The 25 Greatest Athletes of All Time

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The 25 Greatest Athletes of All Time

Probably the most interesting and, at the same time, the most difficult question to answer in sports is, "Who is the greatest athlete of all time?" (or at least since 1900).  Before you begin to answer this question, you have to determine (at least in your mind) what the criteria are for your answer. 

Soon after you realize this necessity, you will also realize that, in reality, there is no way to definitively answer this question.  But this is the sports world, where the difference between fantasy and reality becomes blurred. 

In an effort to clear this all up, here are some possible factors (not necessarily in order of importance) for you to consider when answering this question:

1.  What were the athletes' accomplishments in their particular sports?  Things to consider are titles won (especially majors, Olympic medals and world titles), championships, records set, rankings  (in individual sports), career statistics, All-Star selections, awards (especially Player of the Year and MVP awards) and the length of their career.  Also, did the sport's rules or equipment changes affect the athletes statistics?

2.  For how many years were they considered the best in their sport?  How much better were they than their contemporaries?  How weak or strong in ability were their contemporaries?  How much better were they then everyone else in the history of their sport?  How clear is it that they are the best of all time in their particular sport?  How universally is this accepted?

3.  When you watch the athlete perform, do they do things that other athletes in their sport cannot do?  Or, to put it another way:  How exciting is the athlete to watch because of their amazing athletic ability?

4.  How much impact did the athlete have on their sport or the sports world in general?

5.  Did they excel in more than one sport (college or pros)?  If they played only one sport, did they seem capable of being great at other sports?

6.  How popular is the sport in which the athlete excelled?

7.  How much did injuries or a lack of opportunity limit their accomplishments?

8.  How difficult is the sport (or sports) in which they excelled?

9.  How consistently great was the athlete?

10.  How much did the athlete's mere presence intimidate their opponents because of the their dominance?  In team sports, did the athlete's mere presence or greatness make their teammates better?  Also in team sports, did the athlete make their teammates better in other ways (e.g., leadership, teamwork)?

As you can see, how much importance you put on each of these factors will affect how you rate the athletes that you are considering.  And since there is no universal agreement on which factors are the most important and how much weight should be placed on each of these factors, everyone will come up with a different answer. 

Another caveat: Which sports you follow the most and which sports you play (or played) will uncontrollably influence your answer.  Hence, to give you full disclosure, I will tell you that I played practically all U.S. sports growing up. I wrestled in high school (see the next paragraph), and my favorite sports to watch are American football (first) and basketball (second; unless I was watching Michael Jordan play, in which case it would be the other way around).

ESPN attempted to answer a similar question with their list of the 100 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century. 

It was, admittedly, a United States list with (as far as I can tell) 95 U.S. athletes (three of which were horses), four Canadian-born hockey players and Martina Navratilova, who became a U.S. citizen.  Michael Jordan (at least they got that right) was No. 1, Babe Didrikson was the highest woman at No. 10 and Jim Thorpe was, somewhat surprisingly, only No. 7. 

(In 1950, he won by a landslide in a poll by the Associated Press as the Greatest Athlete of the First Half of the Century. Somehow, Babe Ruth and Jesse Owens became better athletes in their retirement, since they came in at third and sixth, respectively, in the ESPN list.) 

Even more surprising was how low Deion Sanders (No. 74) and Bo Jackson (No. 72) placed.  The late Dick Schaap of The Sports Reporters fame thought Bo Jackson, Jim Brown and Wilt Chamberlain were the greatest athletes of all time because if you put them on a field and they played 20 sports, they would do the best.  (I guess Michael Jordan was not strong enough for him; I can't imagine him not doing well.) 

While a pretty good argument on its face—why should this be the only test of measurement for athletic greatness? 

Bobby Orr  (No. 31), Gale Sayers (No. 79) and Don Hutson (No. 93) seem low to me.  Jesse Owens (No. 6; undeniably great but had an awfully short career for that high placement), Joe DiMaggio (No. 22; any non-Yankee fan will tell you that he is overrated) and Arnold Palmer (No. 29; not long enough as the best golfer in the world) seem high to me. 

But the most glaring error was the inclusion of 23 (!) baseball players yet zero—yes, a big fat zero—wrestlers.  Anyone familiar with the incredible exploits of Dan Gable, John Smith and Cael Sanderson, their amazing athletic ability and the tremendous amount of athletic ability it takes to wrestle would not leave them off the list. 

