Lionel Messi, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Tyson Fury and Tiger Woods are some of the names always mentioned when it comes to debating the greatest athletes in the past 20 years.
But what about the best sports stars of the previous century? They may be less well known now, but many still dominate the record books in their respective sports.
It makes sense to turn to the fans for this one, given there were probably thousands of world-class athletes competing during the 20th century.
Thankfully, thetoptens.com has created an interactive list of last century’s best sports stars, and it is pretty definitive. While there is no voting criteria for the list, it is clear supporters have picked some of the most iconic and successful athletes in history.
So without further ado, let’s get down to business. Here’s the 50 greatest athletes of the 20th century.
Who are the 50 greatest athletes of the 20th century?
50) Don Bradman (Cricket)
49) Giacomo Agostini (Motorcycle road racing)
47) Rocky Marciano (Boxing)
46) Jan-Ove Waldner (Table tennis)
45) Bjorn Dæhlie (Cross-country skiing)
44) Steve Redgrave (Rowing)
43) Kristin Otto (Swimming)
42) Sergey Bubka (Athletics)
41) Emil Zatopek (Athletics)
There’s maybe a few names here which the regular sports fan may not be familiar with, but that’s the beauty of this list.
Don Bradman is widely acknowledged as the best batsman of all time – his career Test batting average of 99.94 has been cited as one of the greatest achievements in sport.
Ferenc Puskás, a key member of Hungary’s Golden Team of the 1950s, is a worthy inclusion, while it’s hard to argue against five-time Olympic gold medallist Steve Redgrave being on the list.
We round off with Emil Zatopek, the only athlete to win the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon at a single Olympic Games.
40) Holger Nielsen (Fencing)
39) Björn Borg (Tennis)
38) Magic Johnson (Basketball)
37) Fanny Blankers-Koen (Athletics)
36) Bo Jackson (Baseball and American football)
35) Margaret Court (Tennis)
34) Olivér Halassy (Water polo)
33) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Basketball)
32) Dezso Gyarmati (Waterpolo)
31) Martina Navratilova (Tennis)
A number of tennis players appear on our list at this stage, and deservedly so. Björn Borg earned 11 Grand Slam titles during his career, including five consecutively at Wimbledon.
Martina Navratilova enjoyed an astonishing 74 match winning streak in 1984, the longest ever recorded in the history of tennis. She claimed the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open during this period, three of the 18 Grand Slam titles she won during an illustrious career.
Margaret Court finished her career with 24 Grand Slam titles – the most in the history of tennis!
Bo Jackson has clearly appealed to fans here with his talent in two sports – baseball and American football. His achievements in both have given him the reputation of one of the greatest athletes of all time.
29) Juan Manuel Fangio (Formula One)
28) Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Athletics)
27) Ray Ewry (Athletics)
26) Nikolai Andrianov (Gymnastics)
25) Paavo Nurmi (Athletics)
24) Larisa Latynina (Gymnastics)
23) Jackie Robinson (Baseball)
22) Babe Didrikson Zaharias (Multi-sports)
21) Mark Spitz (Swimming)
Nikolai Andrianov is the most decorated Olympic male gymnast of all time, earning 15 medals across three Games. He has the third highest number of Olympic medals in history, behind only Michael Phelps and Larisa Latynina, who is 24th in our list.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who was evidently incredibly talented at everything, had a remarkable career. She excelled in golf, basketball, baseball and track and field, winning two athletics gold medals at the 1932 Olympic Games and 10 LPGA major titles.
Mark Spitz so nearly made the top 20 as a result of his unbelievable performance at the Munich 1972 Olympic Games. He won seven gold medals in swimming, each one with a world record time.
20) Naim Süleymanoğlu (Weightlifting)
19) Carl Lewis (Athletics)
18) Billie Jean King (Tennis)
17) Aleksandr Karelin (Wrestling)
16) Ayrton Senna (Formula One)
15) Nadia Comaneci (Gymnastics)
14) Florence Griffith Joyner (Athletics)
13) Jesse Owens (Athletics)
12) Vasily Alekseyev (Weightlifting)
11) Muhammad Ali (Boxing)
We’re really starting to get to the business end of the list. These names will now be a lot more familiar to the average sports fan.
Take Carl Lewis, for instance. The nine-time Olympic gold medallist is considered one of the best track and field athletes of all time. As are Jesse Owens and Florence Griffith-Joyner, with the latter still holding the world records in the women’s 100m and 200m sprints.
Nadia Comaneci was the first ever Olympic gymnast to achieve a “perfect 10”, while Muhammad Ali is surely one of the most iconic sport stars of all time. The boxer is literally nicknamed “The Greatest”, so it could be argued that he should be even higher up the list.
10) Pete Sampras (Tennis)
8) Jim Thorpe (Athletics)
6) Wilt Chamberlain (Basketball)
5) Wayne Gretzky (Ice hockey)
4) Babe Ruth (Baseball)
2) Michael Jordan (Basketball)
Top 10 Summary
Here we are. The top 10 greatest athletes of the 20th century, as voted by sports fans on thetoptens.com.
Pete Sampras may not be one of the most iconic tennis players of all time, but his 14 Grand Slam titles was an all-time men’s record at the time of his retirement in 2002.
Wilt Chamberlain still holds an unbelievable amount of NBA records, thanks to his unprecedented 1961-1962 season with the Philadelphia Warriors. He remains the only player to score 100 points in an NBA game, achieving the feat in March 1962.
Meanwhile, Wayne Gretzky is the only NHL player to total over 200 points in one season, recording the tally four times during his career.
World Cup winner Diego Maradona is deservedly near the top of this list, but he has been pipped to the number one sport by Brazilian legend Pelé.
The three-time World Cup winner, still considered one of the best football players to ever grace the pitch, has often been called the greatest athlete of the 20th century.
The International Olympic Games gave Pele the same status in 1999, and he was included in the Time list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.
So there we have it! While this list is arguably slightly biased to American athletes, suggesting the fan voters are of a certain demographic, there is no doubt that Pele deserves his place on top of the pile. A notable omission is boxer Mike Tyson, but we’ll have to leave it to the fans to explain that one…
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