100 Greatest Sports Stars EverA deliberately insane undertaking, conceived to generate opinion, sales, web traffic and whatnot. The more you think about the idea of ranking the top sportspeople, across all disciplines and all time, the more bonkers it becomes. But it did make a lot of people very agitated, both in the office and outside, as people defended their pet sports. I did the compiling and most of the writing, with the help of Alpha senior writer Anthony Sharwood. See if you can spot who wrote what. Another game is to accept that, yes, it was compiled with an Australian bias, but see how many Aussies you can honestly take out: surprisingly few. One more thing: this was done in 2009, so things in sport have moved on fast. See Woods, Tiger…
The Alpha team had a lot of fun putting this list together. But we added a bit of science in there, too. Considering the merits of every sports star in the history of the world gets more daunting the more you think about it, so we had to set some rules. To make this uber-list, you couldn’t simply be great; you had to be even better than that. A star’s “score” is affected by how dominant they were, over how long. How many medals they won, and how big the sport is globally. There are “softer” categories, such as charisma, and how much impact they had on their sport (thank you, Ivan Lendl, and goodnight). The brightest and best on this list are known and loved by people who don’t even follow sport that much. By default, we picked no one in action before 1900: if anyone wants to suggest a couple of ancient Greek wrestlers, go ahead, but properly organised sport on a wide scale is a modern luxury. The other rule we set was “no animals, no pastimes”, so don’t go writing in about Phar Lap, or Phil “The Power” Taylor. But, please, do tell us we got it wrong. Just remember those rules…
- Muhammad Ali
Now that Ali’s legend gets polished more with every year, it’s easy to forget how ill-prepared the general public and media were for such a hyperactive, hypertalented smart-mouth. His wild behaviour in 1964 before the first heavyweight title fight with Sonny Liston was greeted with bemusement; the 1965 rematch took place in front of a scattering of people in Lewiston, Maine, of all places. Six years later, his comeback fight against Joe Frazier (“The Fight of the Century”) at Madison Square Garden, was one of the hottest tickets for any sporting occasion in history.
In the intervening years, the heavyweight champion of the world became one of the most loved and loathed people in America: the change in his name and religion, banishment from the sport and near-imprisonment charted alongside battles for racial equality and the Vietnam War. After 1971 came the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manila and other epics, as Ali broadened his global fame and extended his career deep into legend.
At his peak, Ali was a spectacularly effective fighter: fit as a flea and beautifully proportioned, he could move as fast as a lightweight and make up tactics on the spot, off a base of carefully honed skills and ringcraft. As he aged, he adapted his strategies ingeniously and proved, perhaps too often, how well he could take punishment, and how much he could tolerate pain. From Liston to Frazier and George Foreman, Muhammad Ali operated in the best era of the big men and emerged on top of the pile, several times over.
Ali may or may not be “The Greatest”, but then “sportsman” is inadequate to describe a man who helped change cultural attitudes, as well as his own sport. He was certainly sport’s first and greatest trash-talker; the first to truly take advantage of television’s mass-reach; and in terms of sheer impact, popularity and entertainment value worldwide remained untouched until Michael Jordan. As a historic figure, no sports star even comes close.
- Don Bradman
The Don. The King. The greatest cricketer of them all and arguably the greatest Australian, too. Mathematicians have dissected his famous 99.94 average and proven that no sportsman anywhere in the world has ever been statistically so far ahead of the pack. Analysts have pored over that ancient grainy footage and marvelled at a cover drive so pure you could drink it. But what the drooling geeks and boffins think doesn’t matter. What matters is what the man in the street thinks, and to him, the Don was the man who lifted a nation. War intervened, and he returned aged almost 40 to lift a nation again. How many sportsmen have songs written for them? How many have a museum dedicated to them? And how many sportsmen are their country’s best known individual on the global stage from all walks of life, past or present? The Don is as Australian as Uluru, and he was just as hard to remove. He passed 200 a whopping 12 times in Test cricket, scored 100 or more 29 times in his 80 Test innings, and 117 times in just 338 first-class knocks. Few batsman pass 50 every third innings, let alone the magic 100 mark, but there we go talking statistics again. Surprisingly, the Don has knockers, which is proof that people will argue about anything. The most common criticism is that he faced just four nations in Test combat. To them, we blow one gigantic raspberry and ask: how many nations did baseball legend Babe Ruth face?
- Michael Jordan
The prototype of the modern sportsman. Tiger Woods and Jordan are difficult to separate because they’re such similar creatures, both sporting and corporate, but Jordan did it all first. Here was the man who turned basketball into the world’s street game. Whose influence and fame reached so far into the darkest corners of the world that kids stopped playing their native sports and took up hoops, with a Jordan poster on the wall. Here was a man who became the shoe that made the company that turned Jordan into a man rich beyond sport’s previous levels of imagination. And the reason this happened? The genius and insane competitiveness to become a player so good he seemed to deny physics, to wring gasps of awe from anyone who saw him. And to take a whole franchise on his back and win and win and win.
