Sports

The Best Athletes Of All Time 

Ranker Community
Originally by Ranker Community
Updated January 27, 2020 34.2M votes 124k voters 978.8k views 2,166 items

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, famous players in the history of 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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list ordered by
1
Muhammad Ali is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Louisville, Kentucky, United States of America
Muhammad Ali (; born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.; January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) was an American professional boxer, activist, and philanthropist. Nicknamed "The Greatest," he is ...more

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2
Wayne Gretzky is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Brantford, Canada
Wayne Douglas Gretzky (; born January 26, 1961) is a Canadian former professional ice hockey player and former head coach. He played 20 seasons in the National Hockey League (NHL) for four teams ...more

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#257 of 452 Famous Role Models We'd Like to Meet In Person #4 of 526 The Best NHL Players of All Time #9 of 119 The Greatest Left-Handed Athletes of All Time

3
Roger Federer is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Basel, Switzerland
← Roger Federer (German pronunciation: [ˈrɔdʒər ˈfeːdərər]; born 8 August 1981) is a Swiss professional tennis player who is currently ranked world No. 3 in men's singles tennis by the ...more

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#9 of 258 The Greatest Men's Tennis Players of All Time #2 of 96 The All-Around Best Athletes of 2019 #2 of 200 The All-Around Best Athletes of 2018

4
Usain Bolt is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Sherwood Content, Jamaica
Usain St Leo Bolt (; born 21 August 1986) is a retired Jamaican sprinter. He is a world record holder in the 100 metres, 200 metres and 4 × 100 metres relay. Owing to his achievements and ...more

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#860 of 2,835 The Most Influential People of All Time #1,329 of 1,471 The Greatest Minds of All Time #280 of 469 The Greatest Entertainers of All Time

5
Carl Lewis is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Birmingham, Alabama, United States of America
Frederick Carlton "Carl" Lewis (born July 1, 1961) is an American former track and field athlete who won nine Olympic gold medals, one Olympic silver medal, and 10 World Championships ...more

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#345 of 771 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasures #22 of 77 The Best Athletes Who Have Used Performance Enhancing Drugs #70 of 80 80 Famous People with ADHD

6
Joe Montana is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
New Eagle, Pennsylvania, United States of America
Joseph Clifford Montana Jr. (born June 11, 1956), nicknamed "Joe Cool" and "the Comeback Kid", is an American former football quarterback who played in the National Football ...more

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#288 of 452 Famous Role Models We'd Like to Meet In Person #13 of 257 The Best Quarterbacks Of All Timelisted on Athletes You Didn't Know Were Conservative

7
Michael Jordan is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
New York City, New York
Michael Jeffrey Jordan (born February 17, 1963), also known by his initials MJ, is an American former professional basketball player and the principal owner of the Charlotte Hornets of the ...more

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Wild Stories And Rumors About Michael Jordan #1 of 870 The Top NBA Players Of All Time #1,184 of 1,471 The Greatest Minds of All Time

8
Serena Williams is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Saginaw, Michigan, United States of America
Serena Jameka Williams (born September 26, 1981) is an American professional tennis player and former world No. 1. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) ranked her world No. 1 in singles on eight ...more

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#109 of 316 The Most Inspiring (Non-Hollywood) Female Role Models #67 of 771 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasures #29 of 229 The Best Female Athletes of All Time

9
Wilt Chamberlain is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America
Wilton Norman Chamberlain (; August 21, 1936 – October 12, 1999) was an American basketball player who played as a center and is considered one of the greatest players in history. He played for ...more

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18 Unbelievable But True Stories from the Buckwild Life of Wilt Chamberlain #9 of 870 The Top NBA Players Of All Time #265 of 529 Things That Are Not As Cool As People Think They Are

10
Magic Johnson is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Lansing, Michigan, United States of America
Earvin "Magic" Johnson Jr. (born August 14, 1959) is an American retired professional basketball player and former president of basketball operations of the Los Angeles Lakers of the ...more

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#5 of 870 The Top NBA Players Of All Time #26 of 113 The Most Influential Contemporary Americans #1 of 160 The Greatest Point Guards in NBA History

11
Mike Tyson is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York City, New York
Michael Gerard Tyson (born June 30, 1966) is an American former professional boxer who competed from 1985 to 2005. He reigned as the undisputed world heavyweight champion and holds the record as ...more

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12
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
New York City, New York, United States of America
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (born April 16, 1947) is an American retired professional basketball player who played 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the Milwaukee Bucks and the ...more

