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.
|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|
|10||Babe Zaharias||golf / track and field|
|12||Carl Lewis||track and field|
|21||Gordie Howe||ice hockey|
|23||Jackie Joyner-Kersee||track and field|
|24||Sugar Ray Robinson||boxing|
|25||Joe Montana||American football|
|27||Jerry Rice||American football|
|28||Red Grange||American football|
|31||Bobby Orr||ice hockey|
|32||Johnny Unitas||American football|
|39||Walter Payton||American football|
|40||Lawrence Taylor||American football|
|41||Wilma Rudolph||track and field|
|46||Eric Heiden||speed skater|
|47||Edwin Moses||track and field|
|49||O J Simpson||American football|
|53||Rafer Johnson||track and field (decathlon)|
|55||Mario Lemieux||ice hockey|
|59||Billie Jean King||tennis|
|64||Sammy Baugh||American football|
|68||Al Oerter||track and field|
|69||Bonnie Blair||speed skater|
|70||Dick Butkus||American football|
|72||Bo Jackson||baseball / American football|
|74||Deion Sanders||American football / baseball|
|75||Dan Marino||American football|
|76||Barry Sanders||American football|
|78||Bob Mathias||track and field (decathlon)|
|79||Gale Sayers||American football|
|80||A J Foyt||auto racing|
|82||Bobby Hull||ice hockey|
|84||Man o' War||horse|
|85||Maurice Richard||ice hockey|
|86||Otto Graham||American football|
|88||Joe Namath||American Football|
|90||Richard Petty||auto racing (NASCAR)|
|91||Bob Beamon||track and field|
|92||Mario Andretti||auto racing|
|93||Don Hutson||American football|
|95||George Blanda||American football|
|96||Michael Johnson||track and field|
- Billings, Andrew. (2000). In Search of Women Athletes: ESPN's List of the Top-100 Athletes of the Century. Journal of Sport & Social Issues - J SPORT SOC ISSUES. 24. 415-421.
- 25 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century - published by Sports Illustrated, 1999
- Other lists of the greatest athletes in the world
- Who really is the greatest athlete of all time?
- have your say of the greatest athlete
Live commenting is closed on this page, though I will upload some new comments and list some old comments.
- All these lists are all but silly. The best you can say is this guy or gal was a phenomenal athlete, one of the best ever. The idea that so many of the best athletes are in the major sports doesn't fly either. (from David, May 2023)
- What are you thinking? Rod Laver is universally considered the best tennis player of all time. He is not anywhere on your list. (James Hamilton, Oct 2021)
- Carl Lewis is hands down number 1. Jordan was a great basketball player...that was it. Beamon is a good number 2. (from Likydsplit, May 2021)
- This list is clearly mislabelled. Top US athletes of the century, perhaps. But there is one person who is absolutely unchallenged as the greatest player of his sport ever, and he retired over sixty years ago. I'll give you a hint: his sport doesn't even appear on this list (in fact there are a few sports missing, including the most played and most watched games in the world). from Befuddling (2013)
- @Postulate, you obviously mean Pele, another one-trick pony (as Bill Jarvis terms it in these comments), and the sport of soccer/football. Pele was a great player and definitely deserves a place on this list, as does a fellow Brazilian who isn't mentioned, Ayrton Senna, an amazing talent. I'll give you a hint as to why the sport of soccer/football gets short shrift and it has to do with the ridiculous way they settle ties, by players lining up to kick penalties until one side is ahead after at least three to five tries. That's total nonsense, it should be like the National Hockey League and NFL playoffs, baseball, basketball, etc., continue usual play until one side is ahead at the end of extratime or sudden death overtime ("Golden Goal" even). Also the arbitrary nonsense of yellow cards, red cards, penalty kicks and how some players writhe on the ground as if they'll never walk again without a limp, in order to draw a penalty of some form against an opponent, the player then "miraculously" recovers and usually runs with such alacrity, speed and finesse as to give Usain Bolt a run for his money in a foot race. For those reasons that sport is a farce, not that some of the other sports, at times, are not.
- Graeme Guest738 (2015)
Pele retired 37 years before your post and most wouldn't describe him as "absolutely unchallenged as the greatest player of his sport ever" with contenders like Maradona and Messi, although I'm sure an equivalent football list would have him at #1. The OP is referring to cricketer Don Bradman, a name alien to the average American but probably deserving of the #1 spot on this list. Further changes would have to happen before the Golden Goal rule could be implemented in all football matches, mainly because it's not that uncommon for there to be zero goals in 90 minutes, and it gets harder to score as players tire towards the end. The existence of penalty shoot-outs, which only occur in cup ties and in most cases after other tiebreakers like replays or away goals have been considered, should not diminish the achievements of the athletes participating. In fact, penalty shoot-outs are quite uncommon and not an accurate representation of a typical game. Most teams will go an entire season without taking part in one. This is a list of the top American athletes of the 20th century who have participated in sports popular in America, and should be labeled as such. Like the panel who voted, it doesn't seem like you watch or understand much about football.
