sports The Best Athletes of All Time

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List Rules Open to all amateur or professional athletes in any sport

The greatest athletes of all time: a list of the most dominant, iconic athletes to ever play sports. This list gathers sports stars from across every professional league, as well as amateur athletes who may have never competed professionally, in one overall list. Though it may be challenging to compare performance in a variety of different competitive arenas requiring different skill sets, this list nevertheless attempts to distinguish the top, highest-performing and most successful athletes ever to play. The sports stars that rise to the top can be considered to be the best athletes of all time.

Aspects to consider in picking a best athlete of all time would include, obviously, that player's raw talent and born ability. Some individuals seem to prodigally gifted in their sport of choice, and it's hard to discount the importance of this kind of natural talent. However, it's also important to evaluate hard work, discipline and a commitment to the game. Some athletes may not have the natural, genetic ability to dunk a basketball or hit a home run, but nonetheless have trained to the point of reaching these goals all the same. (They may not be the greatest athlete of all time at all sports, but they have mastered their activity.)

Finally, it can be a challenge to compare an athlete who competed in a solo competition with a member of a well known sports organization or club. How do you look at the achievements of, say, a boxer like Muhammad Ali alongside an athlete like Michael Jordan, who had to not only perform to his own best abilities but work as a cohesive unit along with other members of his team? These are the questions that must be answered when compiling a list of the world's greatest all-time athletes.

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1
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Paolo Maldini is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Paolo Maldini Milan, Italy

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2
+ - 12,171 9,559
Wayne Gretzky is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Wayne Gretzky Brantford, Canada

3
+ - 12,118 9,565
John McEnroe is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
John McEnroe Wiesbaden, Germany

4
+ - 12,096 9,550
Marco van Basten is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Marco van Basten Utrecht, Netherlands

5
+ - 12,119 9,543
Julius Erving is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Julius Erving "Dr J" Roosevelt, New York United States of America

6
+ - 12,072 9,545
Franco Baresi is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Franco Baresi Travagliato, Italy

7
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Pelé is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Pelé Três Corações, Brazil

8
+ - 12,146 9,538
Steffi Graf is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Steffi Graf Mannheim, Germany

9
+ - 11,935 9,513
Gianni Rivera is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Gianni Rivera Alessandria, Italy

10
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Pete Sampras is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Pete Sampras Potomac, Maryland United States of America

11
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Roberto Donadoni is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Roberto Donadoni Cisano Bergamasco, Italy

12
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Frank Rijkaard is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Frank Rijkaard Amsterdam, Netherlands

13
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Alexander Karelin is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Alexander Karelin Novosibirsk, Russia

14
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Ruud Gullit is listed (or ranked) 14 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Ruud Gullit Amsterdam, Netherlands

15
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Lorenzo Bernardi is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Lorenzo Bernardi Trento, Italy

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16
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Eddy Merckx is listed (or ranked) 16 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Eddy Merckx Tielt-Winge, Belgium

17
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Sergei Bubka is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Sergei Bubka Luhansk, Ukraine

18
+ - 12,105 9,528
Ingemar Stenmark is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Ingemar Stenmark Joesjö, Sweden

19
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Usain Bolt is listed (or ranked) 19 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Usain Bolt Sherwood Content, Jamaica

20
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Paavo Nurmi is listed (or ranked) 20 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Paavo Nurmi Grand Duchy of Finland, Russian Empire

21
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Kaká is listed (or ranked) 21 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Kaká Gama, Federal District Brazil

22
+ - 12,073 9,517
Michael Schumacher is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Michael Schumacher Hürth, Germany

23
+ - 11,958 9,504
Garrincha is listed (or ranked) 23 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Garrincha Magé, Brazil

24
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Paula Radcliffe is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Paula Radcliffe Davenham, United Kingdom

25
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Johan Cruijff is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Johan Cruijff Amsterdam, Netherlands

26
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Michael Jordan is listed (or ranked) 26 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Michael Jordan New York City, New York United States of America

27
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Muhammad Ali is listed (or ranked) 27 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Muhammad Ali Louisville, Kentucky United States of America

28
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Pietro Mennea is listed (or ranked) 28 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Pietro Mennea Barletta, Italy

29
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Rod Laver is listed (or ranked) 29 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Rod Laver Rockhampton, Australia

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George Weah is listed (or ranked) 30 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
George Weah Monrovia, Liberia

31
+ - 12,082 9,515
Joe Montana is listed (or ranked) 31 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Joe Montana New Eagle, Pennsylvania United States of America

32
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Nadia Comăneci is listed (or ranked) 32 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Nadia Comăneci Onești, Romania

33
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Paulo Roberto Falcão is listed (or ranked) 33 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Paulo Roberto Falcão Abelardo Luz, Brazil

34
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Jack Nicklaus is listed (or ranked) 34 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Jack Nicklaus Upper Arlington, Ohio United States of America

35
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Franz Beckenbauer is listed (or ranked) 35 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Franz Beckenbauer Munich, Germany

36
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Yelena Isinbayeva is listed (or ranked) 36 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Yelena Isinbayeva Volgograd, Russia

37
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Andriy Shevchenko is listed (or ranked) 37 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Andriy Shevchenko Dvirkivschyna, Ukraine

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Emil Zátopek is listed (or ranked) 38 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Emil Zátopek Kopřivnice, Czech Republic

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Stefan Edberg is listed (or ranked) 39 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Stefan Edberg Västervik, Sweden

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Annika Sörenstam is listed (or ranked) 40 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Annika Sörenstam Bro, Sweden Sweden

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Zico is listed (or ranked) 41 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Zico Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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Djalma Santos is listed (or ranked) 42 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Djalma Santos Brazil

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Věra Čáslavská is listed (or ranked) 43 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Věra Čáslavská Prague, Czech Republic

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Björn Borg is listed (or ranked) 44 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Björn Borg Stockholm, Sweden

45
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Ole Einar Bjørndalen is listed (or ranked) 45 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Ole Einar Bjørndalen Drammen, Norway

46
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Sonja Henie is listed (or ranked) 46 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Sonja Henie Oslo, Norway

47
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Blanka Vlašić is listed (or ranked) 47 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Blanka Vlašić Split, Croatia Yugoslavia

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Carolina Klüft is listed (or ranked) 48 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Carolina Klüft Sandhult, Sweden

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Lindsey Vonn is listed (or ranked) 49 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Lindsey Vonn Saint Paul, Minnesota United States of America

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Asafa Powell is listed (or ranked) 50 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Asafa Powell Spanish Town, Jamaica