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#3 of 870 The Top NBA Players Of All Time #1,421 of 1,471 The Greatest Minds of All Time #2 of 168 The Greatest NBA Centers of All Time

13
LeBron James is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Akron, Ohio, United States of America
LeBron Raymone James Sr. (; born December 30, 1984) is an American professional basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association (NBA). His accomplishments ...more

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The Best LeBron 16 Colorways, Ranked #262 of 274 The Most Trustworthy Celebrities in the World #2 of 870 The Top NBA Players Of All Time

14
Michael Phelps is listed (or ranked) 14 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Towson, Baltimore, Maryland
Michael Fred Phelps II (born June 30, 1985) is an American retired competitive swimmer and the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 28 medals. Phelps also ...more

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#2,514 of 2,835 The Most Influential People of All Time #251 of 771 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasures #101 of 343 The Most Obnoxious Athletes

15
Diego Maradona is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Lanús, Argentina
Diego Armando Maradona (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈdjeɣo maɾaˈðona], born 30 October 1960) is an Argentine retired professional footballer. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest ...more

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#398 of 2,835 The Most Influential People of All Time #1 of 1,415 The Best Soccer Players of All Time #1 of 209 The Best Soccer Players of the '90s

16
Lionel Messi is listed (or ranked) 16 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Rosario, Argentina
Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini (Spanish pronunciation: [ljoˈnel anˈdɾez ˈmesi] (listen); born 24 June 1987) is an Argentine professional footballer who plays as a forward and captains ...more

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17
Jesse Owens is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Oakville, Alabama, United States of America
James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) was an American track and field athlete and four-time gold medalist in the 1936 Olympic Games. Owens specialized in ...more

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#1,194 of 1,471 The Greatest Minds of All Time #230 of 925 People We Wish Were Still Alive #6 of 17 The Best Short Male Athletes

18
Babe Ruth is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Pigtown, Baltimore, Maryland
George Herman "Babe" Ruth Jr. (February 6, 1895 – August 16, 1948) was an American professional baseball player whose career in Major League Baseball (MLB) spanned 22 seasons, from ...more

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#768 of 1,471 The Greatest Minds of All Time #250 of 2,835 The Most Influential People of All Timelisted on Longest Hitting Streaks in Baseball

19
Bill Russell is listed (or ranked) 19 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
West Monroe, Louisiana, United States of America
William Felton Russell (born February 12, 1934) is an American retired professional basketball player who played center for the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association (NBA) from ...more

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20
Janica Kostelić is listed (or ranked) 20 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
JonathanWeider added Zagreb, Yugoslavia
Janica Kostelić (Croatian pronunciation: [janitsa kǒstelitɕ]; born 5 January 1982) is a former World Cup alpine ski racer and four-time Olympic gold medalist from Croatia. In addition to the ...more

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21
Bjørn Dæhli... is listed (or ranked) 21 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
JonathanWeider added Elverum, Norway
Bjørn Erlend Dæhlie (born 19 June 1967) is a Norwegian businessman and retired cross-country skier. In the years from 1992 to 1999, Dæhlie won the Nordic World Cup six times, ...more
22
Larry Bird is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
West Baden Springs, French Lick Township, Indiana
Larry Joe Bird (born December 7, 1956) is an American former professional basketball player, former coach, and former executive who most recently served as President of Basketball Operations for ...more

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#4 of 870 The Top NBA Players Of All Time #130 of 262 Celebrities Who Should Run for President #1 of 242 The Best White Players in NBA History

23
Ayrton Senna is listed (or ranked) 23 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
amsmaia added
Ayrton Senna da Silva (Brazilian Portuguese: [aˈiʁtõ ˈsẽnɐ dɐ ˈsiwvɐ] (listen); 21 March 1960 – 1 May 1994) was a Brazilian racing driver who won Formula One world championships for ...more

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24
Martina Navratilova is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Prague, Czech Republic
Martina Navratilova (Czech: Martina Navrátilová pronounced [mar'cɪna navˈraːcɪlovaː]; born Martina Šubertová pronounced [ˈmarcɪna ˈʃubɛrtovaː]; October 18, 1956) is a ...more

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25
Monica Seles is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Novi Sad, Serbia
Monica Seles (; Hungarian: Szeles Mónika, pronounced [ˈsɛlɛʃ ˈmoːnikɒ]; Serbian: Моника Селеш, Monika Seleš; born December 2, 1973) is a retired professional tennis player, who ...more

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#479 of 771 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasures #23 of 229 The Best Female Athletes of All Time #25 of 174 Athletes Whose Careers Ended Too Soon