No single facet of society has greater powers of distraction than sports. Cheering for the home team, watching a great clash of champions, or taking in a title game can lift our spirits even in the darkest of times. Often times single players can transcend their sport, amaze us, and leave everyone in awe of their natural talent in a way many other people simply cannot. Regardless of the sports you consider your favorites there are athletes who are unquestionably considered great.
The sporting world has given rise to hundreds of supremely talented individuals during the course of modern human history. Choosing just 10 athletes is not an easy task, but it is possible. There are certain athletes whose accomplishments stand out from the crowd and earn them a place among the greatest of the great.
10. Lance Armstrong (Cycling)
9. Bo Jackson (NFL football, MLB baseball)
8. Roger Federer (Tennis)
7. Jesse Owens (Olympian)
6. Tiger Woods (PGA Golf)
5. Wayne Gretzky (NHL Hockey)
4. Muhammad Ali (Boxing)
3. Babe Ruth (MLB baseball)
2. Michael Jordan (NBA Basketball)
1. Jim Thorpe (football, basketball, baseball, Olympian)
Any discussion involving the greatest athletes of all time is guaranteed to result in two things, a heated debate about lists such as this and questions about what makes each individual worthy of the honor.
Lance Armstrong has become a controversial figure in cycling in recent years during the fallout from a doping scandal. Prior to the scandal however, Armstrong cemented his legacy as a supreme athlete. Armstrong overcame testicular cancer to win a record seven consecutive Tour de France titles and made an entire country sit up and pay attention to cycling.
Bo Jackson’s professional careers in baseball and football were short, but impressive. Jackson was a Heisman Trophy winning running back at Auburn University, played four seasons for the Los Angeles Raiders of the NFL, and eight seasons for various teams in MLB. Jackson was a unique combination of speed and power and was the first athlete to ever be voted an All-Star in two major American leagues.
Roger Federer helped usher in a new era of great tennis. His knack for winning and his friendly competition for trophies with rival Rafael Nadal have left tennis fans drooling for almost a decade. Among his most impressive feats, Federer was ranked #1 in the ATP polls for a record 237 consecutive weeks from February 2004 to August 2008.
Jesse Owens may be unknown to many people in the 21st century, but his impact on society is immeasurable. Owens represented the United States at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. Owens brought home four gold medals in track and field events, but he will be forever remembered for other feats. As an African-American, Owens faced segregation at home but represented his country honorably at an Olympic games hosted by Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany hoping to tout Aryan values.
Tiger Woods and golf are synonymous in the 21st century. Woods’ 14 major titles trail only Jack Nicklaus’ 18, thanks in large part to his impressive victories and dominant performances on the course. There is no replacing Woods; whenever he misses an event viewership and attendance dwindle.
Wayne Gretzky rightfully earned the nickname “The Great One” due to his superior talent on the ice over the course of a 20 year career. Gretzky holds 40 regular season NHL records, 15 playoff records, and six All-Star records. He remains the leading point-scorer in NHL history and is the only player to have ever recorded over 200 points in one season.
With a flair for the dramatic and trash talking rhymes, Muhammad Ali brought boxing popularity it has rarely experienced. Unlike so many others, Ali could back up every word of trash talk that passed his lips. Ali’s unique boxing style, dubbed “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee”, changed the sport and helped him become the first and only three-time World Heavyweight Champion.
No one thinks of baseball without thinking about Babe Ruth. Ruth became the game’s home run king decades before the long ball era would be ushered in, and was the source of a curse that haunted a franchise for almost 100 years. Ruth came into baseball as a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, was traded to the New York Yankees, and the rest is history. He set every major hitting record for future players to break. Ruth also increased the popularity of the game and helped change it from a low-scoring, speed game to a power-hitting, high scoring game.
Michael Jordan is considered by most to be the best basketball player ever and is the measuring stick future players must live up to. Jordan was a pure shooter who possessed an ability to soar above the rest, earning him the title “Air Jordan.” Jordan won the 1982 National Championship with the University of North Carolina and went on to win six NBA titles (1991-1993, 1996-1998) with the Chicago Bulls. Jordan became a marketing icon with Nike and helped popularize the sport around the globe.
Jim Thorpe lacks the flare, dramatics, and attention that many others on this list received, but none of them can match his accomplishments as an athlete. Thorpe competed in an era before mass media, and as a Native American in a segregated America his accomplishments were not always appreciated during his time. Thorpe won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, is a member of the collegiate and pro football Hall of Fame, and also competed professionally in baseball and basketball. Thorpe’s raw athletic talent and ability to adapt to any sport make him the greatest athlete of all-time.