According to the sports science team at ESPN, the world's greatest 'athlete' is the multi-sport champion Bo Jackson. He was found to be the greatest ATHLETE (but not necessarily the greatest PLAYER).
The decision was based on a long process, combining viewer votes and the comparison of a range of scientific metrics, with the aim to determine the greatest athlete of all time, once and for all. How did they get to that conclusion?
Follow the process below, as step by step they narrowed down the nominees until only one remained - the Greatest of All Time (GOAT)! Just to be sure, they had another vote to see if they got it right - and yes, Bo Jackson won again.
The greatest athlete from each of 16 sports or sporting categories were selected, based on online voting of five or more nominees from a selection of sport or sporting categories. The winning athletes then went head-to-head in the bracket phase until only one remained.
The first round was completed in February 2013, with the winners from each sport or category selected by popular vote. The short-list for each category was created by ESPN, but the winner determined by public voting. As with all online voting of this sort, there is potential for bias with modern players understandingly getting more votes based simply on the voting audience having a greater understanding of them. It was not surprising that there seemed to be a US bias (a majority of visitors to the ESPN website would be from the US). Out of the 16 athletes chosen, there were 12 Americans (the rest: two Brazilians, one Swiss and Canadian). Also, only sports popular in the US were looked at, there are no handball, AFL or water polo players for example. With the categories of multi-sport and game-changers, in the end there were two representatives from baseball and the NFL.
The winners of each category were:
- Basketball — Michael Jordan
- Golf — Tiger Woods
- Olympics — Michael Phelps
- Combat — Anderson Silva
- Boxing — Muhammad Ali
- Endurance — Mark Allen
- Multisport — Bo Jackson
- Tennis — Roger Federer
- Baseball — Willie Mays
- Game Changers — Jackie Robinson
- Soccer — Pele
- Action — Tony Hawk
- Track & Field — Carl Lewis
- Ice Hockey — Wayne Gretzky
- Football — Jim Brown
- Autosports — Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Bracket Phase (1st round)
The preliminary public voting selected the greatest from each sport or category. The next (bracket) phase started on February 17, 2013. There was still a public vote, but this did not count towards selecting the winner. The winners of each match up was based on a unique metric devised by the ESPN sport science team, to determine which players will advance in the bracket. One-on-one match ups continue until a single winner is left, the Greatest Athlete of All Time!
Michael Jordan v Tiger Woods
This match up was won by Michael Jordan, based on his dominance in a range of categories in their metric. An understandable result, basketball requires such a bigger range of athleticism than in golf. Public voting also had Jordan ahead.
Michael Phelps v Anderson Silva
ESPN had Phelps winning this match up, with public voting also agreeing - after 15,206 votes Phelps had 61.1% of the votes. This must have been a close one, with the all-round athleticism required by Silva making him a great athlete, but he was beaten by Phelps based on his dominance in his sport.
Muhammad Ali v Mark Allen
Endurance athlete Allen is really no match for the self-proclaimed 'Greatest'. Both sports are considered amongst the toughest out there, but for Allen it is demanding just for his mental toughness and endurance - boxing has that plus more. Public voting also agreeing - after 2,342 votes Ali had 84.7% of the votes.
Bo Jackson v Roger Federer
All rounder Bo Jackson had his work cut out in this battle with Tennis star Federer. Bo narrowly beat Federer in the power metric, while Federer easily won in durability, and Bo in difficulty of sport. Playing at the highest level in two sports put Jackson ahead, winning overall by a small margin. Public voting also agreed - after 24,614 votes Jackson was well ahead with 72.4% of the votes.
Willie Mays v Jackie Robinson
This match up of two baseball players makes comparison easier. It was not an easy pick though, but possibly the greatest all-around baseball player Mays was hard to look past. After 7,705 votes Mays was well ahead with 69% of the votes. However, Sport Science, after applying its metrics, had Jackie Robinson as the better athlete. Although Mays was definitely a better baseball player, Robinson's prowess in multiple sports put him ahead.
Pele v Tony Hawk
The greatest football (soccer) player ever against a skateboarder? Tony hawk may be a great athlete, but I can't see him beating Pele. After 1,999 votes Pele was well ahead with 69.5% of the votes.
Carl Lewis v Wayne Gretzky
One of the greatest track and field athletes of all time came up just short of legendary ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky.
Jim Brown v Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Gridiron great Jim Brown went up against Dale Earnhardt Sr. in what turned out to be a one sided contest. Although motorsports has great physical and psychological demands, with Earnhardt having the top score in our nerve category, he was no match for the all-round athlete Brown. After 2,832 votes Brown was well ahead with 85.3% of the votes.