- Horatio1313 Graeme (2015)
Very well said! If only Yanks could stop being retentive and not see themselves as the entire universe, they may gain some respect.
- Damaged Goods -️ Guest738 (2020)
You do realize NHL has the exact same tie breaker as Soccer/Association Football, right? They both take shots at the goal at the end to try to settle the tie.
- Horatio1313 Guest738 (2015)
I am sure that you could nit-pick ANY SPORT and show why (especially to non-devotees) it could be considered ridiculous. Your denigration of football (and I'm not much of a fan) gets spat back in your face when it is undeniable that it is the WORLD SPORT!!! Go figure!
- SOME GUY Befuddling (2014)
- Adaris Milan Befuddling (2018)
Pele wasn't included as per the disclaimer. They mentioned him by name. Guys like Pele weren't eligible.
- The best sportsman in their field was, as others have indicated, Don Bradman playing international cricket. Bradman's average at bat in international test match cricket was 99.94. The nearest anyone has got to this is 61.87, by Adam Voges - with four other batsmen averaging over 60.
- Bradman's record is so far ahead of the rest that nobody is ever likely to come close to his achievements in cricket, or to be so much of an outlier in any high level sport - including football.
- Dertobi Befuddling (2016)
Right, they put 23 Baseball and 20 American Football players on the list but did not place a single soccer/football player like Pele on it
- Bill jarvis (2013)
i dont know who put this list together but they must have been smoking something!! to put 6 one trick ponys ahead of jim thorpe is laughable. He was the best college football player of his era, an n.f.l. star, played baseball for the ny giants, proved he was the best track & field man alive by winning the olympic decathalon and 6 other events...& just to top it off won a national ball room dancing contest. current thinking seems to be that one sport tv stars, ala michael jordan, are somehow great athletes....hell, if they had the nba in thorpes lifetime, he would have been a star in that league also. this list proves the "dumbing down" of america!!
- Guest738 bill jarvis (2014)
Couldn't agree more, Jordan was so laughable in baseball, he couldn't even make it in the AA minor leagues, his golf ability isn't up to snuff either. Football wouldn't be anywhere near what it is without Jim Thorpe, was the first president of the league, was one of the initial professional football Hall of Fame inductees, is a track and field hall of famer, etc. Go figure why idiotic ESPN is clueless to all that.
- Tricia Sluder Cason bill jarvis (2015)
I agree, my point I made. Jim Thorpe and Babe Zaharius were both multi athletics in many sports plus olympians. How can you even put these others in the same catagory.
- Guest (2015)
I'm just gonna say Aleksandr Karelin.
- Julius Ulit (2016)
Bo Jackson is ranked way way too low. He should be Top 15 at least. Pro baseball, Pro football, track and field. At least right behind Jim Thorpe.
- Adaris Milan Julius Ulit (2018)
What about Herschel Walker?
- best athlete in the 20th century was secratariat! excuse the spelling. Dann rivera (2017)
- Horatio1313 (2015)
How condescending of you to admit that if sports persons, other than Americans, were taken into account, then they may make the list. Please. don't be deceitful. Why not just use some common sense and head this article "Top U.S. Athletes..." Is that all too hard?!
- Ironic (2015)
Dan Gable was an Olympic gold medal winner WITHOUT ALLOWING A SINGLE POINT TO BE SCORED AGAINST HIM (after the Soviet Union promised to devote all their formidable wrestling resources to beating him). This was despite an injured knee and 7 stitches in his head in his first Olympic match. The Soviet's coach later admitted Gable was the best wrestler he had ever seen. Gable won two NCAA wrestling titles, with a record of 181-1 (with the 1 loss being a highly controversial decision against him). He set an NCAA record of 25 consecutive pins in one wrestling season. His various championships are almost too numerous to mention, including many international championships facing Eastern Bloc wrestlers and the extremely biased judges who always favored eastern Bloc wrestlers who always targeted Gable as the man to beat. Dan Gable was often recognized as the best wrestler in the world over a period of several years. In high school Gable was a state YMCA swimming champion and was a star football player. Coaches in a variety of sports stated that Gable could have been a champion collegiate athlete in any one of several sports. Gable took a hands-on approach to coaching, and led the University of Iowa to a record 15 National wrestling titles and 21 Big 10 wrestling titles. He also coached 3 USA Olympic wrestling teams. The list could go on. And he's not even mentioned---while dozens of baseball players (who were famous for competing well against each other---big deal)?
- Statman25 (2014)
Wayne gretzky is the greatest....8 straight mvp's four straight cups...12 straight scoring titles...1000 more points than second of all time(messier)...n not to mention if he wasnt traded from the oilers they probably would have at least won another four cups before the 94 salary cap strike.....Jordan is amazing n the best basketball player of all time but seriously Gretzky was the most dominant in his sport ever.
- Damaged Goods -️ (2020)
This list doesn't even include the most popular sport in all of the world... Soccer/Association Football. How can a list without the 1 sport played in literally every country on the planet, but includes a sport only popular in North America: American Football?
