134.9k voters

The Best Athletes Of All Time

Updated February 22, 2021 32.5m votes 134.9k 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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  • 1

    Muhammad Ali

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

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  • 2

    Carl Lewis

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

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  • 3

    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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  • 4

    Roger Federer

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

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    #6 of 216 The Greatest Men's Tennis Players of All Time#2 of 199 The All-Around Best Athletes of 2018

  • 5

    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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  • 6

    Diego Maradona

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

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  • 7

    Michael Phelps

    Towson, Baltimore
    Michael Fred Phelps II (born June 30, 1985) is an American retired competitive swimmer and the...  more

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  • 8

    LeBron James

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

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  • 9

    Ayrton Senna

    São Paulo, Brazil
    Ayrton Senna da Silva (Brazilian Portuguese: [aˈiʁtõ ˈsẽnɐ dɐ ˈsiwvɐ] (listen); 21 March 1960...  more

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  • 10

    Babe Ruth

    Pigtown, Baltimore
    George Herman "Babe" Ruth Jr. (February 6, 1895 – August 16, 1948) was an American...  more

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  • 11

    Steve Hooker

    Kew, Australia
    Steven "Steve" Leslie Hooker OAM (born 16 July 1982 in Melbourne, Victoria) is an Australian...  more
  • 12

    Lionel Messi

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

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  • 13

    Janica Kostelić

    Zagreb, Croatia
    Janica Kostelić (Croatian pronunciation: [janitsa kǒstelitɕ]; born 5 January 1982) is a former...  more
  • 14

    Larry Bird

    West Baden Springs, French Lick Township
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  • 15

    Martina Navratilova

    Prague, Czech Republic
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  • 16

    Jesse Owens

    Oakville, Alabama
    James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) was an American track and...  more

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  • 17

    Jack Nicklaus

    Upper Arlington, Ohio
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  • 18

    Mario Lemieux

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

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  • 19


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

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  • 20

    Andreas Thorkildsen

    Kristiansand, Norway
    Andreas Thorkildsen (born 1 April 1982) is a retired Norwegian track and field athlete who...  more
  • 21

    Sixten Jernberg

    Malung, Sweden
    Edy Sixten Jernberg (6 February 1929 – 14 July 2012) was a Swedish cross-country skier and one...  more
  • 22

    Niki Lauda

    Vienna, Austria
    Andreas Nikolaus Lauda (22 February 1949 – 20 May 2019) was an Austrian Formula One driver, a...  more
  • 23

    Michael Schumacher

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

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  • 24

    Henrik Sedin

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

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  • 25

    Monica Seles

    Novi Sad, Serbia
    Monica Seles (; Hungarian: Szeles Mónika, pronounced [ˈsɛlɛʃ ˈmoːnikɒ]; Serbian: Моника Селеш,...  more

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