Best Athletes of All Time – The Experts’ Picks

Here is my meta-list of the Best Athletes of ‘all time’, which means in this case, from the end of the 19th Century to the present.  I collected several lists of best athletes overall, regardless of sport, but because I found only a few such lists, I expanded the search to include sport-specific “Best Athletes” lists.  I tried to include an equal number of lists per major sport to avoid tipping the balance in favor of some sports and away from others.   The results are relatively diverse, with many different sports and countries represented, although the majority of athletes on the list are from the U.S.  The results are below.  The numbers in bold indicate the number of original “Best Athletes” lists the individual was on. Athletes who are on the same number of lists are listed in order of their dates of birth.  I have included photos of most of the athletes (I ran out of steam toward the end, but I may finish eventually.)  I have tried to find photos of the athletes engaged in the act of playing their sport, while trying to avoid staged or posed shots. (For more information, see Note on Photos, below.)  For a ‘Best Athletes’ list organized by sport, but without photos, go here.

17 “Best Athletes” Lists
Michael Jordan (US, 1963- ) – Basketball, Baseball
Kirthmon Dozier/Associated Press.
Kirthmon Dozier/Associated Press

16 Lists
Babe Didrikson Zaharias (US, 1911-1956) – Golf, Basketball, Baseball, Track & Field, Diving
babe didriksen

15
Jim Thorpe (US, 1888-1953) – Football, Baseball, Track & FieldAP (2), IOC/Getty Images
Associated Press, IOC/Getty Images

Babe Ruth (US, 1895-1948) – Baseball
Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Jim Brown (US, 1936- ) – Football
jim-brown1
Associated Press 

Pelé (Edson Arantes do Nascimento) (Brazil, 1940- ) – Soccer
pele

Muhammad Ali (US, 1942-2016) – Boxing
Muhammad-Ali-Wallpaper-Joe-Frazier-1975-trilla-in-manila
Associated Press.

Martina Navratilova (Czechoslovakia, 1956- ) – TennisTony Triolo/Sports Illustrated.
Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated

Carl Lewis (US, 1961- ) – Track & Field
carl lewis

Wayne Gretzky (Canada, 1961- ) – Ice Hockey
(c) ESPN
ESPN

14
Wilt Chamberlain (US, 1936-1999) – Basketball
NBA Photos/NBAE/Getty Images
NBA Photos/NBAE/Getty Images

13
Jackie Robinson (US, 1919-1972) – Baseball
jackie robinson
Associated Press

Jackie Joyner-Kersee (US, 1962- ) – Track & Field
jackie joyner kersee
Getty Images

Tiger Woods (US, 1975- ) – Golf
tiger woods
Getty Images

Roger Federer (Switzerland, 1981- ) – Tennis
(c) AAP/Dave Hunt
AAP/Dave Hunt

12
Jesse Owens (US, 1913-1980) – Track & Field
Jesse-Owens
AP Photo

Jack Nicklaus (US, 1940- ) – Golf
(c) AP Photo
AP Photo

Joe Montana (US, 1956- ) – Football
Joe-Montana
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Jerry Rice (US, 1962- ) – Football
(c) Getty Images
Getty Images

Bo Jackson (US, 1962- ) – Baseball, Football
bo jackson
Lonnie Major/Getty Images

11
Willie Mays
(US, 1931- ) – Baseball
willie mays
Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Michael Phelps (US, 1985- ) – Swimming
michael-phelps

10
Joe Louis (US, 1914-1981) – Boxing
Joe-Louis
Costa/News

Ted Williams (US, 1918-2002) – Baseball
(c) AP/Ted Sande
AP/Ted Sande

Bill Russell (US, 1934- ) – Basketball
Bill Russell
Getty Images

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (US, 1947- ) – Basketball
kareem abdul jabbar
AP Photo/Reed Saxon

Chris Evert (US, 1954- ) – Tennis
chris evert

Larry Bird (US, 1956- ) – Basketball
larry_bird
George Long/WireImage

Earvin “Magic” Johnson (US, 1959- ) – Basketball
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

9
Ty Cobb (US, 1886-1961) – Baseball
Third Base
Sporting News

Lou Gehrig (US, 1903-1941) – Baseball
(c) Sporting News
Charles Conlon/Sporting News

Joe DiMaggio (US, 1914-1999) – Baseball
joe dimaggio
Reuters

Sugar Ray Robinson (US, 1921-1989) – Boxing
Sugar-Ray-Robinson
PA Photos /Landov

Billie Jean King (US, 1943- ) – Tennis
billie jean king
AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Bobby Orr (Canada, 1948- ) – Hockey
Montreal Gazette/Montreal Star
Montreal Gazette/Montreal Star