I am quite certain that even if ESPN's poll was a worldwide list, non-U.S. athletes would still be gravely short-changed.  Pele, for instance, is considered by many to be the greatest soccer (football) player in history in the world's most popular sport.  Not a bad start.  However, he will probably struggle to make the top 10 in a U.S.-based poll for the listing of the greatest athletes of all time worldwide.  Women athletes, of course, will always struggle to get their due. 

One other athlete that was not on the list (understandably, due to the lack of official competitions entered), but who was included in my list, is martial artist Bruce Lee. 

He had the fastest reflexes I have ever seen on a human being—amazing agility, toughness and he was considered the greatest martial artist ever, and maybe the strongest pound-for-pound athlete ever.  Tough to ignore this combination of factors.

(If you decided to use just criterion No. 3 above—which almost all of us would agree is just too limiting—you would get a completely different list; namely, the most exciting athletes of all time.  Now, Sayers, O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders, Julius Erving and current athletes like Michael Vick, Brett Favre, Randy Moss, Kobe Byrant, Allen Iverson and LeBron James would zoom up on my list.)

 

1.  MICHAEL JORDAN

Believe it or not, this was my easiest decision.  (After this, it is fuzzy—meaning I could change my mind tomorrow on places 2-25.)  Do I really have to defend this choice?  I could write a book on why he is the greatest athlete ever, methodically explaining to you how he comes through with flying colors on all 10 criteria.  However, if you saw him play numerous times and did not put him No. 1 on your list, then nothing I write here will convince you. 

And if you never saw him play, you missed not only the greatest athlete of all time, but also the most exciting. 

Yes, graceful, stylish, but extremely fundamentally sound (flash with tons of substance).  He was incredibly consistent and perhaps the only athlete without a real weakness (once he hit his prime).  He practiced hard, worked extremely hard on his game and was as competitive as any athlete I ever witnessed.  He was blessed with the most talent and made the most of his abilities. 

Clearly, the greatest player of all time in the world's second-most popular sport.  Basketball is also one of the world's most difficult sports and has some of its best athletes.  Jordan had huge impacts on both basketball (he brought it to its highest level of popularity; the television ratings still have not recovered) and the sports world via advertising and marketing. 

Five MVP awards (should have won 10), six NBA titles (would have won nine straight if he had not retired twice when he did), two Olympic gold medals, the best offensive player ever, probably the second-best defensive player ever (after Bill Russell) and he made his teammates way better than they actually were (admittedly, not his first three or four years in the league, but once he figured it out, it was over with since he was by far the most talented). 

He was extremely agile, fast, quick, possessed unbelievable balance, body control and explosiveness, had a 48" vertical leap and was deceptively strong (especially once he hit his mid to late 20s).  Jordan put fear in all of his opponents, especially at the end of a close game.  Unbelievably clutch. 

As for other sports, he never gave baseball enough of an effort.  He played one season at age 32 after not playing for 16 years.  At age 12, he was the best little leaguer in the state, but he stopped playing around age 16 to concentrate on basketball.  I believe he would have been a good major league baseball player if he had never given it up and just concentrated on baseball. 

He would have done very well in track—long jump, high jump and the hurdles.  And is there any doubt he would have been a great NFL receiver (think Randy Moss with more height and a way better attitude and competitive spirit)? 

Plus, he is a pretty good golfer.  Jordan was also a very intelligent athlete with great instincts.  Retirements more than injuries limited some of his accomplishments. 

One last thing: Whenever I watched a Chicago Bulls game, I could not take my eyes off Jordan because I was afraid I would miss his next spectacular play, and he never disappointed.  In my opinion, the only differences between Michael Jordan and God (if he were an athlete) is that Jordan could hang in the air longer than God and Jordan was still capable of scoring even when five Detroit Pistons grabbed, clutched, fouled, tripped and held him.  What more could you ask for in an athlete?

 

2.  JIM THORPE 

He was the greatest athlete in the first half of the 20th century, and I see no good reason to put such a great all-around (if there ever was one) athlete any lower than No. 2.  Unfortunately, all we have to judge him from are some grainy football, baseball and track highlights, some statistics and stories—some of which are hard to verify. 

