Sports

The Best Athletes of All Time  

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Originally by Ranker Community
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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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list ordered by
1
Muhammad Ali is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 77
Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 - June 3, 2016) was an American professional boxer, activist, and philanthropist. Nicknamed "The Greatest", he is widely regarded as one of the most ...more
2
Michael Jordan is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 56
Michael Jeffrey Jordan, also known by his initials, MJ, is an American former professional basketball player. He is also an entrepreneur, and principal owner and chairman of the Charlotte ...more
3
Pelé is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 79
Pele, is almost universally regarded as the greatest player in the history of football. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil, Pele emerged on to the ...more
4
Usain Bolt is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 33
Usain St. Leo Bolt, OJ, CD, is a Jamaican sprinter. Widely regarded as the fastest person ever, he is the first man to hold both the 100 metres and 200 metres world records since fully automatic ...more
5
Lionel Messi is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 32
Lionel Andrés "Leo" Messi Cuccittini is an Argentine professional footballer who plays for Spanish club FC Barcelona and the Argentina national team. He is a forward and serves ...more
6
Wayne Gretzky is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 58
Wayne Douglas Gretzky, CC is a Canadian former professional ice hockey player and former head coach. He played 20 seasons in the National Hockey League for four teams from 1979 to 1999. ...more
7
Michael Phelps is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 34
Michael Fred Phelps II is an American competition swimmer and the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 22 medals. Phelps also holds the all-time records for Olympic gold medals, ...more
8
Julius Erving is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
LeeBob added age 69
Julius Winfield Erving II, commonly known by the nickname Dr. J, is a retired American basketball player who helped launch a modern style of play that emphasizes leaping and play above the rim. ...more
9
Ingemar Stenmark is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Skojare added age 63
Jan Ingemar Stenmark, born 18 March 1956 in Joesjö, Sweden, is a former World Cup alpine ski racer from Sweden. He is regarded as one of the most prominent Swedish sportsmen, and as the ...more
10
Paolo Maldini is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
JonathanWeider added age 51
Paolo Cesare Maldini is an Italian former footballer who played as a left back or central defender, being adept with either foot although naturally right-footed. He spent all 25 seasons of his ...more
11
Babe Ruth is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Dec. at 53 (1895-1948)
George Herman "Babe" Ruth, Jr. was an American baseball outfielder and pitcher who played 22 seasons in Major League Baseball from 1914 to 1935. Nicknamed "The Bambino" and ...more
12
Roger Federer is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 38
Tennis player Roger Federer (born August 8, 1981) is a Swiss tennis professional, currently ranked World No. 1. Many experts and many of his own tennis peers believe that Federer may be the ...more
13
Pete Sampras is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 48
Pete Sampras is a retired American tennis player and former World No. 1. During his 14-year tour career, he won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, becoming the first player to break Roy Emerson's ...more
14
John McEnroe is listed (or ranked) 14 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 60
John Patrick McEnroe, Jr. is a former World No. 1 professional tennis player from the United States often rated among the greatest tennis players of all time, especially for his touch on the ...more
15
Marco van Basten is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
JonathanWeider added age 55
Marcel "Marco" Van Basten is a Dutch football manager and former football player, who played for Ajax and A.C. Milan, as well as the Netherlands national team, in the 1980s and early ...more
16
LeBron James is listed (or ranked) 16 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 35
LeBron Raymone James is an American professional basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association. Standing at 6 ft 8 in and weighing 250 lbs., he has started ...more
17
Rod Laver is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
RodneyBlair added age 81
Rodney George "Rod" Laver MBE is an Australian former tennis player widely regarded as one of the greatest in tennis history. He was the No. 1 ranked professional from 1964–70, ...more
18
Garrincha is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
JonathanWeider added Dec. at 50 (1933-1983)
Manuel Francisco dos Santos, known by the nickname Garrincha, was a Brazilian footballer who played right winger and forward. He is regarded by many as the best dribbler in football history. The ...more
19
Franz Klammer is listed (or ranked) 19 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 66
Franz Klammer is a former champion alpine ski racer from Austria. Klammer overwhelmingly dominated the downhill event for four consecutive World Cup seasons. He was the gold medalist at the 1976 ...more
20
Wilt Chamberlain is listed (or ranked) 20 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Dec. at 63 (1936-1999)
Wilton Norman "Wilt" Chamberlain was an American basketball player. He played for the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA; ...more
21
Joe Montana is listed (or ranked) 21 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 63
Joseph Clifford "Joe" Montana, Jr., nicknamed Joe Cool and The Comeback Kid, is a retired professional American football player, a hall of fame quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers ...more
22
Jesse Owens is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
Dec. at 67 (1913-1980)
James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens was an American track and field athlete and four-time Olympic gold medalist. Owens specialized in the sprints and the long jump and was recognized in his ...more
23
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is listed (or ranked) 23 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 72
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an American retired professional basketball player who played 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. During his ...more
24
Serena Williams is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 38
Serena Jameka Williams is an American professional tennis player who is currently ranked No. 1 in women's singles tennis. The Women's Tennis Association has ranked her World No. 1 in singles on ...more
25
Magic Johnson is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list The Best Athletes of All Time
age 60
Earvin "Magic" Johnson Jr. is a retired American professional basketball player who played point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association for 13 seasons. ...more