Bracket Phase (Qr Finals)
Michael Jordan v Michael Phelps
Unfortunately, the greatest swimmer is no match for the greatest basketballer, with Jordan easily advancing past Phelps in both the online vote (after 29,153 votes Jordan was well ahead with 73.9% of the votes) and with the Sport Science metric. Jordan outranked Phelps in nearly 60 percent of the categories in the metric.
Bo Jackson v Muhammad Ali
Being 'The Greatest' was not enough for Ali to get past Bo Jackson. The be a champion for such a long period in one of the most demanding sport was no match for Jackson's superiority in two sports, achieving the surreal MLB All-Star in 1989 and NFL Pro Bowler in 1990. The voters agreed - after 19,153 votes Jackson was well ahead with 80.2% of the votes
Jackie Robinson v Pele
When it comes to speed, agility and endurance, there two are closely matched. At one stage the online voters (after 2,505 votes) had Pele just ahead with 52.9 % of the votes, though it was Robinson who prevailed and went through to the semi final.
Wayne Gretzky v Jim Brown
Brown's multisport abilities helped set him apart from the hockey great. Not only was Brown maybe the best ever football player, he also played basketball and was so dominant in lacrosse too. Although Gretzky lead in the durability sport science metric, Brown was ahead in the power and versatility metric, and overall Brown scraped past Gretzky with a combined total of less than 2% higher.
Bo Jackson v Michael Jordan
Both of these players have streamed into the semis, but unfortunately only one can advance. The multiple sport abilities of the athletes in this competition have given them the edge in previous match ups, and this is no exception. Jordan's six NBA championships and dominance in his sport was not enough. Bo Jackson squeaked past Michael Jordan, due in no small part to his incredible power and lightning quick reflexes. The voters agreed with the result - after 23,765 votes Jackson was well ahead with 76.1% of the votes.
Jim Brown v Jackie Robinson
Both Brown and Robinson excelled in more than one sport before earning legendary status in football and baseball respectively. The voters agreed with the result - after 4,494 votes Brown was well ahead with 63.2% of the votes
Bo Jackson v Jackie Robinson
The Greatest Athlete of All Time title goes to Bo Jackson. This was based on the comparison of a range of sport science metrics. Even without the science, public vote had him well ahead - after 27,397 votes Jackson was well ahead with 79.5% of the votes.
The Unique ESPN Metric
ESPN Sport Science determined the Greatest Athlete of All Time (GOAT) using a unique metric that factored in attributes such as strength, power, speed, finesse, quickness, reaction time, endurance, durability, an athlete's resume, clutch performances, dominance, versatility, measurements, and the overall difficulty of their sport. Each athlete will be scored in each category, using a unique ranking metric that allows them to compare an athlete's ability to his peers and also to athletes from other fields.
- Results of the vote to determine the world's greatest 'athlete'
- Lists of the greatest athletes in the world
- Testing to determine the world's fittest athlete
- Who really is the greatest athlete of all time?
- Have your say of the fittest athlete
Commenting is mostly closed on this page, selected comments will be added.
- So the article says that Bo Jackson is the GOAT but I'm confused as to how? He did 2 sports. Matt Fraser however, won the crossfit games 5 consecutive years. The only athlete to ever do that. Not to mention the crossfit games are not just one event but a lot of events. So is the GOAT really only based on popularity rather than actual sports? Bo Jackson never was number 1 in anything whereas Matt Fraser was number 1 for 5 consecutive years in probably what would be the hardest competition in the world. (from Mike, April 2023)
- The question is who is the best athlete, and its not broken hip bo jackson and sanders is not the best back. Payton is but the best athlete is by far. Jim Thorpe nobody is in his class (from Phillip, Feb 2022)
- This is bad. Jim Thorpe is the greatest all-around athlete in history. He's not even mentioned? BO JACKSON?? Gimme a break. Do-over. (from Maureen, Dec 2021)
- I think this article is spot on! Bo is by far the best "athlete" of all time. All natural god given talent. 4.12/4.14 forty at 225 lbs. He didn't really lift weights and he hated to train. He just loved to play. Humble, honest and terribly quite. He just played and his actions spoke volumes. Jim Brown couldn't hold a candle to him. You're really bringing up Lacrosse back then? He was great for back then, but Bo was far superior in every regard. Roger Federer isn't even the greatest athlete in his own sport. Nadal is a far superior athlete. Not close. You could certainly make a case for MJ in basketball, but that is it. Gretzky and Pele would fall into the same category as artist. Deion would tell tell you that Bo was a better athlete than himself. This is not a tough debate for me or 80 percent of the population. Trip Beaver (2020)