In addition to being voted by the Associated Press (400 sportswriters and sportscasters) "The Greatest Athlete of the First Half of the Century" (as mentioned above), they also voted him the "Greatest American Football Player" of the first half of the 20th century. 

A 6'1", 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 was no award at the time).  In 1911, he led Carlisle to an 11-1 record and then led them 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 (which were stripped a year later for baseball professionalism, but they were restored in 1982) in the pentathlon and decathlon, winning an amazing eight 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, all while he was at Carlisle.  He also dabbled in wrestling and basketball exhibitions at various times in his life.  He went on to become a star in professional football (although there was no official league until 1920), retiring at the age of 41 in 1928, and he was a decent professional baseball player, batting .252 lifetime with a .327 average his final season in 1919. 

He was voted into the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame and to the NFL's 1920's All-Decade Team.  Not bad for a day's work.  As is obvious from his accomplishments, he had all the qualities (and then some) of a great all-around athlete: strength, speed, quickness, endurance, agility, toughness, jumping ability and balance.  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

 

3.  DEION SANDERS

Let the controversy begin.  As I said before, everyone's list will be different, and I may change my mind on places 2-25 tomorrow.  However, for sheer athletic ability, he is second only to Jordan. 

Blinding speed and quickness, extreme agility (not to mention great balance and body control), instincts and jumping ability.  He was probably the best defensive player (certainly the best cover cornerback) in the history of the NFL.  Yet interestingly enough, he could have been even more of an offensive force.  Meaning, if he had been a full-time receiver (with end-arounds and other plays designed to get him the ball), a punt returner and a kickoff returner. 

Plus, if football were not such a physically demanding sport (with people who are getting tackled coming down with injuries the most), and if he could play offense, defense and special teams without his body breaking down, sorry—game over. 

Like, maybe a dozen MVP titles and half a dozen Super Bowl titles.  As has been said many times before, Sanders took half the field away from the quarterback whenever there was a pass play.  And in the pass-happy NFL, I cannot think of anything that would give a team more of an advantage. 

In high school, he was a Letterman in three sports (football, basketball and baseball) and was (almost unbelievably) an All-State (Florida) honoree in all three sports (would have been four if he had been allowed to run track).  In college, he starred in three sports (football, baseball and track) for the Florida State Seminoles. 

In football, he was a two-time consensus first-team All-American, led the nation in punt return average and won, ironically, the Jim Thorpe Award for the best defensive back.  He played nine seasons of professional baseball (641 games), where he batted .263 (.304 one year), .533 in four games of the 1992 World Series and stole 186 bases. 

In the NFL, he played in eight Pro Bowls, was the 1994 Defensive Player of the Year, was voted to the 1990's All-Decade Team and won two Super Bowl rings, making him the only man to play in the Super Bowl and the World Series. 

Sanders amassed 7,838 all-purpose yards, caught 60 passes, intercepted 53 passes, recovered four fumbles and scored 22 touchdowns (nine interception returns, six punt returns, three kickoff returns, three receiving and one fumble recovery). 

He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.19 seconds forward and 4.6 seconds backward!  I saw highlights of Sanders playing basketball (what springs!), and I have little doubt he could have also been a star in the NBA (picture Allen Iverson with a better shooting percentage and practice habits). 

A superstar or potential star in four major sports—yeah, 74th seems about right.

 

4.  BO JACKSON

Along with Jim Brown, Jackson had the greatest combination of power and speed in recorded sports history.  A tremendous college football player at Auburn University (Heisman Trophy winner, rushed for 4,303 yards with 6.6 yards-per-carry avg.), a very good 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). 

A hip injury ended his NFL career early and obviously affected his baseball career.  He also starred on the track and field team during his freshman and sophomore years at Auburn in the 60-yard dash. 

I looked at criterion No. 7 (how much did injury limit his accomplishments), did some extrapolating and poof(!)—I came up with the No. 4 selection.  Since this analysis involves the most speculation, I do not know if I am right on this one, but I think I will have a lot more company at fourth place than if I placed him 72nd, as the ESPN experts did (Schaap was only one of 48 voters).

 

5.  PELE (Edson Arantes do Nascimento)

So great that he needs only one name.  Probably the best soccer (football) player of all time (although Diego Maradona fans might argue with this statement).  I am sure he will do quite well in a worldwide poll since soccer is the world's most popular sport (in Brazil he will probably get almost 100 percent of the votes for No. 1), and deservedly so. 