- Tiger Woods
If Woods retired tomorrow, with fewer Majors and fewer overall wins than Jack Nicklaus, he’d still be the greatest golfer that ever lived. His 14 Majors and 68 PGA Tour wins don’t match Nicklaus’ 18 and 73 (yet), but it’s the way he’s racked them up that’s impressive. Woods makes shots he has to make. Time and time again, when other players would be happy with a nice pay cheque of several hundred thousand, Woods says, “Nope, I want wins, not money. I want to entertain. I want you to remember that golf is a sport, a dynamic and even occasionally thrilling event, not a picnic for men who dress like bankers. And I’ll take the several hundred million if I really have to.”
- Diego Maradona
Maradona played football out of a dream, a child’s fantasy of how football really should be played if only everyone knew how. To the pint-sized Argentine, the ball was a best friend: his close control was uncanny and no one has ever carried the ball upfield as fast as he did. It never seemed to matter if there were opponents in the way or not – he simply went through them without slowing. His first goal against England at the 1986 World Cup is still rated the greatest ever and is the perfect example of his skills: twisting and turning seasoned internationals with barely a hint of effort, accelerating away and sliding the ball perfectly into the net. Easy. Except it’s impossible. Maradona won one World Cup but should have won more. He made Napoli something good. But whatever the baggage and debris that comes with being Diego Maradona, it has always been difficult to take your eyes off him.
- Rod Laver
Whiplash placements on the run; viciously sliced volleys, half-volleys transformed on the instant into dying drop shots, beaten but admiring opponents… Roger Federer? No, Laver, the first true artist of the court, who tried everything his imagination could conjure, and pulled most of it off. Straddling the amateur and professional eras, the length and success of Laver’s career is simply amazing: he won the grand slam twice – seven years apart and was world No.1 for most of the 1960s, winning at will on every surface available, and garnering 11 Majors. He would have won even more, but going professional derailed his record for five whole years.
It’s difficult to really grasp the scope of Pele’s achievements. Years of sitting on committees and starring in Viagra ads have partly obscured the passionate Brazilian who scored four times in every five games for his country, netted 1281 goals over a 20-year career and won the World Cup three times. Fair enough, there are the medals. But those who were there remember the breathtaking style and intelligence of his play, the athletic improvisation: playing in teams packed with fabulous talent (including 1970’s Brazil, possibly football’s greatest ever), he has been described as the conductor that made them play beautiful music. It was an unstruck match between he and Maradona, so we split them with a redhead.
- Roger Federer
After this year’s Wimbledon, the world was near unanimous that Federer was the best tennis player ever, full stop. That he’s the best we’ve seen in the television era is beyond doubt. Take the Sampras serve, the Agassi baseline shots and throw in the craft of a McEnroe and you start to build yourself a Fed Express. But for all his mastery, which he continues to achieve without ever appearing to sweat half as hard as his opponents, we still rate Laver a racquet’s string ahead of him. Geez, though, if we could get any two players from different eras head-to-head, we know who to pick.
- Carl Lewis
Larger than life and in full Technicolor, Carl Lewis epitomised the happy, brash attitude of the modern professional era of athletics in the 1980s. A dominant figure in sprinting for a decade, Lewis’s defining time was the ’84 LA Olympics, where he won everything he entered: 100m, 200m, relay and long jump, the first to do it since his hero Jesse Owens. The long jump was often seen as his bonus event, but he was equally dominant in the field, and his ’84 indoor world record still stands. But for all the world records, Olympic gold and World Championship gold, it’s the sight of his rangy, sinewy figure streaking irresistibly down a 100m track that will forever be remembered.
- Lance Armstrong
There’s a bell curve at work in sport. If you’re kinda good, then few people will waste their breath arguing about your status. But if you’re an absolute bloody legend who has raised the bar to an almost incomprehensible level, then look out: you are going to split the sporting community in half like a coconut. That’s pretty much the story of the Texan who turned the Tour de France into the Tour De Lance with seven straight wins from 1999-2005. The French reckon he took drugs. We reckon they’re a bunch of arrogant you-know-whats who eat stinking snails and frogs’ legs.
- Michael Phelps
Phelps owns 14 Olympic gold medals, more than any Olympian, and after London, may have more golds than fingers or toes. Like any true champion, Phelps doesn’t just win, but wins when it looks impossible. As evidence, we submit his miracle performance in the 100m fly in Beijing, when he came from nowhere to win by a coat of nail polish.
- Ayrton Senna
The shocking death of Senna at San Marino in 1994 brought to an abrupt halt a career of huge success, genius and controversy. Such was the Brazilian’s brilliance and will to win, he often made his nearest rival, multiple world champion Alain Prost, look a trundler in comparison. He was as much renowned for his scorching fast laps and mastery of the wet, as his charisma. The three-time world champ’s absence is still keenly felt.
- Emil Zatopek
The acme of the modern distance runner was Czech Zatopek, whose dominance and popularity was such that entire crowds would chant his name. His grimacing, head-rolling running style became famous, never more so than the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where he topped off the 5000 and 10,000m golds with his first marathon a couple of days later – and won. Zatopek was unbeaten at 10,000m between 1948-54 and broke 18 world records.
- Jack Nicklaus
Before there was Tiger, there was Jack. The American won 18 Majors and was runner-up a further 19 times. Nicklaus owned golf, which wasn’t easy to do in the era of Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Many say it’s a measure of Nicklaus’ greatness that he overcame such worthy foes, although to be fair to Woods, he’s so good it’s quite possible no contemporary is worthy. On all the all-time stakes, however, it’s these two practically neck and neck.
