133.2k voters

The Best Athletes Of All Time

Updated February 22, 2021 32.5m votes 133.2k voters 1.0m views1.4k 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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  • Muhammad Ali1

    Muhammad Ali

    Louisville, Kentucky
    Muhammad Ali (; born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.; January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) was an...  more

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  • Carl Lewis2

    Carl Lewis

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

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  • Usain Bolt3

    Usain Bolt

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

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  • Roger Federer4

    Roger Federer

    Basel, Switzerland
    ← Roger Federer (German pronunciation: [ˈrɔdʒər ˈfeːdərər]; born 8 August 1981) is a Swiss...  more

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  • Michael Jordan5

    Michael Jordan

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

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  • Michael Phelps6

    Michael Phelps

    Towson, Baltimore
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  • Diego Maradona7

    Diego Maradona

    Lanús, Argentina
    Diego Armando Maradona (30 October 1960 – 25 November 2020) was an Argentine retired...  more

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  • LeBron James8

    LeBron James

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

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  • Alexander Karelin9

    Alexander Karelin

    Novosibirsk, Russia
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  • Pelé10


    Três Corações, Brazil
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  • Ayrton Senna11
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  • Babe Ruth12

    Babe Ruth

    Pigtown, Baltimore
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  • Lionel Messi13

    Lionel Messi

    Rosario, Argentina
    Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini (Spanish pronunciation: [ljoˈnel anˈdɾez ˈmesi] (listen); born...  more

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  • Jack Nicklaus14

    Jack Nicklaus

    Upper Arlington, Ohio
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  • Paavo Nurmi15

    Paavo Nurmi

    Grand Duchy of Finland, Russian Empire
    Paavo Johannes Nurmi (Finnish pronunciation: [ˈpɑːʋo ˈnurmi] (listen); 13 June 1897 – 2...  more
  • Janica Kostelić16

    Janica Kostelić

    Zagreb, Croatia
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  • Bjørn Dæhlie17

    Bjørn Dæhlie

    Elverum, Norway
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  • Larry Bird18

    Larry Bird

    West Baden Springs, French Lick Township
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  • Björn Borg19

    Björn Borg

    Stockholm, Sweden
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  • Martina Navratilova20

    Martina Navratilova

    Prague, Czech Republic
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  • Michael Johnson21

    Michael Johnson

    Dallas, Texas
    Michael Duane Johnson (born September 13, 1967) is a retired American sprinter who won four...  more
  • Mario Lemieux22

    Mario Lemieux

    Montreal, Canada
    Mario Lemieux, (; French: [ləmjø]; born October 5, 1965) is a Canadian former professional...  more

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  • Peyton Manning23

    Peyton Manning

    New Orleans, Louisiana
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  • Emil Zátopek24

    Emil Zátopek

    Kopřivnice, Czech Republic
    Emil Zátopek (Czech pronunciation: [ˈɛmɪl ˈzaːtopɛk] (listen); 19 September 1922 – 22 November...  more
  • Johan Cruijff25

    Johan Cruijff

    Amsterdam, Netherlands
    Hendrik Johannes Cruijff OON (Dutch: [ˈjoːɦɑn ˈkrœyf] (listen), internationally spelled...  more

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