The Best Athletes Of All Time

Over 152.3K Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of The Best Athletes Of All Time
Voting 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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Most divisive: Pete Maravich
Ranked by
  • Michael Jordan
    New York City, New York
    83,262 votes

    Arguably the face of basketball's global success, Michael Jordan's six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls, including two "three-peats," are unforgettable in sports history. A 14-time NBA All-Star and a 5-time league MVP, "His Airness" is revered for his penchant for scoring, remarkable defense, and awe-inspiring dunks; moreover, his iconic last-shot championship-winning buzzer-beater in the 1998 Finals solidified him as the NBA's quintessential clutch performer. Jordan's transcendent impact on basketball and popular culture, as exemplified by his starring role in Space Jam and the creation of the iconic Air Jordan sneaker line, has cemented him as one of the greatest athletes of all time.

  • Muhammad Ali
    Louisville, Kentucky, USA
    73,305 votes

    Floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, Muhammad Ali set the ring ablaze with his revolutionary boxing style that combined agility, lightning-fast reflexes, and raw power. His storied career was marked with notable victories over legends like Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier, among others, as well as the legendary "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman, where he introduced the world to the "rope-a-dope" strategy. A three-time heavyweight champion and Olympic gold medalist, Ali's unparalleled charisma, social activism, and brave fight against Parkinson's disease have etched him as one of humanity's most cherished figures beyond his athletic accomplishments.

  • Lionel Messi
    Rosario, Argentina
    57,714 votes

    A magician on the pitch, Lionel Messi's otherworldly dribbling skills, precise passing, and deadly finishing touches have seen him redefine the limits of what a footballer can achieve. Boasting ten La Liga championships and four UEFA Champions League titles with FC Barcelona, Messi has shared the prestigious Ballon d'Or award with longtime rival Cristiano Ronaldo, each staking their claim as the greatest player in football history. Messi's uncanny ability to score from seemingly impossible angles and his free-kick wizardry have left fans, opponents, and critics alike in wonder, earning him a place among the pantheon of sporting legends.

  • Michael Phelps
    Baltimore, USA, Towson
    55,008 votes

    The most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps' astonishing 28 medals, of which an astounding 23 are gold, speak volumes about his dominance in the pool for well over a decade. With record-breaking performances in events ranging from the 100m butterfly to the 400m individual medley, Phelps obliterated world records and changed the perception of what was possible in swimming. Apart from his Olympic heroics, Phelps' incredible 26 World Championship titles and his successful battle against depression have solidified him as one of the most inspirational athletes in history.

  • Babe Ruth
    Baltimore, USA, Pigtown
    44,308 votes

    Synonymous with greatness in baseball, Babe Ruth's slugging prowess, remarkable pitching skills, and larger-than-life personality remain an integral part of American sports folklore. Amassing a total of 714 home runs, a then-unthinkable record that stood for nearly four decades, "The Bambino" played a major role in helping the New York Yankees build a dynasty with four World Series titles. Ruth's legendary "called shot" in the 1932 World Series, coupled with his uncanny ability to hit monstrous home runs, make him an enduring symbol of the sport.

  • Usain Bolt
    Sherwood Content, Jamaica
    48,343 votes

    In a career spanning over a decade, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt established himself as the fastest man alive, setting world records in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay, and becoming an eight-time Olympic gold medalist. His indelible showmanship and unmatched acceleration on the track left the rest of the field in the dust at three consecutive Olympics, where he completed the unprecedented "triple-triple." Bolt's affable personality, penchant for entertaining crowds, and his legacy as a global sports icon have left an indelible mark on the world of athletics.