Mark Spitz (US, 1950- ) – Swimming
Mark-Spitz
Rich Clarkson/WireImage.com

Walter Payton (US, 1954-1999) – Football
walter payton
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI

Steffi Graf (Germany, 1969- ) – Tennis
Steffi_Graf
Chris Eason

8
Paavo Nurmi (Finland, 1897-1973) – Track & Field
paavo nurmi

Gordie Howe (Canada, 1928- ) – Ice Hockey
gordie howe
Denis Brodeur/Getty Images

Hank Aaron (US, 1934- ) – Baseball
AP Photo
AP Photo

Diego Maradona (Argentina, 1960- ) – Soccer
diego maradona

Nadia Comaneci (Romania, 1961- ) – Gymnastics
nadia comaneci
AP Photo

Michael Johnson (US, 1967- ) – Track & Field
michael johnson
Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

Lance Armstrong (US, 1971- ) – Cycling
Lance Armstrong
Getty Images

Usain Bolt (Jamaica, 1986- ) – Track & Field
usain bolt

7
Mickey Mantle (US, 1931-1995) – Baseball
mickey mantle
Daily News

Sandy Koufax (US, 1935- ) – Baseball
sandy koufax

Oscar Robertson (US, 1938- ) – Basketball
oscar-robertson
AP Photo

Rod Laver (Australia, 1938- ) – Tennis
rod laver
AP Photo

Lawrence Taylor (US, 1959- ) – Football
Stephen Dunn/Allsport
Stephen Dunn/Allsport

Deion Sanders (US, 1967- ) – Football, Baseball
deion sanders
Randy Pench, Associated Press

Barry Sanders (US, 1968- ) – Football
barry-sanders
AP Photo/Duane Burleson

Pete Sampras (US, 1971- ) – Tennis
pete sampras

Serena Williams (US, 1981- ) – Tennis
serena-williams
celebritynetworth.com

6
Cy Young (US, 1867-1955) – Baseball
cy young
Public Domain

Rocky Marciano (US, 1923-1969) – Boxing
rocky marciano
Herb Scharfman /UPI

Bruce Lee (US/Hong Kong, 1940-1973) – Martial Arts
bruce lee
From The Big Boss (1971), directed by Wei Lo and Chia-Hsiang Wu

Wilma Rudolph (US, 1940-1994) – Track & Field
wilma rudolph
Getty Images

Edwin Moses (US, 1955- ) – Track & Field
edwin moses
AP Photo

Cheryl Miller (US, 1964- ) – Basketball
cheryl miller
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Mario Lemieux (Canada, 1965- ) – Ice Hockey
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

Annika Sörenstam (Sweden, 1970- ) – Golf
annika_sorenstam
Travis Lindquist/Getty Images

Mia Hamm (US, 1972- ) – Soccer
mia hamm

Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia, 1973- ) – Track & Field
Haile_Gebrselassie
Wikipedia Commons

Ronaldo (Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima) (Brazil, 1976- ) – Soccer
ronaldo
PA

LeBron James (US, 1984- ) – Basketball
lebron james
USATSI

Rafael Nadal (Spain, 1986- ) – Tennis
ESP
ESP

Lionel Messi (Argentina, 1987- ) – Soccer
lionel-messi
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

5
Bobby Jones (US, 1902-1971) – Golf
bobby jones

Arnold Palmer (US, 1929- ) – Golf
arnold palmer
Walter Iooss, Jr./SI

Johnny Unitas (US, 1933-2002) – Football
johnny unitas
http://sports-kings.com

Pete Rose (US, 1941- ) – Baseball
(AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)
AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy

Dick Butkus (US, 1942- ) – Football
dick butkus

Jean-Claude Killy (France, 1943- ) – Alpine Skiing
jean-claude killy

Eddy Merckx (Belgium, 1945- ) – Cycling
Eddy_Merckx

George Best (Northern Ireland, 1946-2005) – Soccer
Irish Star/Irish Daily Star
Irish Star/Irish Daily Star

Julius Erving (US, 1950- ) – Basketball
julius erving

Jimmy Connors (US, 1952- ) – Tennis
jimmy connors

Björn Borg (Sweden, 1956- ) – Tennis
Walter-Iooss-Jr.
Walter Iooss, Jr.

