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
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 CaelSanderson (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.