5 Guinness World Records Controversies

daveynin, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
daveynin, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 / daveynin, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Since 1955, the Guinness World Records has been keeping track of some of the most impressive—if not bizarre—feats humanity has embarked upon. Whether you want to know who has the fastest 100-meter dash 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), it’s all been chronicled by this one organization.

But for the workers behind the records, it’s not always a peaceful job. At its core, these records are about competition, and no one wants to lose on a stage like this. That’s inevitably led to some records falling into dispute over the years through cheating, miscalculations, or just some fuzzy rules on Guinness’s part. In honor of the 65th anniversary of the publication of the first Guinness Book of Records on August 27, here are five of our favorite controversies.

1. Billy Mitchell’s Donkey Kong Records

For decades, Billy Mitchell has been the face of joystick dominance. He set his first Donkey Kong high-score record back in 1982 with 874,300 points. In June 2005, he became the first player to ever score more than 1 million points in the game, an accomplishment that was chronicled in the 2007 documentary King of Kong. Mitchell continued to top his own world record in the years after, scoring 1,050,200 points in 2007 and 1,062,800 in 2010. All of these scores made him a Guinness mainstay over the years, but murmurs about their legitimacy have been around for just as long.

In 2018, Twin Galaxies—an organization that judges video game high scores and verifies them for Guinness—determined that Mitchell had been racking up his records on modified versions of the arcade cabinets, theoretically allowing him to tweak certain in-game mechanics to make his runs easier. Once Twin Galaxies stripped Mitchell of their titles, Guinness followed suit, erasing Mitchell from the record books and beginning their own investigation.

Mitchell threatened legal action against both parties, but in June 2020, Guinness reversed its decision, re-establishing Mitchell’s world records (all of which have been topped over the years). This came after months of investigation, with Guinness even going so far as to reach out to Robbie Lakeman, the current Donkey Kong record holder, to examine Mitchell’s gameplay videos to spot any form of modification.

After getting the all-clear from Lakeman and other sources, Guinness editor-in-chief Craig Glenday announced the reinstatement of Mitchell’s scores on June 17, 2020, saying, “there just wasn't sufficient evidence to support the disqualification across the board.” For his part, Mitchell provided the world with 156 pages of evidence he hoped would clear his name in September 2019. As far as Twin Galaxies is concerned, though, Mitchell's scores remain erased from history.

2. Jessica Anderson’s Fastest Marathon Time While Dressed as a Nurse

Not all record controversies stem from perceived cheating or a disputed score. In April 2019, Guinness itself sparked debate by simply being behind the times. That year, Jessica Anderson, a nurse at the Royal London Hospital, tried to set a new mark for the fastest marathon time while dressed like a nurse by taking part in the London Marathon in a pair of scrubs, her typical work uniform. When she completed 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 be decked out in a blue and white dress and white hat. Scrubs, on the other hand, were (apparently) just for doctors. This sparked an immediate outrage, highlighted by a #WhatNursesWear social media campaign designed to let Guinness and the world know how nurses really dress.

Guinness was quick to recognize its mistake, awarding 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 "were outdated, incorrect and reflected a stereotype we do not in any way wish to perpetuate.”

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 being able to sell 1000 cars per year, Girard hit his high watermark in 1973, when he totaled 1425 sales for Merollis Chevrolet in East Detroit. This was good enough for a place in the Guinness books until 2017, when a Dearborn, Michigan, salesman named Ali Reda claimed to have topped Girard with a sales total of 1530 new cars and 52 used models. Things got ugly soon after.

Girard immediately went to his lawyers in an attempt to audit Reda’s totals. This eventually led to Girard suing Reda, alleging that his reputation and potential earnings—speaking engagements and book sales—were hurt after Reda went around claiming he beat the record. During this time, Guinness was communicating with Reda about verifying his numbers, but finding an independent body to corroborate Reda's numbers posed a challenge. They couldn’t use GM’s records, since GM would have a stake in the whole affair, and there’s no independent national organization that keeps track of these numbers like there was back in Girard's day.

Reda was going to hire a private auditing firm to run the numbers, but then Guinness reach its own conclusion: The organization opted to do away with the best car salesman category. Girard would remain the historic record holder, but the record itself would no longer be active. By the end of 2018, Girard dropped his lawsuit. The prolific salesman passed away at the age of 90 in February 2019.

4. Elizabeth Llorente's Burpee Record

Doing 20 burpees is enough to make most gym goers wave the white flag, so when it was reported that Australian trainer Elizabeth Llorente did 1490 of them in an hour and shattered a world record in the process, it seemed unbelievable. But once people started watching the video, the awe turned into doubt—because, by burpee standards, Llorente’s form raised some questions.

Instead of doing traditional burpees from start to finish—in short: kick out, push up, and jump back up with your hands in the air—Llorente seemed to do a far more abbreviated version of the move. There was no pushing up, very little jumping, and absolutely no hands over her head. The internet, as it does, was quick to discredit the (still incredibly impressive) total—but technically, Llorente was within the guidelines of what Guinness considers a burpee. So while this version of a burpee may not fly with your personal trainer, it’s good enough for Guinness.

5. Jeanne Calment’s Disputed Age (And Identity)

Jeanne Calment’s Guinness World Record doesn't involve doing 7600 pull-ups in 24 hours or eating 28,788 Big Macs during 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, living to the age of 122 years and 164 days. She was born on February 21, 1875, and died on August 4, 1997—but some people believe she was far younger than she claimed. And that Jeanne wasn’t really Jeanne.

It gets complicated, but, in short, a pair of Russian researchers—gerontologist Valery Novoselov and mathematician Nikolay Zak—believe the woman in the record books was actually Yvonne, Jeanne’s daughter. The theory is that Jeanne died in 1934, which is when Yvonne is said to have succumbed to pleurisy. From there, Yvonne usurped her mother's identity to avoid an inheritance tax, according to CBS. Their findings were included in a paper in 2018.

The researchers’ claims focus on the discrepancies in Jeanne's physical appearance from over the years—eyes that went from black to gray and a height that never changed, even as a centenarian—along with the fact that Calment apparently had younger photos of herself burned once she gained notoriety. Plus, it’s just really, really hard to live to 122, with mathematician Zak saying the odds are “infinitesimally small.”

But for Guinness, while controversy may surround Calment’s mark, her record is secure. And they certainly have no time for the doubts Novoselov and Zak raised. “These are bad guys, playing nasty games,” Robert Young, a consultant for Guinness World Records and a director of the Gerontology Research Group, told The New Yorker. “This is a manufactured controversy—we don’t even consider the case to be disputed.”