is to go beyond human limitations. But what makes this event different from most other sports festivals (including many other Guinnessport festivals) is the emphasis on something else: fun.

            "We can all find different ways to transcend ourselves," says Subarnamala. "It need not be something serious, but you can just try something in any field you choose. Not everybody can run as fast as Carl Lewis, for example, but some people can run backwards."

            As many of the events might suggest, endurance is often more important than speed. In fact, the Impossibility-Challenger includes one race where the winner is last across the finish line.

            It might sound (and even look) funny, but the race is not a joke. The event is "slow bicycling", which requires some skill. "You have to cycle 100 metres without touching the ground," Subarnamala explains. "You have to stay in your lane. It's an exercise in concentration and patience." Qualities that, like endurance, can be practised and improved, whatever one's "natural" ability.

            This year's Impossibility-Challenger, to be held on November 9, already has an intriguing program, with many of last year's champions returning. Super-brain Rolf Laue, who last year memorised 96 binary numbers in one minute, will attempt something quite different: one-mile coin-tossing. Kosovan athlete Agim Agushi, who bounced a football on his head for 15 kilometers, will attempt to break another record for bouncing a ball, this time in a seated position. The indefatigable Ashrita is also expected to return.

            Anke says that, after a day of watching these events (even those which don't make the record books), one is inspired to transcend oneself, to do better in one's own chosen field of endeavour.

            So, as the director, will she be attempting her own records in the future?

            She laughs at the thought. Maybe later, but not for a while. "It's enough of a record to organise it!"

NOTE: The next Impossibility-Challenger will be held in Munich on 6-7 November 2004. For details, look up