- Sugar Ray Robinson
A true Bronx hero from the era before Ali, the first Sugar Ray was an even better boxer. Robinson’s amalgam of stamina, speed, resilience, balance, versatility, savvy, rhythm and power kept him at the top of the welterweight and middleweight divisions throughout the 1940s and ’50s, in an especially strong era, during a 26-year career. Also known for his nightclubbing ways and succession of cool cars, he was a post-war tonic for the depressed United States.
- Babe Ruth
If any man is the embodiment of his sport, it’s the Babe. A giant bear of a man, Ruth played from 1914-35, was a legendary right-fielder for the NY Yankees, decent pitcher, and, most vitally, colossal bat: his record of 714 homers stood nearly 40 years. His personality was equally enormous, taking in all the rabble-rousing, drinking, sex and gambling he could manage. Which was a lot.
- Billie-Jean King
Every shrieking tennis brat should tip her hat once a day to Billie-Jean King, for without her, they would be nowhere. King’s 12 singles and 16 doubles Majors in the 1960s and ’70s scarcely tell the whole story. She was an agitator when tennis was run by men for men, founding the WTA and battling to get her and her colleagues taken seriously. King’s ’73 Battle of the Sexes against former world No.1 Bobby Riggs was watched by 50 million worldwide. She won.
- Shane Warne
Murali could take 1000 wickets but still fail to worm his way onto this list. That’s because a great team sportsman should be judged on his charisma, on the spell he held over certain key rivals, and above all, on the degree to which he propelled his team to greatness. On those scores, Warne is hands down the greatest bowler of all time, and a true global giant.
- Jesse Owens
Owens’ career may have been mangled by the usual brew of prejudice and bureaucracy (he finished up racing against horses), but his name echoes down the ages as a once-in-a- generation sprinter, who posted times still respectable today. His four golds in front of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics had significance far beyond sport.
- Alfredo di Stefano
The Pele-Maradona argument may rage forever, but to those who saw him, the Blond Arrow is the greatest all-round footballer, and certainly one of the most influential. Seemingly everywhere on the field, he was goal-scorer, playmaker and leader all in one. During a very long and wildly successful career, the Argentine won five European Cups in a row with Real Madrid during the 1950s, helping European football become the powerhouse it now is. He never played in a World Cup, though.
- Eddy Merckx
His nickname “The Cannibal” reflected not just the Belgian’s appetite for victory, but the fear he put into rivals for more than a decade. Unlike Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong, Merckx had no specific tastes, but entered everything to win it, from le Tour, to the harrowing Paris-Roubaix and the Giro D’Italia. Hills, sprints, nothing seemed to faze him. He retired in 1978, his haul unlikely ever to be beaten.
- Paavo Nurmi
There have been many flying Finns, but Nurmi was the best of them. The great distance-man took part in three Olympic Games from 1920-28, winning nine gold and three silver medals. He trained professionally, obsessively and alone, and carried a stopwatch even in races because if he ran to schedule, he knew no one could beat him. By 1924, he also held the world record at the mile, 5000m and 10,000m, something no one else has managed.
- Jim Thorpe
The greatest and most versatile athlete of the 20th century’s first half. Born in 1887, school gave the half American Indian the chance to play sport, so he did: all of them. Track, field or gridiron, he excelled, winning the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics with astounding scores. Banned from athletics for taking baseball money, Thorpe simply took up pro baseball for a living. And gridiron. His name is still a byword for all-round sporting brilliance.
- Bjorn Borg
If only Borg had bothered to fly more than once to Australia, who knows how many Majors he’d have won? When he quit, at just 26, he’d won 11, completing a career of such ludicrous dominance it was hard to believe he’d gone. The two-handed hippie cyborg ruled France and Wimbledon, as well as competing in four US Open finals. Severe training, willpower and talent kept him totally dominant until McEnroe finally shattered him at the US Open in 1981.
- Jim Brown
Perhaps the last and best from an era when being a prominent member of the black community meant deeds as well as words, Brown’s program still helps poor kids caught up in gang life. None of this would mean as much without his stellar gridiron career with the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s and ’60s, during which he set records for rushing, touchdowns and overall yardage and was regularly voted the best ever to play the game.
- Michael Schumacher
Look up the word “most” in your handy sporting dictionary and you’d find a pic of Schumacher. Most world championships, most wins, most podiums, most points… The German was a stats machine, who took Ferrari’s cars, technical director Ross Brawn’s expertise and his own talent and utter determination, and turned F1 into a procession for a decade.
- Pete Sampras
He may have been “nice-guy Pete” to you and me, but Sampras was a brutal competitor, who once admitted wanting to “kill” opponents. Those on the other side of the net faced an impossibly good serve, outrageous athleticism and brilliant all-court play. He took one look at the era of Becker, Edberg and Courier and hauled the game forward, hoovering up 14 grand slam titles in the process.
- Mick Doohan
Dominating the 500cc Grand Prix grids throughout the 1990s, Doohan would eventually be beaten by only one thing – injury. During his accumulation of five consecutive World Championships (’94-98) Doohan had his opposition mentally beaten before the lights went green on race day. His mastery in the saddle regularly saw him build an unassailable lead, with the battle for second often out of picture.