- Rick Gulecki (2020)
Cant argue too much with some calls, of course this is all opinion. Ted Williams would be in the top 3 on my sheet with Ty Cobb in the top ten. NO HORSES...geeze... that stole two spots on this list. HOW IS Karl Malone not on here? 37,000 points, 15,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists...14 time all star WOW. Or Moses Malone should be on here, there is the two HORSES. Billie Jean King would not make the list and Lefty Grove would be in. Josh Gibson would be cut from list and Tris Speaker in.
- VegankarenLA (2018)
What a joke! 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.
- Jack vegankarenLA (2019)
These are all speculations, as of real life, he is only great for what he has done in basketball, which is not even close as other basketball players.
- Adaris Milan (2018)
Bruce Lee might be the greatest athlete ever, but he cannot be included because he limited his participation in martial arts events.
- Adaris Milan (2018)
Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Satchel Page, Josh Gibson, Bruce Lee, I know this list has to be pre-1990's; otherwise names like Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Michael Phelps would have to be on it. But where is Isiah Thomas? I didn't see Julius Irving, either. And Herschel Walker and Dominique Wilkins never get any love on these lists. The only differences between 'Nique and Dr. J are a championship and an Afro! Herschel Walker had a better and lengthier football career than did Bo Jackson, and they were both freaks in college. Bo's baseball prowess notwithstanding, where Bo goes, Herschel should go. Even Bo knows that.
- Sufjan (2017)
A few muslims deserve to be higher. Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!
- Twitchy Mcghee (2016)
Why does it say Lou Gehrig played football? Everybody knows he played baseball for the Yankees and considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth when he was forced to retire to the disease that is now named after him. Get the right sport for him on here.
- Eric obregon (2016)
Wilt Chamberlain; Jackie Robinson; Gordie Howe; Joe DiMaggio; Red Grange; Arnold Palmer, better athletes than Larry Bird ??? ... hahaha ... it's stupid ...
- Donewithconservatives (2016)
Wilt chamberlain at 13? Do they know about his track and field records, much less what he could do on the court? He's easily a better "athlete" than Jordan. This is a popularity list
- Eric (2016)
Jim Thorpe, Willie Mays, Gordie Howe, 22 Joe DiMaggio, Red Grange, Arnold Palmer ... better than the path of Larry Bird ????? ... hahaha ... what stupidity is that ??
- Ginger (2016)
Bruce Jenner is the most famous.
- Michael Scott (2016)
Left out Herchel Walker, Dan Gable, Pavo, Zitopek, Johnny Miller, Bruce Lee and Elvis.
- Cougar Hunter (2016)
No Ron Swoboda? I'm outraged!
- Смотрящий (2016)
So according to American logic at least 3 horses are better athletes than Maradona or Roger Federer. Oh well...
- Rich Sanchez (2016)
I don't care how his personal life went. Tiger Woods is the most dominant sports figure I've ever seen. Him not being on this list at all totally discredits it
- Julius Ulit Rich Sanchez (2016)
Tiger turned it up around 2001.
- Cougar Hunter Rich Sanchez (2016)
20th Century athletes. Woods didn't really get started until THIS century.
- Ironic (2015)
Dan Gable should be in the top 10! And wrestling isn't even mentioned. Some of those mentioned shouldn't be in the top 500.
- Ranjeet Rana (2015)
Is this list not only focusing on USA's sports and european sports. where is Cricket, and Hockey (not ice hockey).
- Horatio1313 Ranjeet Rana (2015)
Ranjeet, wake up! The USA IS THE WORLD and nobody else or any other sports exist!
Didn't you know this?
- Huey Newton (2015)
Where's Cael Sanderson?
- Where'sCarmichael. (2015)
Yeah guys this list is such a bunch of rubbus. Sports journalist are a bunch of team sport lovin' people. Don't get me wrong, I do love and respect team sports and the fundamentals they build, as I played them, but I also skated and rode motocross. And hands down motocross is one of the most physically brutal sports out there if not the hardest most intense sport period. And skateboarding takes so much time and skill. I can respect all, individual or team sports for different reasons. But the sportscasting people can't wrap their head around it. Ricky Carmichael. They call him the goat for a reason, and as someone else stated, Tony Hawk, there is not a more popular athlete in the world of skateboarding. He is the ambassador. These guys are no different from the likes of Jordan. I thought for sure Ricky would be in the top 10. This list caters the beer swilling mentality. To many from the the same sports, as much as I love them both there are more sports than baseball and football. They give others little due respect. You fear what you don't understand. And yeah, what about Tiger also, I don't like the guy, but he has definitely proven himself as a superior athlete in his chosen field.
- Tiger (2015)
No Tiger Woods!! No Tony Hawk!!! What were you thinking when you made this list??
- Bluesborn (2013)
Sam Snead is lucky to have made this list as one of the greatest golf champions of all time and speaking of which....no Tiger Woods? You're kidding right?