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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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  • 1
    Muhammad Ali is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    46,067
    28,572

    Muhammad Ali

    Louisville, Kentucky
    Muhammad Ali (; born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.; January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) was an... more on Wikipedia
  • 2
    Paavo Nurmi is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    17,014
    13,944

    Paavo Nurmi

    Grand Duchy of Finland, Russian Empire
    Paavo Johannes Nurmi (Finnish pronunciation: [ˈpɑːʋo ˈnurmi] (listen); 13 June 1897 – 2... more on Wikipedia
  • 3
    Alexander Karelin is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    17,563
    14,527

    Alexander Karelin

    Novosibirsk, Russia
    Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Karelin (Russian: Александр Александрович Карелин; born 19 September... more on Wikipedia

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  • 4
    Steffi Graf is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    18,922
    15,730

    Steffi Graf

    Mannheim, Germany
    Stefanie Maria "Steffi" Graf (German pronunciation: [ˈʃtɛfiː ˈɡʁaːf]; born 14 June 1969) is a... more on Wikipedia
  • 5
    Carl Lewis is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    23,924
    15,806

    Carl Lewis

    Birmingham, Alabama
    Frederick Carlton "Carl" Lewis (born July 1, 1961) is an American former track and field... more on Wikipedia

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  • 6
    Roger Federer is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    33,367
    25,004

    Roger Federer

    Basel, Switzerland
    ← Roger Federer (German pronunciation: [ˈrɔdʒər ˈfeːdərər]; born 8 August 1981) is a Swiss... more on Wikipedia
  • 7
    Paula Radcliffe is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,757
    14,194

    Paula Radcliffe

    Davenham, United Kingdom
    Paula Jane Radcliffe, MBE (born 17 December 1973) is a British long-distance runner. She is a... more on Wikipedia
  • 8
    Usain Bolt is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    34,153
    24,768

    Usain Bolt

    Sherwood Content, Jamaica
    Usain St Leo Bolt (; born 21 August 1986) is a retired Jamaican sprinter. He is a world... more on Wikipedia

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  • 9
    Björn Borg is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,035
    13,536

    Björn Borg

    Stockholm, Sweden
    Björn Rune Borg (Swedish pronunciation: [bjœːɳ bɔrj] (listen); born 6 June 1956) is a Swedish... more on Wikipedia

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  • 10
    Yelena Isinbayeva is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,491
    14,152

    Yelena Isinbayeva

    Volgograd, Russia
    Yelena Gadzhievna Isinbayeva (Russian: Елена Гаджиевна Исинбаева, IPA: [jɪˈlʲɛnə gɐˈdʐɨjɪvnə... more on Wikipedia
  • 11
    Michael Jordan is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    51,031
    27,882

    Michael Jordan

    New York City, New York
    Michael Jeffrey Jordan (born February 17, 1963), also known by his initials MJ, is an American... more on Wikipedia

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  • 12
    Sonja Henie is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    15,687
    13,338

    Sonja Henie

    Oslo, Norway
    Sonja Henie (8 April 1912 – 12 October 1969) was a Norwegian figure skater and film star. She... more on Wikipedia

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  • 13
    Michael Schumacher is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    19,261
    16,579

    Michael Schumacher

    Hürth, Germany
    Michael Schumacher (born 3 January 1969) is a retired German racing driver who raced in... more on Wikipedia

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  • 14
    Lidija Skobilowa is listed (or ranked) 14 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    15,549
    13,353

    Lidija Skobilowa

  • 15
    Annika Sörenstam is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,421
    14,141
    Annika Sörenstam (pronounced [ˈanːɪka ²sœːrɛnˌstam] (listen); born 9 October 1970) is a... more on Wikipedia
  • 16
    Michael Phelps is listed (or ranked) 16 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    40,927
    24,809

    Michael Phelps

    Towson, Baltimore
    Michael Fred Phelps II (born June 30, 1985) is an American retired competitive swimmer and the... more on Wikipedia
  • 17
    Blanka Vlašić is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    17,219
    14,559

    Blanka Vlašić

    Split, Croatia
    Blanka Vlašić (Croatian pronunciation: [ˈblaːŋka ˈʋlaʃitɕ]; born 8 November 1983) is a... more on Wikipedia

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    #667 of 670 Rank the Sexiest Current Female Athletes#82 of 152 The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time

  • 18
    Věra Čáslavská is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,282
    14,087

    Věra Čáslavská

    Prague, Czech Republic
    Věra Čáslavská (Czech pronunciation: [ˈvjɛra ˈtʃaːslafskaː]; 3 May 1942 – 30 August 2016) was... more on Wikipedia
  • 19
    Diego Maradona is listed (or ranked) 19 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    22,279
    14,010

    Diego Maradona

    Lanús, Argentina
    Diego Armando Maradona (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈdjeɣo maɾaˈðona], born 30 October 1960) is an... more on Wikipedia
  • 20
    LeBron James is listed (or ranked) 20 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    42,660
    29,986

    LeBron James

    Akron, Ohio
    LeBron Raymone James Sr. (; born December 30, 1984) is an American professional basketball... more on Wikipedia

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  • 21
    Nadia Comăneci is listed (or ranked) 21 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    18,119
    15,562

    Nadia Comăneci

    Onești, Romania
    Nadia Elena Comăneci (UK: , US: , Romanian: [ˈnadi.a koməˈnetʃʲ] (listen); born 12 November... more on Wikipedia

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  • 22
    Pelé is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    29,713
    25,830

    Pelé

    Três Corações, Brazil
    Edson Arantes do Nascimento, KBE (Brazilian Portuguese: [ˈɛtsõ (w)ɐˈɾɐ̃tʃiz du nɐsiˈmẽtu];... more on Wikipedia

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  • 23
    Chris Evert is listed (or ranked) 23 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    15,427
    13,216

    Chris Evert

    Fort Lauderdale, Florida
    Christine Marie Evert (born December 21, 1954), known as Chris Evert Lloyd from 1979 to 1987,... more on Wikipedia

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    #61 of 150 Athletes You Didn't Know Were Conservative#101 of 319 The Most Inspiring (Non-Hollywood) Female Role Models

  • 24
    Ayrton Senna is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    17,868
    14,500
    Ayrton Senna da Silva (Brazilian Portuguese: [aˈiʁtõ ˈsẽnɐ dɐ ˈsiwvɐ] (listen); 21 March 1960... more on Wikipedia
  • 25
    Henrik Sedin is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,897
    14,655

    Henrik Sedin

    Örnsköldsvik, Sweden
    Henrik Lars Sedin (born 26 September 1980) is a Swedish former professional ice hockey centre... more on Wikipedia

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