- Mike Tyson
For three or four years, until life outside boxing conspired to pull him under, Tyson really was the most frightening athlete on the planet. Although not a big heavyweight, Tyson was intimidating and bull-strong, and possessed skill and speed opponents simply couldn’t tolerate. When it all came together he was possibly the best heavyweight in history, but it couldn’t last.
- Jerry Rice
If Jordan is “the greatest who will ever be”, Rice is similarly unlikely to be bettered as gridiron’s premier wide receiver. At one stage his nickname was “World” because there was no ball in the world he couldn’t catch. The San Francisco 49er finished with 1549 receptions, 22,895 receiving yards and 197 touchdown receptions, all records and by a very long way. Three Super Bowl wins are a fitting legacy.
- Martina Navratilova
The original Martina was once made to drive from Sydney to Melbourne by an airline that wouldn’t let her take her pooch on board. This incident does not in any way detract from the winningest record in male or female tennis history, which includes 18 singles slams and 31 doubles and mixed doubles slams. As Jim Courier would say, “Oh, that is absurd.”
- Colin Meads
If anyone symbolises the skill and indestructible nature of the best of rugby union, it’s Meads. The iconic Kiwi lock was a formidable menace, either charging up the field with the ball under one arm, or in his role as the enforcer against some of the toughest men in sport. Massively strong and resistant to pain, he is regarded as the best All Black ever, which, practically speaking, means the best of all.
- Valentino Rossi
Be it winning a championship in every class – 125cc, 250cc, 500cc and MotoGP, claiming back-to-back championships with different manufacturers or amassing 100 Grand Prix victories for seven World Championships, no other rider in modern racing has achieved so much. Whether Rossi is remembered for his stats or his comic post-victory antics, no one, not even his greatest rivals, can deny his magic.
- Kelly Slater
Judging the multi-multi world champ by statistics is very unsurfing. What is very surfing, is the way Slater has won so very much, become a pop culture idol, yet remained cool and grounded. Amazingly consistent and very competitive despite the image, Slater’s style took in everything from skater tricks to big air and his influence on today’s World Tour is massive.
- Bobby Jones
The one man who owns the actual and only record for golf’s calendar grand slam is Bobby Jones. As he competed in his slam-completing 1930 US Amateur, it’s said every American over 30 was either glued to a radio set, or one of the 20 thousand people following him around the course. His record is astonishing: in 11 straight US Opens, he won four, was second in four and tied fifth, eighth and 11th. He won 13 Majors, retired at 28, and was instrumental in developing the US Masters.
- Nadia Comaneci
Was it not the Violent Femmes who said “10, 10, 10, 10 for everything, everything, everything, everything”? There was nothing violent about Romanian super gymnast Comaneci, whose three gold medals and unprecedented string of perfect 10s made her the darling of the ’76 Montreal Olympics at 14, and still the only gymnast most of us can name.
- Haile Gebrselassie
For a bloke with asthma, the smiling man from Ethiopia did just fine. Even during the past two decades of African dominance of distance running, Gebrselassie stands out, with his bouncy running style, and habit of winning races by huge margins while shattering practically every world record (26) in sight. His massive medal haul includes two Olympic 10,000m golds. Sensing a physical decline, he took up the marathon – and broke the world record, twice.
- Ty Cobb
If statistics ruled the world (and in baseball, they nearly do), Cobb would be sitting on a throne. His career batting average is a Bradmanesque .367 and he held most of the other batting records while he played. Baseball was a shallow, white sport during his career (1905-28), but the “Georgia Peach” (actually rather a miserable, viciously competitive bugger) dominated it.
- Joe Louis
Back when boxing was the sport for immigrants and the poor to get along, Joe Louis was its king. “The Brown Bomber” held the heavyweight title longer than anyone else (1937-49), and as a quiet, well-mannered black man, was an acceptable Depression and wartime hero for all America, while helping elevate boxing into mainstream respectability. He was some boxer, too, and a devastating puncher, rated one of the top five heavyweights ever.
- Leigh Matthews
Why was Matthews named AFL Player of the Century? Not because the 178cm nugget who broke a behind post and Neville Bruns’ jaw was soft, that’s for sure. And it was more than toughness that made the Hawthorn 332-gamer so good. Whether playing up front or in the midfield, when the ball went to Matthews, he made things happen. Brutality plus ruthless effectiveness is a dynamite combo in any sport.
- Garfield Sobers
In raw statistics, the West Indian all-rounder’s tally of 8032 runs and 235 wickets has been comfortably bettered by South African Jacques Kallis (10,277 and 258), yet stats don’t come close to describing Sobers’ dashing batting and unbelievably versatile bowling, which ranged from seam to two types of spin. Just how exactly do you quantify having your breath taken away by brilliance?
- Michael Johnson
When Usain Bolt flung himself over the 200m line in Beijing, he (just) broke one of the two great track world records then standing, both belonging to Johnson. For most of the 1990s, the Texan bossed 200m and 400m running with his unusual upright action, often covering the last 75m at a trot he was so far ahead. He had no human rival, and on the days he finally gave everything for the whole race, records were destroyed.
