It’s no easy task choosing the greatest male athletes of all time. There are so many incredible athletes who have dominated a range of sports, and could be considered to be the greatest of all time. As such, there will always be a host of athletes that sports fans will feel have been unjustly left off a list. However, despite the potential minefields, we thought we’d still take a shot at it.
Here is our pick of the 10 greatest male athletes of all time, based on these characteristics:
- Their dominance of the sport they played in (statistically speaking)
- Their level of fame and renown
- Contribution they made to shaping their sport, and raising its profile
- Impact in terms of increasing spectator interest in their sport
- The style and aesthetic qualities they infused in their sport
- They must be considered an icon
Even though ice-hockey is not considered to be a major sport in most countries, not many sport lovers would contend that Canadian Wayne Gretzky is one of the greatest male athletes of all time. During his 20 year professional career in the North American National Hockey League (NHL), he dominated the NHL like no other player had done before or since. In fact, he was so good that his nickname is “The Great One”. His numerous records include being the top scorer in NHL history, with more goals scored and more goal assists than any other player (he actually scored more assists than the total points of any other player). When he retired in 1999, he held an incredible 61 NHL records, and as of 2014, still holds 60 NHL records.
The nature of cricket has changed drastically over the years, and there is often debate and conjecture amongst cricket writers and fans about which players can be considered the best of all time. However, there is always universal agreement that Australia’s Donald Bradman was the greatest batsmen of all time. Usually, the standard marker for a test batsmen is if he can average 50 at the end of his test career- those batsmen who do so are considered to be one of the “greats”. During his test career from 1928 to 1948, Bradman managed to average an incredible 99.94. This achievement is particularly remarkable when you consider that the next best test average (amongst batsmen who have played a minimum of 20 test matches) is Graeme Pollock, who averaged 60.97. It’s no wonder then that Bradman’s career has often been cited as the greatest achievement by any sportsman in any major sport.
Football is generally considered to be a team sport where individual achievement is not lauded as much as team success. There are certain individuals in the sport though who stand head and shoulders above the rest, and the Brazilian football legend Pele is a perfect example of this. Pele is not only regarded as the greatest football player of all time, but also as having made the phrase “the beautiful game” synonymous with football. His statistics speak for themselves: the Guinness World Records listed rated him as having scored the most career goals scored in football, including being the most successful league goal scorer in the world (541 league goals) and scoring a total of 1281 goals in 1363 games (including tour games and unofficial friendlies). He also won an unprecedented 3 FIFA World Cups (1958, 1962, and 1970). Beyond these bare stats though, he brought incredible style and flair to football, and his famous and innovative “bicycle kick” is arguably one of his most famous legacies.
While some may consider Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Emil Zatopek to be some the greatest runners of all time, there is no doubt that Jamaica’s Usain Bolt is the fastest man of all time. Bolt is the current holder of both the 100 and 200 metre world records, and also became the first man to achieve the “double double” by winning the 200 metre and 10o metre races at consecutive Olympics. He was also the first man to break the 10 second barrier for indoor running when he ran an indoor 100 metre race in only 9.98 seconds. Bolt isn’t exaggerating when he makes his iconic “lightning bolt” gesture after every race he wins – he really is lightning quick.
German racing driver Michael Schumacher is generally considered to be one of the greatest Formula 1 (F1) drivers of all time, based purely on his unmatched career record. He holds numerous F1 driver records, including the most championships race victories and pole positions, fastest laps and most races won in a single season. He was also named the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year on 2 occasions. Tragically, the life of the fastest man on 2 wheels was forever changed when suffered a serious head injury and a resultant traumatic brain injury while skiing in 2013.
Woods achieved in golf what most mere mortals could only dream of, and most golf critics consider him to be one of the greatest golfers of all time, if not the greatest. He has broken several golf records, including being World Number One for the greatest total number of weeks of any golfer and for the most consecutive weeks. His 14 professional major golf championship wins and 79 PGA Tour event wins are only second behind Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead respectively, and he has more career PGA Tour wins and career major wins than any other current, active golfer. While he is only second in Major and PGA tour wins, Woods has arguably had the greatest impact of any other golfer on the sport, having encouraged a whole new generation of players to take up the game, and having broken barriers by being the first non-white golfer to achieve such success. Both his image and career have never quite recovered from an infidelity scandal that came to public light in 2009, but Woods’ legacy in golf remains intact.
Federer’s considerable accomplishments in professional tennis have rightly placed him in the upper echelons of the sport, and resulted in him being regarded by many as the greatest tennis player of all time. While some great players like Rafael Nadal and Andre Agassi are not particularly aesthetically pleasing to watch on the court, style and winning seems to come easily to Federer and he displays a grace, athleticism and ease of movement on the court that is seemingly unmatched. His tennis prowess has netted him numerous records: most grand slam titles (17), most weeks at the world No.1 position (302, including 237 consecutive weeks) and one of only 7 male players to capture a career grand slam. Novak Djokovic may be rapidly challenging Federer’s crown, but for now, Federer’s legacy as the best tennis player of all time remains unchallenged.
He may have been born Cassius Clay , but most people around the world will know him better as Muhammad Ali. Others will simply recognise him as “The Greatest”. There is some consternation in boxing circles as to whether Ali really is the greatest boxer of all time, but no one would quibble that
Ali has had the greatest impact on the sport and left the greatest legacy. He had a pretty impressive record in the ring, and he remains the only three-time lineal world heavyweight champion, as he won the title in 1964, 1974, and 1978, and he was the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion between February 25, 1964 and September 19, 1964. He was also crowned “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC and “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated.
Ali’s greatest achievements arguably occurred outside of the ring though; his magnetic personality, provocative and poetic language and struggle against injustice and racism inspired so many people, and encouraged his fellow African-American citizens to have a positive self-image and to stand up and fight for their rights during the civil rights era.
Michael Jordan is probably the most famous male athlete and one of the most recognizable global icons of the last 20 years, despite the fact that basketball pales in global popularity compared to a sport like football. His global profile can be attributed to the sheer dominance and personality that Jordan imposed on basketball, and the subsequent profile he gained through worldwide endorsements with brand kings such as Nike.
Jordan’s career record may never be matched by any other basketball player: during his 50 seasons playing in the US-based National Basketball Association (NBA), he won 6 NBA titles (with the Chicago Bulls), 6 NBA Finals MVP trophies, played in 14 NBA All-Star Games, was elected the NBA’s regular season MVP on 5 occasions, and won 2 Olympic gold medals with Team USA. Most importantly, Jordan popularised the NBA around the world, and helped it to attain the widespread global status that it enjoys today.
George Herman Ruth Jr. better known as “Babe” Ruth or “The Bambino” is widely regarded as one of the greatest sporting heroes in American culture, and as one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Ruth’s dominance of baseball surpasses the sport itself and resulted in him becoming arguably the first true superstar and icon in the history of any sport. Despite his portly figure, Ruth established many Major League Baseball (MLB) record, including career home runs (714), runs batted in (RBIs) (2,213), slugging percentage (.690) , on-base plus slugging (OPS) (1.164 and bases on balls (2,062) (the latter 2 records still stand today)
Beyond his achievements on the field, Ruth was a larger-than-life character due to his legendary power and charismatic personality, and his massive impact on baseball resulted in him being ranked number 1 in 1998 on the list of Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players by The Sporting News and being named by the Associated Press the greatest North American athlete of the 20th century, on their list of the 100 greatest athletes of the century.
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