He was explosive, fast, quick, agile, strong, had great balance and was talented with a capital "T."  Unfortunately, by the time he played in the U.S., he was past his prime, so all I have are highlights from when he was younger to gauge his true greatness. 

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).  I would be comfortable placing him on my list as high as second, but definitely no lower than eighth.  Hence, fifth place seems reasonable, but it is tough to know since I never saw him play live on a regular basis in his prime.

 

6.  MUHAMMAD ALI

Probably my favorite athlete until Michael Jordan came around.  Ali, a heavyweight, was voted the second-best boxer of all time after middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson, in a major poll of so-called boxing experts.  In a poll of serious sports fans, and specifically boxing fans, I suspect Ali would win rather easily. 

I have seen most of Ali's fights and some of Robinson's fights (usually just parts of the fight) and highlights of Robinson, and I am going to have to (as you might suspect) agree with the "non-boxing experts." 

In the Cleveland ("Big Cat") Williams fight, Ali never looked better, and it seemed as if he was beamed in from another planet—200 years in the future!  Never have I seen an athlete look so far ahead of his time in the display of athletic skills (yes, even more so than Jordan since Dr. J was in his league in some ways). 

Ali had blinding speed, unreal quickness, incredible agility, grace, style, underrated strength, toughness, heart, instincts and brains.  In short, an ideal physical specimen for sports.  (Gosh, maybe he should be higher than sixth.) 

He was a three-time heavyweight champ and was undefeated until he was unjustly stripped of his title for refusing to serve in the U.S. Army. 

Sadly, the sports world was robbed of three-and-a-half years of Ali's prime.  He was still a great fighter when he came back, but he never looked the same again because of the loss of speed and quickness. 

However, his famous victory over the favored hard-punching George Foreman to regain his title (seven years after he lost it) was sheer athletic brilliance, and all three of his fights (actually wars) with Joe Frazier were classics.  In addition, his immense charisma brought boxing to its most popular heights.  He was truly "the greatest," and if you put him second on your list, I would not argue with you.

 

7.  JIM BROWN

As noted above, an incredibly potent combination of power and speed.  Like Ali, athletically, he seemed far ahead of his time (imagine him with today's weight training, knowledge and equipment). 

Possibly the best American football player of all time; in 2002, The Sporting News named him "The Greatest Professional Football Player of All Time."  I would be surprised if he did not win any poll by football experts or fans (he might get my vote, although it is not as clear as it is with Jordan in basketball or Ruth in baseball in my mind). 

The greatest running back off all time (as of 2009, this is clear), leading the league in rushing yardage eight out of the nine years he played (playing injured the one year when Jim Taylor beat him out), and also one of its most exciting. 

Unfortunately, I saw him play only once, when the Green Bay Packers held him to under 50 yards in his last game—the 1965 NFL Championship Game (the Packers beat the Cleveland Browns 20-12; I was six years old at the time).  However, I have seen lots of highlights of him (check out Spike Lee's documentary on him—some of the runs are unreal) and know his statistics well. 

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 country 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.  In addition, it does not take much imagination to see Brown also dominating in the decathlon in track (ditto for Bo Jackson).  American football fans will probably place Brown in the top three, and I would not argue with second or third place.

 

8.  BABE RUTH

I am sure baseball fans feel I have underrated him, and they may have a point.  As you may have deduced, I really struggled with positions 2-8 (coincidentally, I had the same problem with the greatest professional basketball players of all time), so before the baseball fans scream blasphemy, I should tell you I really wanted to put seven athletes tied for second, but that seemed like a cop-out.  So, just relax, baseball fans, and I will, too, as long as you do not try to convince me Ruth should be No 1. 

Universally acclaimed as the greatest baseball player of all time in one of the two most popular sports in the U.S.  Baseball also is immensely popular in Japan and Central America.  His statistics and exploits are well documented, as is his influence on the popularity of baseball ("saving" baseball after the Black Sox scandal) and sports in general in the first half of the 20th century. 

For the sake of completeness, here it goes: 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).  I could go on, but since his baseball greatness is not in dispute, it is hardly necessary. 

