If one were to expand this list, you could add many more athletes - both male and female - whose sporting achievements left a legacy of accomplishment that sets them apart from their contemporaries.
Let's look at the accomplishments of some of these great athletes
Arguably the most famous athlete ever, Ali was a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion. His colorful personality, outrageous claims, and refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War made him a hero to millions. Of Ali's memorable appearance at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, author George Plimpton wrote
A poster promoting the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in Kinshasa, Zaire that came to be known as "The Rumble In The Jungle" (left) and underdog Ali knocks out Foreman in the 8th round using his now-famous "Rope-a-Dope" boxing strategy to regain his heavyweight title
It was a kind of epiphany that those who watched realized how much they missed him and how much he had contributed to the world of sport. Students of boxing will pore over the trio of Ali-Frazier fights, which rank among the greatest in fistic history, as one might read three acts of a great drama. They would remember the shenanigans, the Ali Shuffle, the Rope-a-Dope, the fact that Ali had brought beauty and grace to the most uncompromising of sports. And they would marvel that through the wonderful excesses of skill and character, he had become the most famous athlete, indeed, the best-known personage in the world.
Widely considered to be the best running back ever in professional football, Brown may well have been the most dominant football player ever. His accomplishments included: 12,312 yards gained in nine seasons, 106 touchdowns, and winning an NFL-record eight rushing titles. He never missed a game in his professional career.
Playing for the Cleveland Browns from 1957-1965, Running Back Jim Brown bulldozed through football defenses en route to a Hall of Fame football career
Brown's memorable professional career led to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971, while the The Sporting News selected him as the greatest football player of all time. Brown also earned a spot in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, Brown being one of the greatest in that sport as well. Brown's football talents at Syracuse garnered him a berth in the College Football Hall of Fame, giving him a rare triple crown of sorts as well as being one of the few athletes to be a Hall of Fame member in more than one sport.
Brown’s claim to the title of greatest running back of all time is supported by statistics. In 118 career games, Brown averaged 104.3 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry. None of the NFL’s career rushing leaders come close to these spectacular totals.
Known as the "The Great One," Gretzky dominated the sport of ice hockey like no one before him - or since. A supremely gifted and graceful player on the ice, Gretzky set scoring and assists standards that will be very difficult to equal or surpass for any player for a very long time.
Wayne Gretzky is considered to be the greatest hockey player of all time. In his brilliant career, he didn't just break previous records in the game. He shattered them
A few of his remarkable career highlights
- He has the record for most career regular season goals (894), assists (1,962), points (2,856), and hat tricks (50). The next closest player in total points is Mark Messier with 1887 points. That is almost a thousand points difference.
- He had dominated the playoffs like he had dominated the regular season. His 47 points in 1985 and his 31 assists in 1988 are still records for a playoff year. He is the career playoff leader in goals (122), assists (260), points (382), hat tricks (10), and game winning goals (24). These playoff numbers appear to be untouchable.
- Bobby Orr is one of the greatest players in NHL history. In Gretzky’s second season, he broke Orr’s record for most assists in one season (102) with 109. Gretzky did not have fewer than 102 assists until the 1991-92 season.
- Considering that only one player (Mario Lemieux) besides Gretzky has ever averaged two points a game in a season, what he did in 1985-86 is truly amazing. He averaged over 2 assists a game that season. He had 163 assists in 80 games and still managed to score 52 goals.
Growing up in Texas in the 1920's during a time when female athletes were afforded few opportunities to compete, she excelled in virtually everything she did in life. Defying female stereotypes of the day, she was a superstar in the pre-television age and became the country's first female golf celebrity in the 1940's. Accomplished in several sports, she won three Olympic medals and 31 LPGA titles, including 10 majors in golf.
