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Top (US) Athletes of the 20th Century (ESPN, 1999)

The ESPN SportsCentury program in 1999 and 2000 created a list of the Top-100 Athletes of the 20th Century. The list was limited mostly to North American athletes. Although athletes from the US have dominated world sport in many areas, there would still be many athletes from the rest of the world worthy of being on the top athletes of the 20th century list.

The list was voted on by a panel of sports journalists and observers. This is just one of many lists you can find online about the world's 'greatest athlete'. We have discussed and compared many of these lists of the greatest athletes in the world.

Michael Jordan is top

The greatest athlete of the 20th century, according to the SportsCentury program on ESPN, is basketballer Michael Jordan, apparently in a close call with baseball player Babe Ruth. You may notice that the list does not include some athletes that may warrant a place on a list of great athletes of the 20th century. The list makers decided to limit the list to athletes who either come from North America or compete there primarily. Consequently, athletes such as Pele were not even considered.

The sport that is represented most on the list is baseball with 23 players. Next is American Football (20), Track/Field (12), Basketball (11), Tennis (8), Boxing (7), Hockey (6), Golf (6), Horse Racing (5 - 2 jockeys/3 horses), Auto Racing (3), Swimming/Diving (2), Speed Skating (2), and Gymnastics(1). If you do the sums, there are more than 100 sports listed here, that is because several athletes on this list played at the elite level for more than one sports. For this sport count, Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders were counted for both baseball and football. Babe Didrikson counted as track and field and golf, Jim Thorpe counted as baseball, football, and track and field.

There are 90 men on the list, just eight women and controversially three horses listed. The highest ranked female was athlete Babe Zaharias who was ranked 10th. As for the horses, Secretariat was ranked 35, with the others Man o' War (84), and Citation (97).

The top three on this list are the same as Sports Illustrated's list of the 25 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century.

rank athlete sport
1 Michael Jordan basketball
2 Babe Ruth baseball
3 Muhammad Ali boxing
4 Jim Brown American football
5 Wayne Gretzky ice hockey
6 Jesse Owens track and field
7 Jim Thorpe baseball / track and field / American football
8 Willie Mays baseball
9 Jack Nicklaus golf
10 Babe Zaharias golf / track and field
11 Joe Louis boxing
12 Carl Lewis track and field
13 Wilt Chamberlain basketball
14 Hank Aaron baseball
15 Jackie Robinson baseball
16 Ted Williams baseball
17 Magic Johnson basketball
18 Bill Russell basketball
19 Martina Navratilova tennis
20 Ty Cobb baseball
21 Gordie Howe ice hockey
22 Joe DiMaggio baseball
23 Jackie Joyner-Kersee track and field
24 Sugar Ray Robinson boxing
25 Joe Montana American football
26 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar basketball
27 Jerry Rice American football
28 Red Grange American football
29 Arnold Palmer golf
30 Larry Bird basketball
31 Bobby Orr ice hockey
32 Johnny Unitas American football
33 Mark Spitz swimming
34 Lou Gehrig baseball
35 Secretariat horse
36 Oscar Robertson basketball
37 Mickey Mantle baseball
38 Ben Hogan golf
39 Walter Payton American football
40 Lawrence Taylor American football
41 Wilma Rudolph track and field
42 Sandy Koufax baseball
43 Julius Erving basketball
44 Bobby Jones golf
45 Bill Tilden tennis
46 Eric Heiden speed skater
47 Edwin Moses track and field
48 Pete Sampras tennis
49 O J Simpson American football
50 Chris Evert tennis
51 Rocky Marciano boxing
52 Jack Dempsey boxing
53 Rafer Johnson track and field (decathlon)
54 Greg Louganis diving
55 Mario Lemieux ice hockey
56 Pete Rose baseball
57 Bill Shoemaker jockey
58 Elgin Baylor basketball
59 Billie Jean King tennis
60 Walter Johnson baseball
61 Stan Musial baseball
62 Jerry West basketball
63 Satchel Paige baseball
64 Sammy Baugh American football
65 Althea Gibson tennis
66 Eddie Arcaro jockey
67 Bob Gibson baseball
68 Al Oerter track and field
69 Bonnie Blair speed skater
70 Dick Butkus American football
71 Roberto Clemente baseball
72 Bo Jackson baseball / American football
73 Josh Gibson baseball
74 Deion Sanders American football / baseball
75 Dan Marino American football
76 Barry Sanders American football
77 Cy Young baseball
78 Bob Mathias track and field (decathlon)
79 Gale Sayers American football
80 A J Foyt auto racing
81 Jimmy Connors tennis
82 Bobby Hull ice hockey
83 Honus Wagner baseball
84 Man o' War horse
85 Maurice Richard ice hockey
86 Otto Graham American football
87 Henry Armstrong boxing
88 Joe Namath American Football
89 Rogers Hornsby baseball
90 Richard Petty auto racing (NASCAR)
91 Bob Beamon track and field
92 Mario Andretti auto racing
93 Don Hutson American football
94 Bob Cousy basketball
95 George Blanda American football
96 Michael Johnson track and field
97 Citation horse
98 Don Budge tennis
99 Sam Snead golf
100 Jack Johnson boxing


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Lists Extra

Football/Soccer is clearly the world's most popular sport, and has the most popular athletes, but which sport has the fittest players (but not necessarily the greatest athlete). These players do not always earn the most. The best of the best have made it to our 7 Sporting Wonders Lists.

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