Since 1955, the Guinness World Records have followed some of the most formidable – if not bizarre – accomplishments humanity has attempted. Whether you want to know who has the fastest 100 meter line in history, the longest fingernails on earth, or how many jars of mayonnaise a person can eat in three minutes (frankly, one is too many), everything is recorded by an organization.
But it’s not always a peaceful job for the workers behind the records. At their core, these records are about competition, and nobody wants to lose on a stage like this. This has inevitably led to some records falling into contention over the years due to fraud, misjudgment, or just some fuzzy Guinness rules. In honor of the 65th anniversary of the publication of the first Guinness Book of Records On Aug 27, here are five of our favorite controversies.
. Billy Mitchell Donkey Kong records
Billy Mitchell has been the face of joystick dominance for decades. He made his first Donkey Kong High score record in 1982 with 874,300 points. In June 2005, he became the first player to score more than 1 million points in the game, an achievement recorded in the 2007 documentary King of Kong. Mitchell went on to break his own world record in the following years, scoring 1,050,200 points in 2007 and 1,062,800 points in 2010. All of these results have made him a Guinness prop over the years, but the murmuring of their legitimacy has been around for just as long.
In 2018, Twin Galaxies – an organization that judges video game high scores and checks them for Guinness – found that Mitchell had collected his records in modified versions of the arcade cabinets so that he could theoretically tweak certain mechanics in the game to create his runs easier. After Twin Galaxies revoked their titles from Mitchell, Guinness followed suit, wiping Mitchell from the record books and starting its own investigation.
Mitchell threatened legal action against both parties, but in June 2020, Guinness overturned its decision and restored Mitchell’s world records (all of which have been surpassed over the years). It did so after months of investigation, with Guinness going as far as reaching Robbie Lakeman, the stream Donkey Kong Record holder to examine Mitchell’s gameplay videos to spot any form of modification.
After Guinness Editor-in-Chief Craig Glenday received the all-clear from Lakeman and other sources, on June 17, 2020, he announced the reinstatement of Mitchell’s results, saying, “There just wasn’t enough evidence to broadly support the disqualification. For his part, Mitchell provided the world with 156 pages of evidence that he hoped would clear his name in September 2019. As for Twin Galaxies, however, Mitchell’s scores remain struck from history.
2. Jessica Anderson’s fastest marathon time as a nurse
Not all record-breaking controversies result from perceived fraud or a controversial score. In April 2019, Guinness itself sparked a debate by simply falling behind the times. That year, Jessica Anderson, a nurse at the Royal London Hospital, attempted to rebrand for fastest marathon time while dressed like a nurse by competing in the London Marathon in a pair of scrubs, her signature workwear. When she finished the run in three hours, eight minutes and 22 seconds, she thought she had the record well in hand. Unfortunately, Guinness had different ideas about how a nurse should dress.
According to the organization, a nurse should wear a blue and white dress and a white hat. Peels, on the other hand, were (apparently) only for doctors. This sparked an instant outrage, highlighted by a social media campaign by #WhatNursesWear aimed at helping Guinness and the world know how nurses really dress.
Guinness quickly recognized his mistake and gave Anderson the record just days after the race. In a statement, Samantha Fay, senior vice president of Guinness World Records, said the organization’s views are “out of date, false and reflect a stereotype that we in no way wish to uphold”.
3. Ali Reda and Joe Girard’s feud over the (now defunct) car salesman record
If you needed a car in the Detroit area in the 1970s, you went to Joe Girard. Known for selling 1,000 cars a year, Girard hit his high watermark in 1973 when he made 1,425 sales for Merolli’s Chevrolet in East Detroit. This was good enough for a spot on the Guinness books until 2017, when a Dearborn, Michigan salesman named Ali Reda claimed to outperform Girard with a total of 1,530 new cars and 52 used models. Soon after, it got ugly.
Girard immediately went to his lawyers to check Reda’s totals. This eventually led Girard to suing Reda, claiming his reputation and potential earnings – engagements and book sales – were hurt after Reda claimed he broke the record. During this time, Guinness communicated with Reda to review its numbers, but finding an independent body to confirm Reda’s numbers was a challenge. They couldn’t use GM’s records as GM would be involved in the whole matter, and there is no independent national organization that is tracking these numbers as it was in Girard’s day.
Reda wanted to hire a private accounting firm to manage the numbers, but then Guinness came to its own conclusion: the organization chose to ditch the best car salesman category. Girard would remain the historic record holder, but the record itself would no longer be active. Girard dropped his lawsuit by the end of 2018. The prolific salesman died in February 2019 at the age of 90.
4. Elizabeth Llorente’s Burpee Record
Doing 20 burpees is enough to get most athletes to wave the white flag. When it was reported that Australian trainer Elizabeth Llorente made 1490 of it in one hour, breaking a world record in the process, it seemed incredible. But when people started watching the video, the awe turned to a doubt – because by Burpee standards, Llorente’s form raised some questions.
Instead of doing traditional burpees from start to finish – in short: kicking out, pushing up, and jumping up again with your hands in the air – Llorente seemed to be doing a much shortened version of the move. There was no pushing up, very little jumping, and absolutely no hands over her head. The internet quickly discredited the (still incredibly impressive) sum – but technically speaking, Llorente was within the guidelines of what Guinness considers burpee. While this version of a burpees may not fly with your personal trainer, it’s good enough for Guinness.
5. Jeanne Calment’s Controversial Age (and Identity)
Jeanne Calment’s Guinness World Record doesn’t include doing 7,600 pull-ups in 24 hours or eating 28,788 Big Macs in her lifetime, but her accomplishment is perhaps the most impressive in the organization’s history. That’s because Calment is the oldest person Guinness has ever authenticated. She will be 122 years and 164 days old. She was born on February 21, 1875 and died on August 4, 1997 – but some people believe she was much younger than she claimed to be. And this Jeanne wasn’t really Jeanne.
It gets complicated, but in short, two Russian researchers – gerontologist Valery Novoselov and mathematician Nikolay Zak – believe that the woman in the record books was indeed Yvonne, Jeanne’s daughter. The theory is that Jeanne died in 1934 when Yvonne is said to have succumbed to pleurisy. From there, according to CBS, Yvonne usurped her mother’s identity to avoid inheritance tax. Their results were included in a paper in 2018.
The researchers’ claims focus on the discrepancies in Jeanne’s physical appearance over the years – eyes that changed from black to gray and a size that never changed even as a centenarian – as well as the fact that Calment appeared to be photographs of once younger she had burned herself and gained notoriety. Plus it’s just real Really It’s hard to live, and mathematician Zak says the odds are “infinitely small”.
But for Guinness Calment’s mark is controversial, but its record is safe. And they certainly do not have time for the doubts that Novoselov and Zak expressed. “These are bad guys who play bad games,” said Robert Young, Guinness World Records advisor and director of the Gerontology Research Group The New Yorker. “This is an artificial controversy – we don’t even consider the case a controversial one.”