Way ahead of her time, Babe Didrikson Zaharias was named by the Associated Press as the Greatest Female Athlete of the first half of the 20th century
The first to prove a girl could be a stud athlete, Babe Didrikson began as a muscular phenom who mastered many sports and ended as a brilliant golfer. An exuberant tomboy whose life was athletics, she was accomplished in just about every sport - basketball, track, golf, baseball, tennis, swimming, diving, boxing, volleyball, handball, bowling, billiards, skating and cycling. When asked if there was anything she didn't play, she said, "Yeah, dolls."
As a teenager she knew her life's ambition. "My goal was to be the greatest athlete who ever lived," she said.
While others dispute her story, Didrikson said that she was nicknamed Babe early in her teens by boys awed at her long-distance homers. As she grew older, there seemed to be more Ty Cobb than Ruth in her, a dark rage that made losing intolerable. Like for Cobb, animosity seemed to be the fuel that stoked Babe's competitive fire.
He was simply one of the most magnetic personalities in sports history. As an NBA guard, Jordan was a ferocious competitor whose will to win was legendary. In a game that traditionally had been dominated by taller men who'd played either forward or center -- which makes his multiple championships all the more remarkable -- he was an incredibly gifted offensive and defensive player. In the 1990's, his world-wide popularity approached that of Ali's though one could question whether he had as much of a social impact upon our culture.
In a game of giants, Michael Jordan -- or "Air Jordan" as he came to be known for his acrobatic moves -- stood as tall as anyone who had ever played professional basketball
His career accomplishments
Six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and five MVP awards, MJ holds records for career scoring average (33.4) and most seasons leading the league in scoring (10). Jordan, who retired after the 1997-98 season, became one of the most popular athletes of the century, and his fame transcended basketball.
He was a living legend and cultural icon during his life. Not only was he the dominant sports personality of his time but in an era of economic hardship and depression, his popularity exceeded even those of presidents. Before he set the record for most home runs ever in baseball history (714), Ruth was a world series winning pitcher - a feat unlikely to be ever achieved again in baseball.
How big was his fame? Consider this
A star pitcher with the Boston Red Sox (left), Ruth was sold to the rival New York Yankees in 1919 in one of the worst trades in sports history and the infamous "Curse of the Bambino" wasn't lifted until the Red Sox won the Baseball World Series again in 2004 -- 86 years later!
Babe Ruth's popularity and fame were so widespread that even America's enemies knew of him. Almost a decade after he had bashed his last home run, his presence still was felt.
During World War II, when Japanese soldiers charged American troops, they would sometimes scream, "To hell with Babe Ruth." Not "to hell with FDR" or "to hell with Douglas MacArthur," but "to hell with Babe Ruth."
What bigger compliment could an American receive?
In my book, Laver is the greatest tennis player ever with Roger Federer a very close second. Laver possesses one of the most remarkable records in sports history and he would have shattered all records in tennis had he not turned professional in 1962 and been barred to compete for five years from 1963-1967. In the prime of his playing career, undoubtedly he would have won many more Grand Slam singles titles during this five year period.
One year after his return in 1968 when the Tennis 'Open' era started, Laver won the Grand Slam again - the only player to have won the Australian, French, U.S. Open, and Wimbledon championships twice in the same year (1962 and 1969).
How good a player was Laver?
Rod Laver in his prime (left) and embracing a worthy successor after Roger Federer broke Pete Sampras' record of 14 career Grand Slam singles titles in 2009
Rod Laver was so scrawny and sickly as a child in the Australian bush that no one could guess he would become a left-handed whirlwind who would conquer the tennis world and be known as possibly the greatest player ever.
Laver's eleven titles currently place him tied for fourth place on the all-time list, along with Bjorn Borg. Only Roger Federer (16), Pete Sampras (14), and Roy Emerson (12) have won more Grand Slam singles titles. Laver also won eight Grand Slam doubles titles. He is the only player (male or female) to have achieved the calendar Grand Slam twice.