- Mark Spitz
Before Michael Phelps, the Yank with the very 1970s ’tache was unchallenged as the greatest swimmer. They said no one would ever beat his seven gold medals at the ’72 Munich Olympics, but then, in a world where we happily sit in front of the telly watching bogan losers do nothing in a house all day, who’s surprised at anything anymore? A member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, Spitz quit swimming after Munich, aged 22.
- Johan Cruyff
The joy and pain of Dutch football for 40 years, Cruyff’s tactical nous and eccentric, sometimes arrogant methods have helped shape the way football is now. But what a player: not just fast and very fit (despite the endless cigarettes), but an on-pitch visionary of the 1970s and possessor of a revolutionary bag of tricks. He was three-time European footballer of the year and the greatest Barcelona legend, but a World Cup eluded him.
- Viv Richards
The Master Blaster is one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the century, but hey, mon, forget what some crusty old English book says. Let’s pump up da Marley and talk about da most gifted individual who ever lifted a bat. So brutal, so sublime, such sweet timing, and all of it without a helmet. Richards was the man every woman wanted to wed and every kid wanted to be.
- David Campese
There are still some dribbling old fools who reckon Campo was a hoax because he coughed up some ball and missed a tackle from time to time. But 64 tries in 101 Tests, plus a 1991 World Cup campaign where his brilliance was the difference between victory and oblivion was just one episode in a career full of dazzle. Some guys are method actors. Others throw away the script and enthral with pure improvisation.
- Steve Redgrave
Was any man in sport ever so doggedly determined, driven and uncaring of his own body’s pain as Redgrave? The Brit’s rowing career stretches across five different Olympics, from LA to Sydney; he won gold at all of them. Redgrave allied his huge physical gifts to a training schedule that left others in the dust, and even when serious illness struck, he still won; the illness lost.
- Wayne Gretzky
You could say this Canadian is the Pele of ice hockey, except that some people, including us, reckon Maradona was better than Pele, and no serious pundit would ever dare argue that Gretzky had an equal. Four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, and nine NHL MVPs are merely the key points of a resume as glittering as the ice he played on.
- Hicham El Guerrouj
At Athens in 2004, when El Guerrouj finally won the Olympic 1500m gold medal his talents and record richly deserved, the world celebrated with him. Four days later, he won 5000m gold. From the mid-1990s on, the popular Moroccan was the king of middle-distance events, and still holds the world records for the 1500m, 2000m and the mile. He also collected a big swag of world championship golds.
To many Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better known as Zico, remains the archetypal Brazilian footballer. A samba package of flair and skill, “the white Pele” was a first-class dribbler and blinding finisher, scoring 52 goals in his 72 internationals. But it’s his long-range scoring, especially his free-kicks, for which he’s best remembered, perplexing ’keepers with the ability to bend the ball in mid-air.
- Herb Elliott
A meteor. Elliott’s middle-distance career had barely begun before it was over, but the Aussie had achieved everything he wanted. In 1958 he broke the mile’s four-minute barrier 10 times, then slaughtered the field at the ’60 Olympics, winning the 1500m in world record time. Magnificently undefeated at both the mile and 1500m, and holding both world records, Elliot went to find something else to do.
- Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Voted by Sports Illustrated as the best female athlete of the 20th century, Joyner-Kersee was an American heptathlete and long jumper who dominated the Seoul 1988 and Barcelona ’92 Olympics. Miles ahead of her rivals, remarkably, she still holds the world record by a considerable margin, and is second all-time in long jump.
- Juan Manuel Fangio
In motor sport, the name Fangio is code for genius. The little Argentine won five F1 world crowns in the 1950s at a rate of one race win in two, during an era where the danger was extreme and sheer skill was far more important than cars and engines. Fangio could master a circuit within a couple of laps, drive any vehicle to its edge and beyond and was truly peerless during his relatively short career.
- Joe Frazier
A tough, tough man, the dour, no-fuss personality of “Smokin’ Joe” contrasted poorly with rival Muhammad Ali’s crackerjack antics, but in the ring, Frazier was scarcely second best to anyone. Parodied as a plodding brawler, he was really a clever ducker and diver with a howitzer left hook, who never took a backward step. An Olympic gold medallist and heavyweight champ in a very strong era, his three epics with Ali immortalise him.
- Miguel Indurain
When “Big Mig” fell ill and faded away during his 1996 attempt at a sixth consecutive Tour de France crown, there was general disbelief. For so long, the Spaniard had physically and mentally imposed himself on cycling, with his freakishly gigantic lung-capacity and endless, almost robotic composure. He was, at his best, a time-trial specialist and won the world and Olympic titles to go with his Tour record.
- Joe Montana
With the surname of an American state and an even larger imprint on American football, Montana is the quarterback you’d throw the ball to if you had to destroy the Death Star with one shot. Montana won all the big awards and four Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers, but it was his ability to make clutch plays on demand that elevated “Joe Cool” above the mortals.
- Wilt Chamberlain
The best of the big men. Seven-footer “Wilt the Stilt” once shot a 100-point game, and went through the young NBA like he claimed to go through women (20,000, allegedly). In scoring and rebounding, he was utterly dominant, breaking several records and forcing teams to double- and triple-team him, sometimes illegally. Chamberlain won two NBA titles, and should have won more; never mind: to many followers, he, not Jordan, is still the greatest.