Sergey Bubka (USSR/Ukraine, 1963- ) – Track & Field
sergey bubka

Bonnie Blair (US, 1964- ) – Speedskating
Tom Lynn /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Tom Lynn /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Mike Tyson (US, 1966- ) – Boxing
mike tyson

Michael Schumacher (Germany, 1969- ) – Auto Racing
Michael_Schumacher

Zinedine Zidane (France, 1972- ) – Soccer
Zinedine_Zidane

Hicham El Guerrouj (Morocco, 1974- ) – Track & Field
hicham el guerrouj

Tom Brady (US, 1977- ) – Football
tom brady

Ian Thorpe (Australia, 1982- ) – Swimming
Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP
Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP

4
Honus Wagner (US, 1874-1955) – Baseball
www.thesportsfanjournal.com.
http://www.thesportsfanjournal.com

Jack Johnson (US, 1878-1946) – Boxing
jack-johnson

Walter Johnson (US, 1887-1946) – Baseball
Sports Illustrated photo.
Sports Illustrated

Jack Dempsey (US, 1895-1983) – Boxing
dempsey-carpentier-fight

Rogers Horsby (US, 1896-1963) – Baseball
AP Wirephoto.
AP Wirephoto

Harold “Red” Grange (US, 1903-1991) – Football
red grange

Donald Bradman (Australia, 1908-2001) – Cricket
don bradman

Ben Hogan (US, 1912-1997) –  Golf
AP Photo/stf
AP Photo/stf

Henry Armstrong (US, 1912-1988) – Boxing
henry armstrong

Don Hutson (US, 1913-1997) – Football
AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Stan Musial (US, 1920-2013) – Baseball
stan musial

Maurice Richard (Canada, 1921-2000) – Ice Hockey
Maurice Richard

Althea Gibson (US, 1927-2003) – Tennis, Golf
Keystone photo.
Keystone

Roger Bannister (UK, 1929- ) – Track & Field
Getty Images.
Getty Images

Roberto Clemente (Puerto Rico, 1934-1972) – Baseball
Walter Iooss Jr.
Walter Iooss, Jr.

Rafer Johnson (US, 1935- ) – Track & Field
rafer-johnson

Al Oerter (US, 1936-2007) – Track & Field
al oerter

Dawn Fraser (Australia, 1937- ) – Swimming
dawn_fraser

Jerry West (US, 1938- ) – Basketball
George Long/Getty Images.
George Long/Getty Images

Bobby Hull (Canada, 1939- ) – Ice Hockey
Chicago Tribune photo.
Chicago Tribune

Kathy Whitworth (US, 1939- ) – Golf
Kathy Whitworth

Johan Cruyff (Netherlands, 1947- ) – Soccer
john cruyff

Dan Gable (US, 1948- ) – Wrestling
Dan Gable

Eric Heiden (US, 1958- ) – Speedskating, Cycling
eric-heiden

Steve Redgrave (UK, 1962- ) – Rowing
steve redgrave

Cynthia Cooper (US, 1963- ) – Basketball
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images

Janet Evans (US, 1971- ) – Swimming
janet evans

Lisa Leslie (US, 1972- ) – Basketball
lisa leslie

Paula Radcliffe (UK, 1973- ) – Track & Field
Paula Radcliffe

Monica Seles (Yugoslavia/Serbia, 1973- ) – Tennis
monica seles

Sachin Tendulkar (India, 1973- ) – Cricket
sachin-tendulkar

David Beckham (UK, 1975- ) – Soccer
david-beckham

Peyton Manning (US, 1976- ) – Football
peyton manning

Kobe Bryant (US, 1978- ) – Basketball
kobe bryant

Venus Williams (US, 1980- ) – Tennis
venus williams

Ronaldinho (Ronaldo de Assis Moreira) (Brazil, 1980- ) – Soccer
ronaldinho

Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, 1985- ) – Soccer
Cristian-Ronaldo

3
Satchel Paige (US, 1906-1982) – Baseball
AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman
AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman

Josh Gibson (US, 1911-1947) – Baseball
Josh Gibson Sliding into Home
© Bettmann/CORBIS

Sonja Henie (Norway, 1912-1969) – Figure Skating
Sonja_Henie

Fanny Blankers-Koen (The Netherlands, 1918-2004) – Track & Field
fanny_blankers_koen

Emil Zátopek (Czechoslovakia, 1922-2000) – Track & Field
emil zatopek
Getty Images

Bob Mathias (US, 1930-2006) – Track & Field
Bob-Mathias-

Willie Shoemaker (US, 1931-2003) – Horse Racing
John Swart/AP Photo
John Swart/AP Photo

Elgin Baylor (US, 1934- ) – Basketball
Getty Images
Getty Images

Bob Gibson (US, 1935- ) – Baseball
bob gibson

Richard Petty (US, 1937- ) – Auto Racing
richard petty

Margaret Court (Australia, 1942- ) – Tennis
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Bob Beamon (US, 1946- ) – Track & Field
bob beamon

O.J. Simpson (US, 1947- ) – Football
simpson_

Peggy Fleming (US, 1948- ) – Figure Skating
peggy-fleming-olympics

Dale Earnhardt, Sr. (US, 1951-2001) – Auto Racing
Donald Miralle /Allsport
Donald Miralle /Allsport

