Sports

The Best Athletes Of All Time 

Ranker Community
Originally by Ranker Community
Updated January 27, 2020 34.3M votes 126.5k voters 990.1k views 2,181 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
Muhammad Ali is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Louisville, Kentucky, United States of America
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

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2
Wayne Gretzky is listed (or ranked) 2 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

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#4 of 526 The Best NHL Players of All Time #258 of 452 Famous Role Models We'd Like to Meet In Person #14 of 83 Celebrities You Think Are The Most Humble

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

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#9 of 258 The Greatest Men's Tennis Players of All Time #1 of 89 The Greatest Male Tennis Players of the Open Era #2 of 200 The All-Around Best Athletes of 2018

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

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#763 of 2,444 The Most Influential People of All Time #1,323 of 1,471 The Greatest Minds of All Time #307 of 469 The Greatest Entertainers of All Time

5
Carl Lewis is listed (or ranked) 5 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

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#343 of 771 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasures #22 of 77 The Best Athletes Who Have Used Performance Enhancing Drugs #137 of 152 The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time

6
Michael Jordan is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
New York City, USA, 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

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7
Joe Montana is listed (or ranked) 7 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

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#404 of 532 Famous Men You'd Want to Have a Beer With #14 of 257 The Best Quarterbacks Of All Timelisted on Athletes You Didn't Know Were Conservative

8
Wilt Chamberlain is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
USA, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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

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9
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
New York City, New York, United States of America
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

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#3 of 870 The Top NBA Players Of All Time #3 of 168 The Greatest NBA Centers of All Time #1 of 107 The Greatest Lakers of All Time

10
LeBron James is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Akron, Ohio
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

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11
Michael Phelps is listed (or ranked) 11 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

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#2,173 of 2,444 The Most Influential People of All Time #248 of 771 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasures #103 of 343 The Most Obnoxious Athletes

12
Diego Maradona is listed (or ranked) 12 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

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13
Magic Johnson is listed (or ranked) 13 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

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#5 of 870 The Top NBA Players Of All Time #1 of 162 The Greatest Point Guards in NBA History #26 of 113 The Most Influential Contemporary Americans

14
Lionel Messi is listed (or ranked) 14 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

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#265 of 2,444 The Most Influential People of All Time #2 of 1,419 The Best Soccer Players of All Time #214 of 469 The Greatest Entertainers of All Time

15
Jesse Owens is listed (or ranked) 15 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

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#230 of 925 People We Wish Were Still Alive #1,187 of 1,471 The Greatest Minds of All Time #6 of 21 The Best Short Male Athletes

16
Babe Ruth is listed (or ranked) 16 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

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#1 of 598 The Greatest Baseball Players Of All Time #137 of 925 People We Wish Were Still Alivelisted on Longest Hitting Streaks in Baseball

17
Ayrton Senna is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
amsmaia added
Ayrton Senna da Silva (Brazilian Portuguese: [aˈiʁtõ ˈsẽnɐ dɐ ˈsiwvɐ] (listen); 21 March 1960 – 1 May 1994) was a Brazilian racing driver who won Formula One world championships for ...more

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18
Larry Bird is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
West Baden Springs, French Lick Township, Indiana
Larry Joe Bird (born December 7, 1956) is an American former professional basketball player, former coach, and former executive who most recently served as President of Basketball Operations for ...more

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#4 of 870 The Top NBA Players Of All Time #131 of 256 Celebrities Who Should Run for President #1 of 243 The Best White Players in NBA History

19
Serena Williams is listed (or ranked) 19 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

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#119 of 319 The Most Inspiring (Non-Hollywood) Female Role Models #64 of 771 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasures #33 of 343 The Most Obnoxious Athletes

20
Martina Navratilova is listed (or ranked) 20 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Prague, Czech Republic
Martina Navratilova (Czech: Martina Navrátilová pronounced [mar'cɪna navˈraːcɪlovaː]; born Martina Šubertová pronounced [ˈmarcɪna ˈʃubɛrtovaː]; October 18, 1956) is a ...more

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#52 of 319 The Most Inspiring (Non-Hollywood) Female Role Models #623 of 771 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasures #1 of 229 The Best Female Athletes of All Time

21
Monica Seles is listed (or ranked) 21 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Novi Sad, Serbia
Monica Seles (; Hungarian: Szeles Mónika, pronounced [ˈsɛlɛʃ ˈmoːnikɒ]; Serbian: Моника Селеш, Monika Seleš; born December 2, 1973) is a retired professional tennis player, who ...more

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22
Björn Dunkerbeck is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Turn82 added Ribe, Denmark
Björn Dunkerbeck (born 16 July 1969) is a professional windsurfer who has won Professional Windsurfers Association (PWA) Overall World Championships a record forty one times. Dunkerbeck is ...more
23
Ivan Lendl is listed (or ranked) 23 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Ostrava
Ivan Lendl (Czech pronunciation: [ˈɪvan ˈlɛndl̩]; born March 7, 1960) is a retired Czech-American professional tennis player. He was the world No. 1 for 270 weeks in the 1980s and finished his ...more

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24
Joe DiMaggio is listed (or ranked) 24 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

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25
Niki Lauda is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
Cobra added Vienna, Austria
Andreas Nikolaus Lauda (22 February 1949 – 20 May 2019) was an Austrian Formula One driver, a three-time F1 World Drivers' Champion, winning in 1975, 1977 and 1984, and an aviation entrepreneur. ...more