How great an athlete was Jackie Joyner-Kersee? An outstanding student at UCLA and an accomplished Olympian, Sports Illustrated magazine voted her the best female athlete of the 20th century, ahead of Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
She overcame a great deal to establish her place in sports history
On the cover of Sports Illustrated (left), Jackie Joyner-Kersee was an exceptional all-around athlete with explosiveness as her main weapon
The early 1960s were considered a modern Camelot, with a vigorous President energizing the country and a beautiful wife standing by his side.
It was into such a feeling of prosperity that a baby girl was born to the Joyner family on the mean streets of East St. Louis, Ill. The baby was named Jacqueline, after President John Kennedy's wife, because, as her grandmother said, "Some day this girl will be the first lady of something."
Jeane Dixon couldn't have made a better prediction. Jackie Joyner did become the first lady of something: Track and Field.
Known as "The Golden Bear," Nicklaus was, until Tiger Woods burst upon the golfing world like a meteor in 1997, the most famous golfer in the world. His rivalry with Arnold Palmer helped to popularize a sport like few had done before him. His record of winning 18 major golf championships still stands with Tiger Woods in second place with 14 titles.
His impressive achievements
Jack Nicklaus being congratulated by Arnold Palmer after winning the 1962 U.S. Open (left) and winning the 1986 Masters Tournament at 46 years old when he was well past his prime
Over the course of his 25-year span (1962–1986) of winning 18 major championships, Nicklaus finished second an astounding 18 times (excludes the second place finish at the 1960 U.S. Open as an amateur). In addition to the 18 runners-up as a professional, Nicklaus placed third four times and fourth one time and in each case was one shot out of a playoff. Nicklaus' total span of 73 top-10 finishes was 39 years (1960–1998) which is a record in total number as well as longevity among the four major championships and encompassed his tenure from an amateur through the majority of his Champions Tour career.
Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pele (as he was known as) was probably the best soccer player ever, winning the World Cup three times (1958, 1962, and 1970) as a member of the Brazilian national team. Raised in a very poor family in Tres Coracos, Brazil, he did perhaps more than any other player to glamorize the world's most popular sport, soccer.
How great was he as a player?
Soccer legend Pele on the cover of Sports Illustrated (left) and controlling the ball with his head during a game
He scored an average of a goal in every international game he played — the equivalent of a baseball player's hitting a home run in every World Series game over 15 years. Between 1956 and 1974, Pelé scored a total of 1,220 goals — not unlike hitting an average of 70 home runs every year for a decade and a half.
Growing up in the Native American nation of Sac and Fox in Oklahoma, Thorpe starred in several sports. Decades before anyone had ever heard of Bo Jackson and multi-sport athletes, Thorpe played professional football, baseball, basketball, and won Olympic gold medals. After several bouts of alcoholism and wandering from job to job, he lived in poverty once his sports career ended during the years of the the Great Depression.
He really could do it all
He was voted The Greatest Athlete of the First Half of the Century by the Associated Press (in 1950) and became a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But Thorpe's legend was galvanized into America's conscience at the 1912 Olympics.
He won the decathlon and pentathlon in Stockholm. When King Gustav V of Sweden congratulated Thorpe, he said, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."
Thorpe reputedly replied, "Thanks, king."
Robinson's place in sports history is firmly secure. Making his debut in 1947 as the first ever African-American baseball player in Major League Baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he endured more humiliation and racism than many of us can ever imagine. Yet, he carried himself with great dignity and paved the way for many who followed in later decades, notably Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.
Robinson entered MLB at age 28 after excelling in several sports in college. Baseball was probably his fourth best sport at UCLA
Jackie Robinson pictured on a Brooklyn Dodgers magazine during his rookie year in 1947 (left) and sliding safely into home plate and history books
Robinson transferred to UCLA, where he became the school's first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track. He was one of four black players on the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team... At a time when only a handful of black players existed in mainstream college football, this made UCLA college football's most integrated team. Belying his future career, baseball was Robinson's "worst sport" at UCLA; he hit .097 in his only season, although in his first game he went 4-for-4 and twice stole home.