- Edwin Moses
With his own, jerry-built hurdling style, long legs, near-lethal training schedule and fabulous talent, Moses owned the 400m hurdles for a long, long time. Between 1977 and ’87, the man from Ohio was a constant, winning 122 consecutive races, two Olympics and two World golds, setting four world records and raising high the profile of this lung-busting, technical event on his own.
- Wayne Carey
One of the jokes we never tire of at Alpha HQ is how the AFL champ’s name sounds if you leave off the “y” at the end. Despite his numerous dodgy off-field antics, Carey is easily the greatest AFL player most of us have seen. His combination of sublime skills and sheer physical presence have been seen in precious few team sports in the world in any era.
- Daley Thompson
Hyperactive kid and outsider, Thompson channelled his energies and breathtaking talents to become one of the most brilliant all-round athletes. The decathlete’s world records and multiple European, world and Olympic medals tell only half the story of this charismatic performer. His duels with arch-rival Jurgen Hingsen lit up many major meets of the 1980s and the event has rarely received such prominence before or after.
- Wally Lewis
Rugby league is played seriously in England, Australia and a smattering of minor Pacific nations like New Zealand. Despite the sport’s limited global impact, one man demands inclusion on this list because he towers above his contemporaries like no other. Some called him “Emperor”, others “King”, but he’s Wally to his mates and his genius can be summarised in three words: State-of-Origin.
- Jahangir Khan
The winning streak of squash great Khan is one of the standards in sport. Between 1981 and ’86, the Pakistani won 555 matches in a row, and harvested the British Open 10 times and the World Open six times in a formidable career. It reflected a ridiculous talent, together with the kind of training regimen few bodies can withstand. His rivalry with the younger Jansher Khan was equally magnificent.
- Mickey Mantle
If ever one man was the spirit of his team, it’s “The Mick” and the New York Yankees. A famously powerful switch-hitter and dazzlingly fast outfielder, Mantle’s 536 homers at .298 helped bring the Yankees seven World Series during his 18 years there and a slew of records for Mantle himself. His massive homers included one that exited Tiger Stadium in Detroit and came to a stop a reputed 200m from the slugger.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
Any man who has ever admired themselves in a gym mirror has a strand of Arnie’s DNA in them. The film star and Governor of California never forgot the bodybuilding that made him, continuing to push its benefits, and turning it from a mildly embarrassing niche activity to an integral part of nearly every sports training on the planet. For that, even Jingle All the Way is forgiven.
- Rafael Nadal
For better or worse, Nadal is the incarnation of the modern tennis player. Taking full advantage of modern, lightweight equipment including large racquet heads and building a Superman physique, the Spaniard can both defend and attack in the same shot, most famously using a fizzing, looping forehand whip to devastating effect. Huge skill and determination have already brought him six grand slams at 23: will his body grant him more?
- Sachin Tendulkar
With a combined tally of 85 centuries and almost 30,000 runs in Tests and ODIs, the Little Master’s sheer weight of runs is untouched. Sure, he doesn’t have the dizzying Bradman average or the mountainous individual scores of Lara, but Tendulkar has spent something like 2500 days playing professional cricket. Baseball fans, think the endurance of Cal Ripken Jnr with the performance of Alex Rodriguez. Cricket fans, be thankful you’ve seen a legend.
- Arnold Palmer
You just can’t not put Palmer on a list like this, even though his 62 PGA Tour wins and seven Majors lags behind Nicklaus and Woods. Where palmer scores big in our estimation is on the character stakes. In his prime in the 1960s, he was an athlete who made crowds feel like they were part of his own private cheer squad.
- Johnny Raper
The lock forward in Australian rugby league’s Team of the Century was one of sport’s lovable larrikins, which essentially means he had the kind of fun players would never be allowed today. A key member of the Dragons’ unbelievable run of 11 premierships, Raper had the vision and ball-distribution skills of a Darren Lockyer with the bob-up-everywhere tackling knack of Nathan Hindmarsh. He was that good.
- Jean-Claude Killy
The Frenchman dwarfs the great names of skiing like Ingemar Stenmark, Alberto Tomba and Hermann Maier because of his feats at the 1968 winter Olympics, where he won gold in the slalom, giant slalom and downhill. That’s like winning the 50m, 200m and 1500m freestyle in the pool at the summer Games, and it has never been matched. He retired at just 26.
- Gary Ablett Snr
Ablett was one of those athletes who seemed to inhabit an entirely different dimension. Some climbed over opponents’ backs to take a mark; Ablett soared. Others ran; he glided. In the rich history of Australia’s most popular winter sport, no man was ever more naturally gifted. Oh, and did we mention he kicked 1030 goals?
- Babe Zaharias
Golf, basketball, track and field, diving, roller-skating, bowling, pool, sewing… It didn’t matter what Zaharias tried, she won at it. Limited to three events at the 1932 Olympics, she bagged the 80m hurdles and javelin, plus a disputed silver in the high jump. By ’35 she’d picked up golf and took part in a men’s PGA event, the first woman to do it by six decades, and was the women’s No.1 for years.