- So..... We all have our own bias depending on our era, depending on which sport we like best. Basketball: Bill Russell because 11 championships?? Who where his teammates his competition. Example of what I'm saying I watched Jordan play in the heat of games, games on the line him taking over and winning the games. If not for retirement the first time 8 Championships in my belief LeBron going to nine NBA championships in a row 3 different teams. Ken Griffey junior if not for the injuries many more might believe he was the best all around baseball player ever. Joe Montana, Jerry Rice. Barry Sanders best running back ever. Everyone knew he was going to get the ball and yet about 1-1 1/2 more years and he would have broken all time rushing record less years less attempts. So when I take all sports am I a little bias to my time era yes just like most everyone But to me no one is set so far apart as the best in there sport in there era as: Michael Jordan. So to me that takes all eras and puts them in the discussion. Bill Russell wasn't set so far above everyone in his era. Nor was Bo Jackson. Jackson was great but was not so far ahead of everyone in either sport that he was called the greatest by many in either sport. Roger Federer had Andy Roddick. Nick (2020)
- This process is flawed because it suggests that all sports can only provide 1 candidate for selection. What if basketball has the best athletes or gymnastics (which wasn't on the list). This would mean multiple entries might be made for a single sport and possibly none for some sports. It would make the voting process much harder but we're talking about "the best athlete" and so I think this process is flawed. Ryan Micheal Trainor (2020)
- I submit that you need to define clearly what the term "athlete" is, break it down into categories and then submit hundreds of athlete candidates, digging carefully to include obscure sports, assigning points for categories, minimizing bias somehow as certain sports are more popular and will have biased voters, and depending on the country the choice is left with, and come up with an athlete who is all powerful, incredibly impacting on the game, a physical specimen, embodies athleticism, embraces spirit and virtue, and changes the way people look at the sport. Their impact must be great and their athletic prowess and competitive drive something that all athletes would fear, not just athletes from their own sport, but reaching across arenas, countries, and time. The GOAT.
- he is certainly an one of a kind sports specimen. Mastering two sports and becoming an AllStar in both is tremendous! Silvercentury (2015)
- Assuming we're basing this purely on athleticism and competitive accomplishments, here's my 2¢. Bo Jackson played two professional sports. In neither case does his performance merit mention among the all-time greats. Watching Bo play football, I never got the sense I was witnessing a talent akin to LT, Deion, Jerry Rice, or Barry Sanders. Like Jim Thorpe, a jack of all trades, master of none. Dr. Ishmael (2020)
- It's highly subjective, but the quality I most associate with athletic supremacy is QUICKNESS. Coupled with the requisite balance and poise, I don't think there's anything more impressive than watching a competitor move more quickly than his opponents' are capable of processing. And in this respect, I have two clear candidates for #1. The inspiration for "bullet time" in The Matrix was either Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali.
- Kelly Slater.... the most underrated athlete of all time. Shannon (2020)
- How is carl Lewis better than Usain bolt. Chris Stewart (2020)
- Pure nonsense! Wilt Chamberlain is easily greatest athlete of all time. Not even close. Best basketball player of all time (no one else is close), plus faster the Jim Brown (stories of them actually racing), shot put, high jump, long jump, weight lifting (was pressing 500 pounds at 50 years old), champion water polo, champion volleyball, boxing (was set to box Mohammad Ali and Ali backed away) and more. Would have won Olympic decathlon if entered. VegankarenLA (2018)
- Wayne Gretzky is best!!! Brett (2018)
- Mouse (2017)
That you had Michael Jordan representing basketball showed me popularity was a big factor, too big. Off the top of my head , Wilt Chamberlain is easily the better choice to rep. Basketball. You do know about his successes in track and field right? Mean while MJ's venture into another sport was a failure.
- Rockky Mouse (2018)
No way. Chamberlain was awesome but nowhere near the athleticism of Jordan
- Bob (2016)
LeBron James is the greates athlete ever, come on guys! Look at what he can do!
- Bilbo (2016)
All these other guys were simply sportsmen, Pele was an artist. I know, I know, America is clueless about football, beginning with calling football a sport which does not uses either a ball or a foot...
