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The Best Athletes Of All Time

Updated January 27, 2020 37.2m votes 129.9k voters 1.0m views1.8k items

List RulesOpen 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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  • 26
    Maria Sharapova is listed (or ranked) 26 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,378
    14,181

    Maria Sharapova

    Nyagan, Russia
    Maria Yuryevna Sharapova (Russian: Мари́я Ю́рьевна Шара́пова, IPA: [mɐˈrʲijə ˈjʉrʲjɪvnə... more on Wikipedia

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  • 27
    Babe Ruth is listed (or ranked) 27 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    37,144
    24,364

    Babe Ruth

    Pigtown, Baltimore
    George Herman "Babe" Ruth Jr. (February 6, 1895 – August 16, 1948) was an American... more on Wikipedia

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  • 28
    Grete Waitz is listed (or ranked) 28 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    15,918
    13,682

    Grete Waitz

    Oslo, Norway
    Grete Waitz (née Andersen, 1 October 1953 – 19 April 2011) was a Norwegian marathon runner and... more on Wikipedia
  • 29
    Lionel Messi is listed (or ranked) 29 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    43,157
    26,557

    Lionel Messi

    Rosario, Argentina
    Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini (Spanish pronunciation: [ljoˈnel anˈdɾez ˈmesi] (listen); born... more on Wikipedia

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  • 30
    Zvonimir Boban is listed (or ranked) 30 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,708
    14,232

    Zvonimir Boban

    Imotski, Croatia
    Zvonimir Boban (Croatian pronunciation: [zʋônimiːr bǒban] (listen); born 8 October 1968) is a... more on Wikipedia
  • 31
    Emil Zátopek is listed (or ranked) 31 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    17,923
    15,571

    Emil Zátopek

    Kopřivnice, Czech Republic
    Emil Zátopek (Czech pronunciation: [ˈɛmɪl ˈzaːtopɛk] (listen); 19 September 1922 – 22 November... more on Wikipedia
  • 32
    Ole Einar Bjørndalen is listed (or ranked) 32 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    15,516
    13,493

    Ole Einar Bjørndalen

    Drammen, Norway
    Ole Einar Bjørndalen (born 27 January 1974) is a retired Norwegian professional biathlete,... more on Wikipedia
  • 33
    Wilt Chamberlain is listed (or ranked) 33 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    25,591
    22,142

    Wilt Chamberlain

    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    Wilton Norman Chamberlain (; August 21, 1936 – October 12, 1999) was an American basketball... more on Wikipedia

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  • 34
    Peyton Manning is listed (or ranked) 34 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    11,387
    9,447

    Peyton Manning

    New Orleans, Louisiana
    Peyton Williams Manning (born March 24, 1976) is a former American football quarterback who... more on Wikipedia

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  • 35
    Patrik Sjöberg is listed (or ranked) 35 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,662
    14,447

    Patrik Sjöberg

    Gothenburg, Sweden
    Jan Niklas Patrik Sjöberg (Swedish pronunciation: [ˈpɑːtrɪk ²ɧøːbærj]; born 5 January 1965) is... more on Wikipedia
  • 36
    Franz Beckenbauer is listed (or ranked) 36 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,139
    14,051

    Franz Beckenbauer

    Munich, Germany
    Franz Anton Beckenbauer (pronounced [ˈfʁants ˈbɛkn̩ˌbaʊɐ]; born 11 September 1945) is a German... more on Wikipedia
  • 37
    Thomas Aalsgard is listed (or ranked) 37 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    1,273
    790

    Thomas Aalsgard

    Lørenskog, Norway
    Thomas Alsgaard (born 10 January 1972) is a Norwegian former professional cross-country skier.... more on Wikipedia
  • 38
    Larry Bird is listed (or ranked) 38 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    19,222
    14,452

    Larry Bird

    West Baden Springs, French Lick Township
    Larry Joe Bird (born December 7, 1956) is an American former professional basketball player,... more on Wikipedia

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  • 39
    Lindsey Vonn is listed (or ranked) 39 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    17,164
    14,974

    Lindsey Vonn

    Saint Paul, Minnesota
    Lindsey Caroline Vonn (née Kildow ; born October 18, 1984) is an American former World Cup... more on Wikipedia

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  • 40
    Martina Navratilova is listed (or ranked) 40 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    20,445
    13,407

    Martina Navratilova

    Prague, Czech Republic
    Martina Navratilova (Czech: Martina Navrátilová pronounced [mar'cɪna navˈraːcɪlovaː]; born... more on Wikipedia

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  • 41
    Jesse Owens is listed (or ranked) 41 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    21,760
    18,813

    Jesse Owens

    Oakville, Alabama
    James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) was an American track and... more on Wikipedia

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  • 42
    Birgit Fischer is listed (or ranked) 42 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    15,821
    13,715

    Birgit Fischer

    Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany
    Birgit Fischer (born 25 February 1962) is a German kayaker, who has won eight gold medals over... more on Wikipedia
  • 43
    Carolina Klüft is listed (or ranked) 43 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    15,479
    13,523

    Carolina Klüft

    Sandhult, Sweden
    Carolina Evelyn Klüft (Swedish pronunciation: [ˈklʏfːt]; born 2 February 1983) is a retired... more on Wikipedia
  • 44
    Marcel Hirscher is listed (or ranked) 44 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,881
    14,735

    Marcel Hirscher

    Annaberg-Lungötz, Austria
    Marcel Hirscher (born 2 March 1989) is an Austrian World Cup alpine ski racer. Hirscher made... more on Wikipedia

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  • 45
    Hermann Maier is listed (or ranked) 45 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,036
    13,958

    Hermann Maier

    Altenmarkt im Pongau, Austria
    Hermann Maier (born 7 December 1972) is an Austrian former World Cup champion alpine ski racer... more on Wikipedia

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    #9 of 62 The Greatest Alpine Skiers of All Time#6 of 235 The Best Olympic Athletes in Alpine Skiing

  • 46
    Marit Bjørgen is listed (or ranked) 46 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    14,764
    12,819

    Marit Bjørgen

    Trondheim, Norway
    Marit Bjørgen (born 21 March 1980) is a retired Norwegian cross-country skier. She is ranked... more on Wikipedia
  • 47
    Sixten Jernberg is listed (or ranked) 47 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,295
    14,184

    Sixten Jernberg

    Malung, Sweden
    Edy Sixten Jernberg (6 February 1929 – 14 July 2012) was a Swedish cross-country skier and one... more on Wikipedia
  • 48
    Ingrid Kristiansen is listed (or ranked) 48 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    15,802
    13,738

    Ingrid Kristiansen

    Trondheim, Norway
    Ingrid Kristiansen (née Christensen on 21 March 1956) is a Norwegian former athlete. She was... more on Wikipedia
  • 49
    George Best is listed (or ranked) 49 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    17,166
    14,939

    George Best

    Belfast, United Kingdom
    George Best (22 May 1946 – 25 November 2005) was a Northern Irish professional footballer who... more on Wikipedia

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  • 50
    Andreas Thorkildsen is listed (or ranked) 50 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,056
    13,966

    Andreas Thorkildsen

    Kristiansand, Norway
    Andreas Thorkildsen (born 1 April 1982) is a retired Norwegian track and field athlete who... more on Wikipedia
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