Sports

The Best Athletes Of All Time 

Ranker Community
Originally by Ranker Community
Updated January 27, 2020 34.1M votes 117.5k voters 947.9k 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
Wayne Gretzky is listed (or ranked) 1 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
2
Muhammad Ali is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
USA, Kentucky, Louisville
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
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
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
5
Joe Montana is listed (or ranked) 5 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
6
Serena Williams is listed (or ranked) 6 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
7
Jack Nicklaus is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Upper Arlington, Ohio, United States of America
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
8
Carl Lewis is listed (or ranked) 8 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
9
Mike Tyson is listed (or ranked) 9 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
10
Michael Jordan is listed (or ranked) 10 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
11
Wilt Chamberlain is listed (or ranked) 11 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
12
Magic Johnson is listed (or ranked) 12 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
13
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
New York City, USA, New York
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
14
Bill Russell is listed (or ranked) 14 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
15
Joe DiMaggio is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Martinez, California, United States of America
Joseph Paul DiMaggio (November 25, 1914 – March 8, 1999), nicknamed "Joltin' Joe" and "The Yankee Clipper", was an American baseball center fielder who played his entire ...more
16
Sugar Ray Leonard is listed (or ranked) 16 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Rocky Mount, North Carolina, USA
Ray Charles Leonard (born May 17, 1956), best known as "Sugar" Ray Leonard, is an American former professional boxer, motivational speaker, and occasional actor. Often regarded as one ...more
17
LeBron James is listed (or ranked) 17 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
18
Michael Phelps is listed (or ranked) 18 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
19
Rocky Marciano is listed (or ranked) 19 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Brockton, Massachusetts, United States of America
Rocco Francis Marchegiano (September 1, 1923 – August 31, 1969), best known as Rocky Marciano (), was an American professional boxer who competed from 1947 to 1955, and held the world ...more
20
Mario Lemieux is listed (or ranked) 20 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Montreal, Canada
Mario Lemieux, (; French: [ləmjø]; born October 5, 1965) is a Canadian former professional ice hockey player. He played parts of 17 National Hockey League seasons with the Pittsburgh ...more
21
Jesse Owens is listed (or ranked) 21 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
22
Sugar Ray Robinson is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Detroit, Michigan, United States of America
Sugar Ray Robinson (born Walker Smith Jr.; May 3, 1921 – April 12, 1989) was an American professional boxer who competed from 1940 to 1965. Robinson's performances in the welterweight and ...more
23
Babe Ruth is listed (or ranked) 23 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
24
Lionel Messi is listed (or ranked) 24 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
25
Diego Maradona is listed (or ranked) 25 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