I would be remiss, however, if I did not include the best argument for Ruth being the greatest athlete—the significant difference between him and his nearest competitor. 

In 1919, he hit 29 home runs in only 130 games (second place was 12 home runs); in 1920, he hit 54 home runs in 142 games (second place was only 19; and in 1921, he hit 59 home runs in all 152 games (second place was 24).  And sometimes during that three year-period, amazingly, he hit more home runs than entire teams!  (Wow!  Maybe I should have placed him second.)  

I am torn when evaluating Ruth, because other than his broad shoulders and quick, explosive swing, he just did not look like a truly great athlete, whether he was standing still or moving.  He had skinny legs, average-sized arm muscles, was overweight and ran funny (although he had quick feet).  And I am not convinced he would be great at any other major sport.  But it was scary how good he was at baseball.

 

9.  BOBBY ORR

OK, you can now add Wayne Gretzky fans to the Pele, Ali, Brown and Ruth fans who are already mad at me for underrating their sports idol.  Well, it is my list, and you get a vote, too. 

Here is my reasoning for placing Orr here instead of Gretzky: The difference between Orr and the second-best defenseman ever was greater than the difference between Gretzky and the second-best offensive player ever. 

In addition, when watching Orr, he seemed to control and dominate the rink more than Gretzky.  Who knows what additional records Orr would have set in addition to awards and Stanley Cups won had bad knees not prematurely ended his career?

Orr won two Stanley Cups, three Hart Awards, eight straight Top Defenseman Awards and he was the only defenseman to lead the league in scoring (and he did it twice). He had blazing speed, quickness, agility, great balance, toughness and awesome skills. 

While I placed him higher than most people will—given how much better he looked than anyone else on the rink when he played—I actually wonder if I did him justice by placing him this low.

 

10.  TIGER WOODS

While golf might not be as physically demanding as other sports, it is a very difficult sport and requires a high degree of athletic skill (it just does not happen to involve running).  Whether you are a golf fan or not, it is hard to ignore Tiger's dominance and mass appeal.  On ESPN's list (voted on in 1999), Jack Nicklaus was No. 9; however, at the time, he was almost universally considered the greatest golfer of all time. And now Tiger has that unofficial title. 

So, sorry, Jack did not make my list even though I grew up following his great accomplishments.  It looks like Tiger has a lot of golf left in him, so it will be interesting to see what place he deserves on the list once he finishes his career.

 

11.  ROGER FEDERER

Probably the greatest male tennis player of all time, although Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras fans all have good arguments.

 

12.  BABE DIDRIKSON ZAHARIAS

The greatest all-around female athlete of all time.  Maybe should be higher; however, I just do not know who (or how many) to bump.

 

13.  MARTINA NAVRATILOVA

The greatest female tennis player of all time, and it seems like she is such a great athlete that she would excel at practically any sport.

 

14.  NADIA COMANECI

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

 

15.  JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE

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

 

16.  CHERYL MILLER

When I watched the 1984 men's Summer Olympics basketball games, Michael Jordan appeared twice as good as everyone else and 10 times more exciting. However, the NBA players were not playing in the Olympic tournament. 

When I watched the 1984 women's Summer Olympic basketball games, all the world's best women basketball players were playing in the tournament, and Miller appeared three times better than the rest of the women players and 10 times more exciting.  If it were not for injuries and a lack of opportunities (no WNBA), it is scary to think how great her career would have been. 

Perhaps the most under-appreciated female athlete of all time and with all due respect to the great players that have played in the WNBA, the best woman basketball player of all time.  Yes, like Jordan, flash with tons of substance.

 

17.  WAYNE GRETZKY

The great one.  Mind-blowing career stats (including four Stanley Cups won and eight straight Hart Awards).  Enough said.

 

18.  DAN GABLE

Perhaps the greatest freestyle wrestler ever.  Lost only one match in his collegiate career and won the 1972 Olympic gold medal without a single point scored against him in his six matches.  No single adjective in the English language does this accomplishment justice.  How about unbelievably, amazingly awesome?

 

19.  MICHAEL PHELPS

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

 

20.  BRUCE LEE

As I said above—it is my list, and you get a vote, too.  It is too bad he spent his life developing his own martial artist system—because he felt the existing systems were inferior—and as a result, he did not enter their competitions. 

