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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
    28,579

    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
    13,952

    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
    14,534

    Alexander Karelin

    Novosibirsk, Russia
    Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Karelin (Russian: Александр Александрович Карелин; born 19 September... more on Wikipedia
  • 4
    Steffi Graf is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    18,923
    15,736

    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
    23,930
    15,807

    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
    25,011

    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
    14,201

    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
    34,155
    24,775

    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
    13,543

    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
    Sonja Henie is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    15,687
    13,345

    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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  • 11
    Michael Jordan is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    51,034
    27,888

    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
    Yelena Isinbayeva is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,491
    14,159

    Yelena Isinbayeva

    Volgograd, Russia
    Yelena Gadzhievna Isinbayeva (Russian: Елена Гаджиевна Исинбаева, IPA: [jɪˈlʲɛnə gɐˈdʐɨjɪvnə... more on Wikipedia
  • 13
    Michael Schumacher is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    19,261
    16,586

    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
    13,360

    Lidija Skobilowa

  • 15
    Annika Sörenstam is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,421
    14,148
    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
    40,929
    24,816

    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
    14,566

    Blanka Vlašić

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

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  • 18
    Věra Čáslavská is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,282
    14,093

    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
    22,286
    14,012

    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
    42,663
    29,993

    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
    15,568

    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
    29,714
    25,837

    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
    13,223

    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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  • 24
    Ayrton Senna is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    17,874
    14,500
    Ayrton Senna da Silva (Brazilian Portuguese: [aˈiʁtõ ˈsẽnɐ dɐ ˈsiwvɐ] (listen); 21 March 1960... more on Wikipedia
  • 25
    Maria Sharapova is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list The Best Athletes Of All Time
    16,378
    14,184

    Maria Sharapova

    Nyagan, Russia
    Maria Yuryevna Sharapova (Russian: Мари́я Ю́рьевна Шара́пова, IPA: [mɐˈrʲijə ˈjʉrʲjɪvnə... more on Wikipedia

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