John McEnroe (US, 1959- ) – Tennis
john mcenroe

Greg Louganis (US, 1960- ) – Diving
greg louganis

John Elway (US, 1960- ) – Football
john elway

Dan Marino (US, 1961- ) – Football
dan marino

Mary T. Meagher (US, 1964- ) – Swimming
Mary.T.Meagher

Michelle Akers (US, 1966- ) – Soccer
MicheleAkers

Alexander Karelin (Russia, 1967- ) – Wrestling
 © Lars Nyberg
© Lars Nyberg

Tony Hawk (US, 1968- ) – Skateboarding
tony hawk

Shane Warne (Australia, 1969- ) – Cricket
shane warne

Brian Lara (Trinidad & Tobago, 1969- ) – Cricket
brian lara

Sheryl Swoopes (US, 1971- ) – Basketball
sheryl swoopes

Kelly Slater (US, 1972- ) – Surfing
Kelly-Slater
Bernard Rabejac-Quiksilver

Tegla Laroupe (Kenya, 1973- ) – Track & Field
(c) Agentur Diener/Rudolf Schmied
(c) Agentur Diener/Rudolf Schmied

Alex Rodriguez (US, 1975- ) – Baseball
alex rodriguez

Manny Pacquiao (The Philippines, 1978- ) – Boxing
manny-pacquiao

2
Bill Tilden (US, 1893-1953) – Tennis
Sammy Baugh (US, 1914-2008) – Football
Don Budge (US, 1915-2000) – Tennis
Eddie Arcaro (US, 1916-1997) – Horse Racing
Otto Graham (US, 1921-2003) – Football
George Blanda (US, 1927-2010) – Football
Maureen Connolly (US, 1934-1969) – Tennis
Larissa Latynina (USSR/Ukraine, 1934- ) – Gymnastics
A.J. Foyt (US, 1935) – Auto Racing
Garfield Sobers (Barbados, 1936- ) – Cricket
Sadaharu Oh (Japan, 1940- ) – Baseball
Gale Sayers (US, 1943- ) – Football
Dave Winfield (US, 1951- ) – Baseball
Viv Richards (Antigua & Barbuda, 1952- ) – Cricket
Grete Waitz (Norway, 1953-2011) – Track & Field
Ann Meyers (US, 1955- ) – Basketball
Ian Botham (UK, 1955- ) – Cricket
Sebastian Coe (UK, 1956- ) – Track & Field
Joan Benoit Samuelson (US, 1957- ) – Track & Field
Mary Decker Slaney (US, 1958- ) – Track & Field
Serge Blanco (Venezuela, 1958- ) – Rugby
Daley Thompson (UK, 1958- ) – Track & Field
Ayrton Senna (Brazil, 1960-1994) – Auto Racing
David Campese (Australia, 1962- ) – Rugby
Tracy Caulkins (US, 1963- ) – Swimming
Teresa Edwards (US, 1964- ) – Basketball
Laird Hamilton (US, 1964- ) – Surfing
Mary Lou Retton (US, 1968- ) – Gymnastics
Emmitt Smith (US, 1969- ) – Football
Lisa Fernandez (US, 1971- ) – Softball
Picabo Street (US, 1971- ) – Alpine Skiing
Manon Rhéaume (Canada, 1972- ) – Ice Hockey
Roman Šebrle (Czech Republic, 1974- ) – Track & Field
Derek Jeter (US, 1974- ) – Baseball
Marion Jones (US, 1975- ) – Track & Field
Anderson Silva (Brazil, 1975- ) – Mixed Martial Arts
Alexei Nemov (Russia, 1976- ) – Gymnastics
Floyd Mayweather Jr. (US, 1977- ) – Boxing
Cael Sanderson (US, 1979- ) – Wrestling
Valentino Rossi (Italy, 1979- ) – Motorcycle Racing
Michael Vick (US, 1980- ) – Football
Shaun White (US, 1986- ) – Snowboarding, Skateboarding
Sidney Crosby (Canada, 1987- ) – Ice Hockey
Maria Sharapova (Russia, 1987- ) – Tennis

Note about the photos:  I think we all agree that lists are more interesting when they include some visuals.  To that end, I have tried to obtain public domain photos for the athletes, but because I think action shots say ‘athlete’ much more than posed publicity head shots, many of the photos I have found are copyrighted.  I have included the source and photographer’s name, if available, for each copyrighted photo.  I believe that my use of these photographs is permissible under the doctrine of fair use and for educational purposes, so I have not undertaking the time-consuming process of asking for permissions from each copyright owner.  Furthermore, my use of these photos is strictly non-commercial.  If you own the copyright to one or more of the photos and have any concerns about their use on this site, please contact me directly by leaving a comment.  If you believe I need permission to use the photo, I hereby request permission.

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