What makes an athlete great? Is it their natural born ability? Their grit determination? Their heart and drive to be the greatest? Their love of the game? How about all of the above plus one extra “it” factor—that indefinable attribute that elevates talented athletes to once-in-a-lifetime legend status. And though we can’t definite exactly what that special trait is, we know one thing for sure—every one of the athletes we included in our list of the greatest athletes of all time has it.
1. Lance Armstrong (Cycling)
With a heart almost thirty percent larger than the average man, an aerobic capacity almost twice as high as the average person and unusually low lactate levels, it’s no surprise many people question, “Is Lance Armstrong mortal?” And though his superhuman physical abilities are undoubtedly impressive, what’s more remarkable is this Texan’s dogged determination. After being diagnosed with testicular cancer and a germ cell tumor that spread to his brain and lungs, Armstrong’s doctors gave him a 50 percent chance to live. And while most people would wallow in their sorrows, Armstrong fought back—and hard. A mere three years after his diagnosis he won a record-breaking seven straight Tour de France titles and earned, among many awards, Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, the Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year, ESPN’s Espy Award for Best Male Athlete and BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
2. Muhammad Ali (Boxing)
It takes a truly remarkable human being to bring grace and beauty to a sport that’s all about knocking people around. And Muhammad Ali was that man. Known for his self-proclaimed “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” fighting style, Muhammad Ali was more than just a bombastic boxer—he was an icon who helped bring the sport of boxing to the forefront in the early 1960s. Though the public initially disapproved of Ali’s controversial quips, unabashed proclamations of greatness and verbosity, no one could deny his raw talent. Ali became one of the most decorated fighters of his time, winning memorable fights against Joe Frazier and George Foreman. And while Ali may no longer be able to entertain us with his mesmerizing skills in the ring and his amusing antics out of the ring, he remains embedded in our minds, once and for all, as the “world’s greatest.”
3. Michael Phelps (Swimming)
When someone likes to or is skilled at swimming, we usually say he or she “swims like a fish.” But U.S. Olympic champion Michael Phelps truly brings life to this statement. It seems as if his body was made for the water—sporting a six feet seven inch arm span, size 14 feet with hypermobile ankles, a long, thin torso and relatively short legs in proportion to his six feet four inch body. Combine these physical attributes with Phelps’ sixteen year swimming background and you’ve got the makings of once-in-a-lifetime athlete. Since winning an unprecedented eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (of his 14 career gold medals), Phelps has become America’s Golden Boy, earning the Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year award and lending his face to countless ad campaigns. With plans to compete in the 2012 London Olympics, America is anxiously awaiting what this 23 year-old phenom will accomplish next.
4. Carl Lewis (Track and Field)
Running and jumping—two seemingly simple actions anybody can do, right? But how about running 100 meters in 9.86 seconds and jumping 29 feet and two and three-fourths of an inch? Carl Lewis, one of America’s greatest track and field athletes, accomplished just that during his brilliant track and field career that spanned 12 years. During that time, Lewis accumulated nine gold medals, making him not only one of two Olympic athletes to win nine gold medals, but also one of only two to win the same individual event four times. Though never fully embraced by his sport or by the American people because of his lack of humility and his cold, calculating and aloof personality, no one can deny Lewis’ raw talent. And it seems neither can the International Olympic Committee or Sports Illustrated, who named him “Sportsman of the Century” and “Olympian of the Century,” respectively.
5. Michael Jordan (Basketball)
This is a man who surely needs no introduction. His name has become synonymous with professional basketball since his introduction into the sport more than 20 years ago. After a standout collegiate career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jordan joined the Chicago Bulls in what was the start of the most winning career in sports history. Sporting his signature exposed tongue, Jordan leaped to great heights, earning him not only the nickname “Air Jordan,” but a host of regular season and playoff MVP awards. But what makes Jordan unique is not his physical abilities, but the way he managed to transcend his sport and become a pop icon in and of himself. After all, this is a man who Boston Celtics opponent Larry Bird once described as “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” We couldn’t agree more.
6. Pele (Soccer)
When his coach brought 11 year-old Pele to Sao Paulo to try out for a professional soccer team in Santos, he declared, “This boy will be the greatest soccer play in the world.” Turns out, he was right. In his native Brazil, Pele is hailed as a national hero, and with good reason. This “futbol” star played in four World Cups with Brazil’s national team, scoring a staggering six goals in the 1958 World Cup at the tender age of 17. He went on to have one of the most successful soccer careers of all time—scoring 1,280 goals in 1,360 games—an average of a goal in every international game he played; the equivalent of a baseball player hitting a home run in every World Series game during the span of 15 years. Though considered by his country to be a “national treasure,” we think Pele deserves the title “international treasure.”
7. Steffi Graf (Tennis)
When tennis greats Billie Jean King and Chris Evert both call you “the greatest women’s tennis player of all time,” you know you’re good. Known as “Fraulein Forehand” because of her powerful forehand drive, Graff was the most dominant female tennis player of the 90s. Not only was she ranked World No. 1 for 186 consecutive weeks (the current record), but she also won 22 Grand Slam titles, second only to Margaret Court’s 24. Her breakout year came in 1988 when she won the Olympic gold medal and all four Grand Slam singles titles—becoming the first and only player to win the “Golden Slam.” And did we mention she is married to the equally talented tennis star Andre Agassi? This woman lives and breathes tennis.
