The 20 Greatest Athletes of All Time

The best from any sport
SYRACUSE, NY- CIRCA 1955-57: Jim Brown as a lacrosse player at Syracuse University lacrosse player in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Syracuse/Collegiate Images via Getty Images)

20) Althea Gibson

One of the greatest female tennis players of all time. Gibson won all four major singles titles in her career. After tennis, she took up golf and made the LPGA tour at the age of 37. She never won a championship but finished in the top 10 on numerous occasions, and most that saw her play thought that if she had started playing golf at an earlier age, she would have been one of the best players on tour.


19) Nadia Comaneci

If you watched the 1976 Summer Olympics, you know why she made this list.  And if you did not see her perform in 1976, you missed one of the most fantastic individual performances in modern sports history.  Talk about challenging sports—try the balance beam sometimes.


18) Jesse Owens

The first man to win four Olympic gold medals in track in one Olympic game. He is one of the most socially influential athletes in history.


 17) Joe Montana

“Joe Cool” is one of the most outstanding clutch performers in sports history–four Super Bowl titles, in which he threw zero interceptions.


16) Jackie Joyner Kersee

The best female track and field athlete ever with a lengthy career. Too demanding and talented to ignore.


15) Cheryl Miller

The greatest female basketball player in history, who scored over 100 points in a high school game. She led USC to an NCAA title and was the driving force behind the 1984 Olympic gold medal-winning basketball team.


14) Martina Navratilova

The greatest female tennis player in history. She was big, quick, and powerful. She revolutionized female tennis.


13) Carl Lewis

The most outstanding male track and field athlete ever. Essentially, he accomplished everything Jesse Owens did with a much longer career. It spanned four Olympics.


12) Michael Phelps

His dominant performance at the Olympics, coupled with the rest of his career, has moved him past the legendary Mark Spitz as the greatest swimmer ever.

11) Jackie Robinson

Everybody knows he was a great baseball player, but how many of you knew he was a great college football player? By the way, he was a star track athlete also.


10) Wayne Gretzky

Simply the best hockey player of all time.


9. Babe Didrikson Zaharias

The most outstanding female athlete of all time. Standout basketball player, Olympic gold medalist, track athlete, and champion golfer.


8) Babe Ruth

Seven World Series titles, 714 home runs, 2,204 RBI, .690 slugging percentage, 12 home run titles, a sometimes overlooked .342 lifetime batting average, and he was a great pitcher, with two 20-win seasons (he had stopped pitching early in his career because he was too valuable as a hitter). While he did not look like an athlete, who else in history was one of the greatest hitters and pitchers of his time?

7) Deion Sanders

One of the greatest shutdown corners in NFL history with blinding speed. Also one of the great return men in history. Just think what he could have done if allowed to play offense more? Also, a quality MLB player who helped the Braves and Reds get to the postseason.


6) Pele

The greatest soccer player of all time. He scored 1,281 goals in 1,363 matches and won three World Cups (although he got injured during the 1962 World Cup and did not finish the tournament).

5) Michael Jordan

Most consider him the greatest basketball player of all time, but he was also good enough to play a year of minor league baseball.


4) Muhammad Ali

The most significant heavyweight champion of all time who combined unbelievable foot speed with unrivaled hand speed. Ali fought in the ’60s and ’70s, probably the deepest field of heavyweights in history.


3) Jim Thorpe

A 6’1″, a 180-pound brick of a man. He was a two-time football All-American at Carlisle and was considered the best football (his favorite sport) player in the country (although there were no awards at the time). In 1911, he led Carlisle to an 11-1 record and then to the National Collegiate Championship in 1912, scoring 25 touchdowns and 198 points.  He played four positions: running back, defensive back, placekicker, and punter.

Also, in 1912, in the Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, he easily won the gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, winning an impressive 8 out of the 15 individual events that were part of the two competitions.  Thorpe’s Olympic record of 8,413 points in the decathlon stood for nearly two decades.

He also starred in track and field, was a good baseball and lacrosse player, and even won a ballroom dancing contest while at Carlisle. He also dabbled in wrestling and basketball exhibitions at various times in his life. He became a star in professional football (although there was no official league until 1920), retiring at the age of 41 in 1928. On top of that, he was a decent professional baseball player, batting .252 lifetime with a .327 average in his final season in 1919.


2) Bo Jackson

A tremendous college football player at Auburn University (Heisman Trophy winner, rushed for 4,303 yards with 6.6 yards-per-carry avg.), an outstanding professional baseball player (All-Star, batted .250 with 141 home runs, 415 RBI, .474 slugging percentage, and a great arm), and had a great professional football career that was way too short (rushed for 2,782 yards, averaged 5.4 yards a carry—better than Brown’s 5.22). To think what he might have accomplished in both sports without the injuries… could have been mind-boggling.


1) Jim Brown

In high school, he earned 13 letters playing five sports: football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, and track. At Syracuse University, he earned All-American honors in both football and lacrosse. By some accounts, he was the best player in the country in both sports.  In lacrosse, he led the nation in scoring while leading Syracuse to the National Collegiate Lacrosse Championship.

Brown is a member of both the college and professional football Halls of Fame and the Lacrosse Hall of Fame. So imagine this man who may have been the greatest that ever lived in two completely separate sports!




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