- John McEnroe
New York’s finest drew opinions the way stallions do flies. Did his profile and temperament spawn a generation of ump-hassling whingers, or help drag tennis towards the huge popularity and money it enjoys now? In no doubt was his genius, which featured sublime reflexes, a geometry-defying serve-volley game and seven grand slams, not to mention one of the greatest rivalries in sport, with Bjorn Borg.
- Willie Shoemaker
Active and winning for more than 40 years, Shoemaker is the most successful jockey in history. His turbulent life took in a premature birth, two near-fatal accidents and finally paralysis from a 1991 car crash before his 2003 death. In between he won the Kentucky Derby four times, nearly 9000 races and an ocean of prize money.
- Steffi Graf
Andre Agassi never really seemed happy as Mr Brooke Shields, yet he hasn’t stopped smiling since he married Steffi Graf back in 2001. That suggests that Steffi is a really, really nice lady, but of course you don’t get on this list by being pleasant. You get here with 23 tennis Majors and a record 377 weeks – seven years – as world number one.
- Bo Jackson
There are loads of athletes who’ve represented their countries in more than one sport, but Bo Jackson was the first athlete to be named an All-Star in both American football and baseball and have a proper, top-line career in each sport. Word is he could’ve been an Olympic sprinter too, but opted for more lucrative sports.
- Zinedine Zidane
Rarely did any sportsman have more time and more options than the balding French midfielder. Once he received the ball, the opposition seemed hypnotised, as Zidane weaved his way through and around them for a killer pass or wonderfully taken goal. Even on the greatest of stages, he always seemed a cut above. The 1998 World Cup, Euro 2000, Serie A and La Liga titles seem fitting reward for a player of such unusual talent.
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Over 20 seasons, Abdul-Jabbar became the highest points-scorer in NBA history, won six championships, six MVPs and a record 19 NBA All-Star call-ups. A graceful athlete among the juggernauts in the centre, his fitness and versatility were legendary, as was his trademark “skyhook” shot, which very few could block.
- Greg Norman
Don’t ask why this noted choker is on the list ahead of dozens of golfers with more than his two Majors. Instead, ask how many more he’d have won if God wasn’t playing silly buggers every time he took the lead. Then look at his 331 weeks at No.1, which is more than triple that of anyone bar Woods.
- Fanny Blankers-Koen
Told to stay at home and be a proper housewife, then told she was too old, Blankers-Koen went out and kicked arse anyway. The humble sprinter set 20 world records, and in 1948 became the only woman to win four golds at a single games – and she was a 30-year-old mother of two. The Dutchwoman, who was amazed at the huge reaction to her success, helped change the perception of women in sport, and in 1999 was voted female athlete of the 20th century by the IAAF.
- Jackie Robinson
Difficult as it is to believe now, baseball was a whites-only sport as late as 1945. Robinson was the man who broke that barrier. His life, even to that point, was marked by both athletic brilliance and his refusal to be segregated. Established at the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson faced ongoing harassment from the crowd and other players, but he proved he was no token: his exceptional hitting and base-running made him a hero, helped the Dodgers win a World Series and thrust open the door for other black athletes.
- Usain Bolt
There aren’t many blokes in the early phase of their careers on this list, but then, not many people in any phase of their career have won the biggest race at the Olympics so easily that they slowed down and still broke a world record. Oh, and after the 100m there was the 200m where he beat Michael Johnson’s “unbeatable” world record. The Jamaican is just 23. By 30, he may top this list.
- Ian Botham
Ask Aussies of a certain age about IT Botham, and they’ll raise their eyes to heaven. At his worst (and most annoying), he was a fat, bullying, loudmouthed troublemaker, but he was England’s talisman for more than 10 years: his buccaneering batting was essential viewing, and he briefly held the world Test wicket record. No all-rounder has come consistently close to his levels since.
- Serge Blanco
Give or take Campese, the “Black Pearl” is the most exciting rugby talent ever to grace the game. Born in Venezuela, Blanco is nevertheless the very epitome of all that’s best of French rugby: quicksilver pace and the willingness to attack or counterattack from anywhere at any time. Smooth, eccentric, but never ruffled, Blanco made the sport look easy for 93 Tests between 1980-91.
- Dawn Fraser
Claiming the 100m gold medal at three consecutive Olympics and holding a world record for 15 years is an incredible record in any event. But in swimming’s blue riband event, it’s the stuff of legend. Libby Trickett has been the world record-holder going into two Olympics, and twice missed the gold. Jodie Henry won it once, then disappeared. Fraser probably would have won four straight, were it not for a controversial ban for flag-snaffling.
- Ted Whitten
“Mr Football” was captain of the AFL Team of the Century, but we don’t have time to list the Footscray man’s full CV here. Let’s just say no footy player in any era was as talented in every facet of our multi-skilled national game. If you’re American and you’re reading this, imagine a quarterback who was also a great first baseman and basketball point guard. Now you’re getting close.
- George Best
Before Best, football was popular, working-class and tough. But glamorous? Not really. Best suited the swinging ’60s down to the ground: a shining part of the new, optimistic age, stemming from a level of almost unmatched footballing skill. To those who were there, the man who helped Manchester United become great was the fifth Beatle, not because he looked like them, but because he was a superstar.
