The Olympic Games trace their origin to ancient Greece, where every four years a truce was called so the best athletes could vie for a crown of laurel—the equivalent of the gold medal. Today, with thousands of the world’s top athletes competing every four years at the modern winter and summer Olympic Games, it’s a marvel that any Olympic record stands for very long. But there are a few achievements in the Olympic annals that have endured for decades, and may never be surpassed.
5 Bob Beamon
The Mexico City summer games of 1968 was the scene of an extraordinary long jump by Bob Beamon, who set a new Olympic and world record of 8.9 meters. As a world-best mark, this jump stood for 22 years until it was surpassed by Mike Powell in 1991; as of 2012 Beamon still owned the Olympic record. Although many observers claimed Beamon held an unfair advantage by jumping in Mexico City’s high altitude, no Olympic athlete has come close to it at any elevation in more than 44 years.
4 Jesse Owens
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin were designed to showcase superior German athletes, but the gold medals won by Jesse Owens in four major track-and-field events put the lie to Nazi notions of racial superiority. In a thrilling head-to-head long-jump competition with German athlete Luz Long, Owens emerged the winner with a leap of 26 feet, 5-1/2 inches, a mark that would stand for 24 years.
3 Marjorie Gestring and Inge Sorensen
At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, 13-year-old diver Marjorie Gestring, representing the United States, became the youngest gold-medal winner in Olympic history, a record that still stands. The Berlin games also produced the youngest Olympic medalist in history, Inge Sorensen of Denmark, who took the bronze medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at the age of 12 years, 24 days.
2 Florence Griffith Joyner
The U.S. runner Florence Griffith Joyner (aka “Flo Jo”) set two Olympic records in short sprints that have survived as of 2013. Her mark of 10.54 seconds in the 100 meters beat the silver medalist Evelyn Ashford by 0.3 seconds in 1988. She went on to set a world record of 21.56 second in the 200-meter semifinal, only to break her own record in the finals with a sprint of 21.34 seconds. Flo Jo’s two Olympic records sealed her reputation as the fastest woman in history.
1 Jarmila Kratochvilova
As of 2013, the longest surviving Olympic record in women’s track and field is held by the Czech sprinter Jarmila Kratochvilova, who ran 800 meters in 1 minute, 53 seconds in 1983. The record was broken regularly in the years after World War II, but after Kratochvilova’s feat in Helsinki, the mark has endured. Although many later observers raised the possibility that Kratochvilova used performance-enhancing drugs, there were no effective detection tests available at the time, and the record remained official.