8. Tiger Woods (Golf)
Determination? Check. Natural ability? Check. Focus? Check. Discipline? Check. Tiger Woods has it all. A child prodigy when he began playing golf at age two, Woods has gone on to become arguably the most well-known athlete in the world. He has been named Associated Press' Male Athlete of the Year a record-tying four times, and is the only person to be named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year more than once. Aside from his awards off the green, Woods has been even more successful on the green—winning fourteen professional major golf championships and accumulating more career major wins and career PGA Tour wins than any other active golfer. What’s more, he’s brought some excitement and glamour to the once-mundane world of professional golf. Can you imagine the world of golf without Tiger Woods? Neither can we.
9. Jim Thorpe
It takes amazing talent to excel at one sport, no doubt. But to earn top honors in multiple sports? Well, that’s an accomplishment very few can claim. But before you go naming the likes of Deion Sanders and John Elway, take a moment to learn about Jim Thorpe. Considered by many to be the most versatile athlete of all time, Thorpe won Olympic gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon and played professional football, baseball and basketball. Future President Dwight Eisenhower, a onetime Thorpe opponent, once described him in the following way: “Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed…Jim Thorpe…he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.” We agree, Mr. President.
10. Willie Mays (Baseball)
Baseball experts agree it takes five major skills to be a great baseball player—hit, hit with power, run, throw and field. And Willie Mays could do all five better than anyone else. Not only that, but he made it look easy and fun. Beloved by baseball fans for his bright smile and cheery disposition, Mays came to define “love of the game.” Playing with the New York and San Francisco Giants for the majority of his career, Mays cemented his place in baseball history, winning the MVP award two times, appearing in the All-Star Game a record-tying twenty-four times and hitting 660 career home runs. But for Mays, baseball was a simple game, saying “When they throw the ball, I hit it….and when they hit the ball, I catch it.” Ahh, the simplicity of it all!
11. Wayne Gretzky (Hockey)
Dubbed “The Great One” as a kid, a teenager and again during his career in the NHL, it seems as if Wayne Gretzky has always been at the top of his game. Throughout his hockey career, Gretzky has garnered numerous accolades. Among them: all-time scoring leader in the NHL, nine-time league MVP, two-time playoff MVP, five-time Most Sportsmanlike player award, four Stanley Cups and more than 20 All-Star appearances. Best of all? He takes his success in stride—never refusing an autograph and never letting the fame get to his head. Famed Canadian novelist sums up Gretsky perfectly, stating “Gretzky is what athletes are supposed to be, but seldom are—modest to a fault, Macintosh-Apple wholesome, dedicated and an inspirational model for young fans.” Add his admirable humility to his unsurpassed skill and you can see why we’ve included him in our list of the greatest of all-time.
12. Roger Federer (Tennis)
Athletes can be cocky. Yeah, I said it. They can be arrogant, aloof and ungrateful son-of-bitches. But while the majority of famous athletes fall into this trap, there are those rare specimens that are the exact opposite of egomaniacs. Chief among them is Roger Federer—current World No. 1 ranked men’s tennis player with 12 Grand Slam titles, four Masters Cup victories, 25 ATP tour championships and earnings of more than $41 million. And not only does Federer win points for consistent sportsmanlike conduct on the court (he is a humble victor and gracious loser), but according to his opponents, teammates, press, etc. he’s a stand-up guy in all areas of life. He even takes his steady girlfriend along with him when on tour (which is virtually unheard of in the land of professional men’s sports). Alright, now he’s just making everyone else look bad.
13. Annika Sorenstam (Golf)
Hailed as one of, if not the greatest female golfer of all time, Annika Sorenstam seemed like an obvious choice for our list of the greatest. With 90 international tournament wins as a professional, 72 official LPGA tournament wins and earnings of more than $22 million, this Swedish superstar is no stranger to success. Though she officially retired from the sport in 2008, Sorenstam left her mark—making history at the 2003 Bank of America Colonial tournament as the only woman to play in a men’s PGA Tour event since 1945 and holding the record for the female golfer with the most wins to her name. Now you see why she was an obvious choice?
14. Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Track and Field)
Though named after another American great—former First Lady Jackie Kennedy—this Jackie is known not for her political affiliations, but for the amazing feats she accomplished as a track and field star. Inspired to pursue athletics after seeing a documentary on Babe Didrikson Zaharias (another great on our list), Sports Illustrated for Women magazine would later rank Joyner-Kersee above Zaharias as the Greatest Female Athlete of All Time. And we can see why, as Joyner-Kersee had a successful track and field and basketball career at UCLA before going on to win three gold, one silver and two bronze Olympic medals in the women’s heptathlon and long jump. And for those of you who don’t know, the heptathlon consists of seven events. Yes, you read that right, seven!
15. Babe Ruth (Baseball)
Long before steroid scandals and performance enhancing drugs tainted the sport of baseball and its resident sluggers, baseball players got by on their raw talent and brute strength. And one player with perhaps the most of these pure attributes was the one and only Babe Ruth. He was a star at the plate, to be sure, being the first player to hit 60 home runs in one season and boasting a .690 career slugging percentage (a current major league record). But even more important than his prowess at bat, Ruth served as America’s first true sports celebrity—elevating the sport of baseball to its current popularity as “America’s favorite pastime” and serving as the gold standard for the best of the best in every sport. To this day, sports fans, commentators and players refer to great players as the “Babe Ruth of ___.” Now that’s a legacy to leave behind.