- James Winter (2015)
Do people UNDERSTAND that of the multisport athletes.....JACKIE ROBINSON WAS A 4-sport Letterman at UCLA??? HE CHOSE BASEBALL..and it wasn't even his best sport..he was MUCH better at Football and Basketball...Bo Jackson was fabulous...nobody questions his ability at all...scaling the fence the way he did..but FOUR sports?? that is not just game-changing...that changes everything-civil rights issues included!!!
- IF...Bo Jackson's career lasted long enough to accomplish great things, then I may agree. But as fast as he became famous, he was equally forgotten. He only played over 100 baseball games in 4 seasons, and averaged 77 games/yr over his 9 "so-called" years in the sport Nolan Ryan played 27 years. He played a total of 38 football games over 4 years (9.5 games/yr). Jim Brown only played 8 years. So...NO. Jackie Robinson was great simply b/c he was before his time. But you didn't even rank him as the greatest baseball player, which is the sport he played. Also, ESPN rated Boxing as the most difficult sport of around 50-60 major sports of today. So, I think a boxer should at least be in the final four. If you say Jackson, you have to mention Deion Sanders. But honestly, from the list you've whittled down, I must go with Michael Jordan. He dominated a sport for close to 2 decades, completely dominated it for a decade, and revolutionized the game to what it has become today. Then came back in 2001, at 40 years old, where he led his team in scoring (22.9 ppg), assists (5.2 apg), and steals (1.42 spg), and winning 18 more games from the Wizards' previous year. So, while I think you have to say Marciano is the greatest boxer of all time, Ali is more athletic. And since boxing has been determined to be the most difficult sport, Ali has a dog in this fight. So my Finals includes Ali (as much as I hate to give him this recognition, or to give him recognition for anything because he was such an ignorant, racist, trouble-maker. And I'm not saying this because of his racism. He just happened to want to praise Allah at the same time he was asked to fight for the country that made him what he became. Then, as many, not all, but many do, he preverted the word of Muhammad from peace and love, to hatred and creating even more racial tension throughout a country that had been making progress due to noble men like MLK. Yet taken aback by people like Ali, or Cassius Clay, and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, or Malcolm Little, or aka Malcolm X that simply worsened an issue that was getting better without him. This man even stole from his own "people" (Muslims). I mean, his own mentor, Elijah Muhammad, an African American religious leader who peacefully led the Nation of Islam from 1934 until 1975 stated, "Malcolm X got just what he preached", "We didn't want to kill Malcolm and didn't try to kill him", and "We know such ignorant, foolish teachings would bring him to his own end."). SORRY!, I digress! But I'm saying either Clay or Jordan. (from boxer3420, Apr 2013)
- I agree that Bo Jackson is a great athlete (I'm a Raider fan) BUT of the Greatest Athlete ever? I was not around during Jim Thorpe's time and he's achievements speak for itself. He had speed, won gold medals at the Olympics, he was a great baseball and football player(Defense and offense, as well as a kicker,etc). They need to change that title to greatest player that's alive today. I am just tired of comparing modern players to players of the past. Today's voters will always be bias and the computers are bias because it's programed by today's participants. (from Orlando, Apr 2013)
- Bo Jackson never won championships in baseball or football, although they are team sports. Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics by far helped his team achieve more championships. I think Russell willed his team to many championships. Just my thought on the matter. (from Phil Darden, Mar 2013)
- A lot of people mistake 'greatest champion at their sport' vs. 'greatest athlete'. Bo was so off the charts in virtually every aspect of athleticism it was jaw-dropping. There hasn't been a greater overall athlete since Babe Didrikson or Jim Thorpe, and even those are highly debatable. (from Chris Kelley, Mar 2013)
- Roger Federer by any metric, by any stretch of the imagination, by any yard stick what- so - ever. We may never witness such a legend to ever grace a sport ever again. Cherish him while he's still playing. Testament to Roger's greatness is the fact that most of these players are retired. On a side note- This is a completely biased American toss- up. (from Gaurav, Mar 2013)
- Jim Brown was more dominant in football than Bo ever was and he was one of the best at lacross in collage in his time. I think Jim Brown is number 1 and Bo comes in at 2 And Jordan comes in at 3. (from Joe Raines, Mar 2013)
- Jim Brown best by far (from hudson, Mar 2013)
- How the he'll did Gretzky lose to Jim brown?
- Jordan best of all time no questions asked (from Alex rose, Mar 2013)
- Gretzky's stats are out of this world compared to every other all time great at their respective sports (from matt561191, Feb 2013)
- Federer is the best ever. (from arijanci, Feb 2013)
- Roger Federer is the greatest of all time there will never ever be another athlete on and off the court like him (from susan bisceglia, Dec 2012)