Sports

The Best Athletes of All Time  

Ranker Community
Originally by Ranker Community
34.8M votes 110.5k voters 902.6k views 2,216 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 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.

For more sports news and athlete trade rumors, vote on this list of sports news sites.
Ranker may collect a commission from links on this page.
list ordered by
back to page 1
26
Bill Russell is listed (or ranked) 26 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 85
William Felton "Bill" Russell is an American retired professional basketball player. Russell played center for the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association from 1956 to ...more
27
Joe DiMaggio is listed (or ranked) 27 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Dec. at 85 (1914-1999)
Joseph Paul "Joe" DiMaggio, born Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio, nicknamed "Joltin' Joe" and "The Yankee Clipper", was an American Major League Baseball center fielder who ...more
28
Jack Nicklaus is listed (or ranked) 28 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 79
Jack William Nicklaus, nicknamed "The Golden Bear", is a retired American professional golfer. He is widely regarded as the greatest professional golfer of all time, winning a total of ...more
29
Sugar Ray Leonard is listed (or ranked) 29 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 63
Sugar Ray Leonard is an actor.
30
Johan Cruijff is listed (or ranked) 30 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 72
Hendrik Johannes Cruijff OON, born 25 April 1947, known as Johan Cruyff, is a former Dutch footballer and was until recently the manager of the Catalonia football team. He won the Ballon d'Or ...more
31
Rocky Marciano is listed (or ranked) 31 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Dec. at 46 (1923-1969)
Rocky Marciano was an American professional boxer and the World Heavyweight Champion from September 23, 1952, to April 27, 1956. Marciano is the only person to hold the heavyweight title without ...more
32
Michael Schumacher is listed (or ranked) 32 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 50
Michael Schumacher is a German retired racing driver. Schumacher is a seven-time Formula One World Champion and is widely regarded as one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all time. He was ...more
33
Mike Tyson is listed (or ranked) 33 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 53
Michael Gerard "Mike" Tyson is an American retired professional boxer. Tyson is a former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and holds the record as the youngest boxer to win ...more
34
Ruud Gullit is listed (or ranked) 34 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 57
Ruud Gullit, OON, is a Dutch football manager and former football player who played professionally in the 1980s and 1990s. He was the captain of the Netherlands national team that was victorious ...more
35
Pete Maravich is listed (or ranked) 35 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Dec. at 41 (1947-1988)
Peter Press "Pistol Pete" Maravich was an American professional basketball player. He was born and raised in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. Maravich ...more
36
Sergei Bubka is listed (or ranked) 36 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
enros added age 56
Serhiy Nazarovych Bubka is a former Ukrainian pole vaulter. He represented the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991, was twice named Athlete of the Year by Track & Field News, and in ...more
37
Steffi Graf is listed (or ranked) 37 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 50
Stefanie Maria "Steffi" Graf is a German former world No. 1 tennis player. Graf won 22 Grand Slam singles titles. Her 22 singles titles is second all time behind Margaret Court, and ...more
38
Kaká is listed (or ranked) 38 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 37
Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, commonly known as Kaká or Ricardo Kaká, is a Brazilian professional footballer who plays as an attacking midfielder for American club Orlando City ...more
39
Lorenzo Bernardi is listed (or ranked) 39 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
wolfkkk added age 51
Lorenzo Bernardi is a former Italian volleyball player and coach, double European Champion and double World Champion, silver medalist of the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996, a five-times gold ...more
40
George Weah is listed (or ranked) 40 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 53
George Tawlon Manneh Oppong Ousman Weah is a Liberian humanitarian, politician, and an ex-footballer who played as a striker. Regarded as one of the greatest African players of all time, in 1995 ...more
41
Sebastian Coe is listed (or ranked) 41 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Coolza added age 63
Sebastian Newbold Coe, Baron Coe, CH, KBE, often referred to as Seb Coe or Lord Coe, is a British politician and former track and field athlete. As a middle-distance runner, Coe won four Olympic ...more
42
Pietro Mennea is listed (or ranked) 42 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Dec. at 61 (1952-2013)
Pietro Paolo Mennea was an Italian sprinter and politician, who was the 1980 Moscow Olympic 200 meter champion, and also held the 200 m world record for almost 17 years with his time of 19.72 ...more
43
Walt Frazier is listed (or ranked) 43 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 74
Walter "Clyde" Frazier is an American former basketball player in the National Basketball Association. As their floor general, he led the New York Knicks to the franchise's only two ...more
44
Gustav Thöni is listed (or ranked) 44 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 68
Gustav Thöni is a retired alpine ski racer from Northern Italy.
45
Sugar Ray Robinson is listed (or ranked) 45 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Dec. at 68 (1921-1989)
Sugar Ray Robinson was an American professional boxer. Frequently cited as the greatest boxer of all time, Robinson's performances in the welterweight and middleweight divisions prompted ...more
46
Eddy Merckx is listed (or ranked) 46 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 74
Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Merckx, better known as Eddy Merckx, is a Belgian former professional road and track bicycle racer, considered to be the greatest cyclist ever. The French magazine ...more
47
Djalma Santos is listed (or ranked) 47 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Dec. at 84 (1929-2013)
Djalma Pereira Dias dos Santos known simply as Djalma Santos was a Brazilian footballer who started for the Brazil national team in four World Cups, winning two, in 1958 and 1962. Santos is ...more
48
Zico is listed (or ranked) 48 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 66
Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better known as Zico, is a Brazilian coach and former footballer. Often called the "White Pelé", he was a creative player, gifted with excellent ...more
49
Nils Liedholm is listed (or ranked) 49 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Dec. at 85 (1922-2007)
Nils Liedholm was a Swedish football midfielder and coach. Il Barone, as he is affectionately known in Italy, was renowned for being part of the Swedish "Gre-No-Li" trio of strikers ...more
50
Franco Baresi is listed (or ranked) 50 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 59
Franco Baresi is an Italian football youth team coach and a former player and manager. He played as a sweeper and as a central defender, and spent his entire 20-year career with Serie A club ...more