- Sergey Bubka
How depressing it must have been to be a pole vaulter in the 1980s: back then you were Sergey Bubka, or you were nobody. More than anyone, the Ukrainian treated the sport like a private event and bank account, breaking the world record by tiny amounts, each time for big bucks, while rivals competed for second behind him. His Olympic record is the only blot on a career that changed his sport.
- Janet Evans
The best female distance swimmer in history. All-American girl Evans harnessed her home-grown windmilling stroke and freakish endurance to create world records that stood for years. In 1987, age 15, she broke the 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyle marks, and went on to win three golds at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Of all her records, the most impressive was the 800m time, which lasted 19 years and withstood four Olympic Games.
- Shirley Strickland
The West Australian farm girl may have one fewer Olympic medal in her cabinet than Merlene Ottey’s eight, but three of them are gold. In all, Strickland sprinted, hurdled and relayed her way to seven medals across the 1948, ’52 and ’56 Games, and was the queen and world record-holder of the 80m hurdles.
- Brian Lara
Do you understand what it means to make 400 in a Test match? As in, have you ever really sat down and thought, ‘Holy crap, this bloke raised his bat eight times?’ Not to mention the 10 times he raised it in his first class cricket record knock of 501 not out for Warwickshire. But the West Indian is one of the greats of any sport in any era because watching him play was like drinking Bolly on a beach.
- Roger Bannister
For one race and one achievement on May 6, 1954, the mild-mannered Bannister went down in history. But it’s wrong to uphold his popular image as an enthusiastic amateur who had a good afternoon: the Oxford scholar treated his training as a science experiment, creating methods and technology still used today. When he broke that four-minute mile record – athletics’ version of the sound barrier – it was fully deserved.
- Adam Gilchrist
Remember when wicketkeepers were honest, stodgy fellows required to be neat and tidy behind the stumps and chip in a few runs from time to time? We don’t either, now Gilchrist has wiped our brains. Thanks to Gilly, today’s keepers have to average 40-plus in Tests at a handy strike rate. But none have ever matched his brutal hitting, which included a century off just 57 balls at the WACA and 149 off 104 balls in the 2007 World Cup final. What a man.
- Shaun White
Poster boy for extreme sport, the “Flying Tomato” is the kid who made good. Trampoline practise while young made him happy upside-down, helping him become the perfect snowboarder and push the sport into new areas. He won gold and mainstream cred with ridiculous ease at the 2006 Winter Olympics, then tried pro-skateboarding and became a champion at that, too.
- Alexander Popov
Probably the greatest sprint swimmer the world has ever seen. The 200cm Russian won gold in the 50m and 100m freestyle at the 1992 Olympics and repeated the feat at Atlanta ’96. He held the world record in the 50m for eight years, and the 100m for six, and his longevity was remarkable. Aged 31 – ancient for the pool – Popov won 50m and 100m gold at the 2003 World Championships.
- Heather McKay
In the history of female squash, there’s McKay, daylight, more daylight, and then some other girls. The Aussie lost a squash match in 1960; in 1962, she lost another one. Aside from that, and from 1962 until her retirement in 1981, she never lost again. With a record that unbelievable, it seems almost pointless to list the number of top tournaments she won during that time, but it was a lot. She once won a final without dropping a single point.
- Jonah Lomu
When Lomu was unveiled at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, everyone quickly realised the game had changed. Before he rolled off the All Blacks production line, players were either big or fast, but as poor old Mike Catt and the rest of the England team found out, the 196cm, 114kg Lomu was both. At his best, he was an unstoppable force and a barnstorming game-breaker. Illness cut his career short, but if anyone pointed the way for rugby’s professional era, it was Lomu.
- Chris Evert
In the 1970s and ’80s, she helped put the va-voom into tennis, and when she got married it was big news. But Evert was a steely-eyed competitor on-court, whose relentless practice and utter lack of nerves gave her a baseline game almost without parallel, and she painted every line on the court. Martina Navratilova eventually edged their fabulous rivalry, but Evert finished with 18 grand slam singles titles and the best win-loss record in tennis history.
- Annika Sorenstam
For a large chunk of the late 1990s and early noughties, Tiger Woods had a serious rival in the Major stakes, but it wasn’t a man. Shy Swede Sorenstam became a voracious shot-making animal on the fairways, gobbling her way through all four Majors, most of them several times, along with 72 other titles on the LPGA Tour alone. A daunting target for the current crop of players to aim at.
- Ian Thorpe
His tally of five Olympic gold medals has been matched or bettered by at least a dozen swimmers around the world, but what made the Aussie super, super special was his sheer domination of the most competitive events in men’s swimming, the 200m and 400m freestyle. In his day, he was unbeatable, especially in the latter event. Apart from all that, the “Thorpedo” was a pretty cool nickname.
- Andrew Johns
The sheer quality of the greats is often noticed more when they’re gone. When rugby league’s greatest half-back quit in 2007, the teams he played for (Newcastle, NSW and Australia) took massive steps backwards. Even when the incredible talent of Johnathan Thurston arrived, you scratched your head thinking, “Geez, he’ll have to do this for a full decade to come close to Joey.” Johns combined brute strength with unbelievable creativity with ball in hand or on boot.
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