At the end of Robinson's rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he had become National League Rookie of the Year with 12 homers, a league-leading 29 steals, and a .297 average. In 1949, he was selected as the NL's Most Valuable player of the Year and also won the batting title with a .342 average that same year. As a result of his great success, Jackie was eventually inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
It's hard to think of another major athlete who did more to advance the cause of equality in sports for women than Billie Jean King. Her brilliance as a tennis champion gave her the moral authority for long-time social activism. Denied many sponsorship opportunities when she was outed as a lesbian, she continued to persevere and, finally, prevailed.
A few of her accomplishments outside the world of tennis
Billie Jean King on the cover of Sports Illustrated (left) and before her 'Battle of the Sexes' with Bobby Riggs, an important event in the 1970's women's movement in which King defeated Riggs
As one of the 20th century's most respected and influential people, Billie Jean King has long been a champion for social change and equality. She created new inroads for both genders in and out of sports during her legendary career and she continues to make her mark today.
- Named one of the "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century" by Life Magazine in 1990.
- Empowered women and educated men when she defeated Bobby Riggs in one of the greatest moments in sports history – the Battle of the Sexes in 1973. This match is remembered for its effect on society and its contribution to the women’s movement.
- In August 2009 King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The award was presented to King by President Obama on Aug. 12, 2009 in ceremonies at The White House.
In one of the most memorable performances in sport history, Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, deflating Adolf Hitler's notion of Germans being the 'superior race'
Jesse Owens on the victory stand at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (left) and an artist's portrait of him
For most athletes, Jesse Owens' performance one spring afternoon in 1935 would be the accomplishment of a lifetime. In 45 minutes, he established three world records and tied another.
But that was merely an appetizer for Owens. In one week in the summer of 1936, on the sacred soil of the Fatherland, the master athlete humiliated the master race.
A personal story. As a teenager, I once met Jesse Owens and I remember him as a very decent, soft-spoken person who was full of stories about his athletic past. One that made a terrific impression on me was Jesse reminiscing about his return from the 1936 Berlin Olympics on a train ride from New York to Ohio - one which stopped at all the small towns en route to his home in Ohio. He recalled the train stopping late into the night at a small town in Central Pennsylvania. After the usual speeches and 'meet 'n greet' with local politicians, Jesse and his wife reboarded the train and just as it was leaving the platform, a young, well-dressed white boy came running after them through the crowd and thrust a small brown paper bag in his hand. Jesse said he didn't think much of it and put the paper bag along with the dozens of other presents they were showered with. Upon his return home, he opened all the presents and in the bag was an envelope containing $10,000! Remember, this was at the height of the Great Depression in the mid-1930's. My lingering memory of this encounter was of a man who reeked of integrity and character and, given the segregated past he had to overcome in his native Alabama, with not a bitter bone in his body.
The diary poll is not one where you are asked to choose the best athlete ever. It is virtually impossible to do so across sports that are very different from each other and require different skills. Nor does the poll list all of the great athletes in several other sports. Rather, it asks you as to who your favorite athlete was from among the ones listed. Perhaps, you've met a few of them or seen them compete at some point in your life. If so, I'd definitely want to hear of your experiences or impressions of them.
I could have as easily included many others in the poll. This incomplete list includes Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Magic Johnson (basketball); Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Ted Williams (baseball); Walter Payton, Joe Montana, and Johnny Unitas (football); Maurice Richard, Mario Lemieux, and Bobby Hull (hockey); Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson (boxing); Don Bradman (cricket); Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras, Margaret Court, and Bjorn Borg (tennis); Lance Armstrong (cycling); Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps (swimming); Carl Lewis and Bob Beamon (Track and Field); Diego Maradona, Franz Beckenbauer, and Cristiano Ronaldo (soccer); Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, and Olga Korbut (gymnastics); and others from sports not included above.
See this list for more names of the Top North American Athletes of the Century and The 20th Century Awards by Sports Illustrated (scroll down for additional names in various sports).
Crossposted at Docudharma
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