He came around 30 years too early, since the Ultimate Fighting Championship would be perfect for him.  I am sure he would dominate and might even beat the best fighters in the higher weight classes.

Go rent his first movie, The Big Boss, to witness the fastest reflexes on a human being in recorded history.  (During the filming of the TV series The Green Hornet, the producers actually had Lee slow his moves down because they were afraid the viewers would not see his slick moves!)  There are also stories of his famous one-inch punch, which resulted in people heavier than him flying 10 feet away.

 

21.  KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR

Probably the second-best NBA player ever and the best collegiate basketball player ever.  Six MVPs, six NBA titles and is still the the all-time leading scorer in the history of the NBA.  In college, he was a two-time Player of the Year and three-time national champion, where he led the UCLA Bruins to an 88-2 record during his reign.  Not a shabby career.

 

22.  CARL LEWIS

Greatest male track and field athlete ever.  Essentially, he accomplished everything Jesse Owens did with a much longer career, spanning four Olympics.

 

23.  SUGAR RAY ROBINSON

One of the two greatest boxers ever (depending on whom you believe).  Five-time world champion with a long career in a very demanding sport.

 

24.  WILLIE MAYS

The second-best player in major league history; a great all-around player who also could have been great at other sports.

 

25.  JACKIE ROBINSON

A great all-around baseball player who broke the color barrier in the modern era of Major League Baseball.  Lettered in four sports in both high school and college (baseball, basketball, football and track).  He also won a junior negro tennis title when he was 17.  Gee, maybe he should be higher.

 

In case you are wondering about my list for the 25 greatest male athletes of all time, it is the same 20 male athletes listed above in the same order (1-20) followed by:

21.  JESSE OWENS
22.  WILT CHAMBERLAIN
23.  TED WILLIAMS
24.  CAEL SANDERSON
25.  JOHN SMITH

The rest of my list for the female athletes is (same concept for numbering):

6.   SONJA HENIE
7.   MICHELLE AKERS
8.   MIA HAMM
9.   CHRIS EVERT
10.  ANNIKA SORENSTAM
11.  BONNIE BLAIR
12.  TRACY CAULKINS
13.  WILMA RUDOLPH
14.  BILLIE JEAN KING
15.  MONICA SELES
16.  STEFFI GRAF
17.  ALTHEA GIBSON
18.  SHERYL SWOOPES
19.  CYNTHIA COOPER
20.  LAILA ALI
21.  PEGGY FLEMING
22.  MICHELLE KWAN
23.  MARY T. MEAGHER
24.  LISA FERNANDEZ
25.  LARISSA LATYNINA

Other athletes to whom I gave serious consideration were (not necessarily in order):  

Nicklaus, Joe Louis, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Dave Winfield, Lou Gehrig, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Ty Cobb, Gordie Howe, Joe Montana (these nine were all in ESPN's top 25).

Roger Staubach, Jerry Rice, Red Grange, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Spitz, Dick Butkus, Lawrence Taylor, Sandy Koufax, Erving, Eric Heiden, Rod Laver, Edwin Moses, Rafer Johnson, Michael Johnson, Mario Lemieux, Greg Louganis, Hutson, Henry Armstrong, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Lance Armstrong, Maradona, Jean-Claude Killy, Paavo Nurmi, Sahaharu Oh, Sergei Bubka, Sawao Kato, Alexei Nemov, Ann Meyers, Teresa Edwards, Dawn Staley, Dawn Frazer, Janet Evans and Mary Decker Slaney

(I did not consider anyone who I strongly suspect to have done steroids, such as Florence Griffith-Joyner and Barry Bonds.)

 

Some final thoughts:  You may not agree with my list (I would be shocked if you did), but at least I put some serious thought and research (I hope this shows) into my answers.  I tried to give you intelligent, logical reasoning in support of my choices; I also tried to be as objective as possible. 

These are my first drafts, and I am sure that with more thought, discussion and research, these lists could change dramatically (especially for non-U.S. athletes, who, admittedly, were short-changed).  This was harder than it looks (you will soon find this out if you decide to make your own list) but still fun. 

Again, how much weight you put on each of the factors listed above (plus any factors I may have missed)—which sports you like, what country you grew up in and how old you are—will significantly affect your answers.  Hence, there really are no right answers to this "ultimate" sports question.  Except for yours and mine!

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