What makes a great athlete? Well, many things. Superb athleticism is almost always a prerequisite. An unwavering commitment to honing a particular set of skills is as well. And key intangibles like clutch performance, instincts, toughness, etc. certainly can’t be overlooked, either.
But what makes an athlete one of the very best of an entire century? All of those qualities previously mentioned are of course paramount, with athleticism, in particular, the most essential. To be one of the greatest athletes of the century, though, you need to be unbelievably dominant, perhaps even the greatest ever in your particular sport. You also need to embody excellence, preferably over an extended stretch of years. And it would be foolish to overlook an athlete’s cultural impact on their sport and society at large.
Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, and Jim Brown are a few of the 20th century legends that immediately come to mind with regard to last century. Though we have eighty-two and a half years left in this one, who cracks the list of the twenty greatest athletes of the 21st century, and in what order?
You’re about to find out.
Honorable Mentions: Ray Lewis, Abby Wambach, Novak Djokovic, Aaron Rodgers, Katie Ledecky, Mike Trout
20 Derek Jeter
A five-time World Series champion and a career .310 hitter, Jeter was unequivocally the face of baseball for roughly two decades. Though he never displayed levels of dominance similar to others soon to appear on this list, his sustained success secured his rightful place alongside the pantheon of other Yankee legends and made him an American icon.
19 Floyd Mayweather
Obnoxious character aside, Mayweather is undefeated in a sport where the objective is to inflict as much physical agony on your opponent as possible. The astronomical fortune he’s amassed over the last decade confirms Mayweather’s influence as both an athlete and entertainer.
18 Diana Taurasi
Taurasi has a strong case to be considered the greatest female basketball player of all-time. She led UConn to three consecutive titles in the early 2000’s; her Phoenix Mercury have claimed two titles since she was drafted in 2005; and she’s been an integral part of four gold medal-winning Olympic squads. She also recently became the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer. That feat earns her a spot on this list.
17 Tim Duncan
Duncan is definitely the most understated athlete on this list, as he’s nowhere near the cultural icon like many of his fellow dominant athletes of the century. Nonetheless, his accomplishments–five championships, multiple MVP’s–in a sport that arguably features the most athletic and dexterous men on the planet confirms his greatness.
16 Albert Pujols
It’s tough to find room for many baseball players on this list, largely due to the steroid saga. But there’s space for Pujols, the best “clean” hitter of the past generation.
15 Lindsey Vonn
Vonn’s certainly the most decorated skier of this century, and perhaps ever. Her 77 World Cup victories are the most all-time for a woman. Her ability to achieve this record while overcoming multiple devastating injuries, however, might be her most impressive feat.
14 Sidney Crosby
Crosby’s resume this century is astounding. In leading the Penguins to a third Stanley Cup title this past spring, Crosby became just the fifth player in NHL history to claim multiple Conn Smythe trophies for playoff MVP. Combined with his Olympic success–he’s lead Canada to two gold medals–Crosby is clearly the best hockey player of this generation.
13 Rafael Nadal
Nadal’s brilliance has become rather routine. This past May he claimed his tenth French Open title, and his fifteenth major overall. If it wasn’t for a certain Swiss man, Nadal would have the most Grand Slam’s of all-time. Nonetheless, his aggressive play and nearly unmatchable athleticism puts him on the short-list of most exciting athletes to watch over the past ten odd years.
12 Simone Biles
Biles lit the summer Olympics on fire last summer; but what often goes unrecognized is how she already has the most World Gymnastic Championship gold medals (10) at just 22 years of age. In short, she might already be the greatest gymnast of all-time.
11 Peyton Manning
The NFL record holder for passing yards, passing touchdowns, and MVP’s has parlayed success on the field to become the funniest and most widely-recognized athlete to appear in commercials (and host the ESPY’s). The only thing holding Manning back from the top ten is how his teams often underperformed in playoff games.
10 Tiger Woods
We may not think as much of Woods’ career now after his recent downturn, yet he still had a stretch from the late ’90’s to the mid-2000’s that ranks as one of the most dominant athletic runs ever. He simply took over the sport of golf and became one of the most iconic athletes of the past quarter century.
9 Michael Phelps
The most decorated Olympian of all-time obviously has a spot in the top ten. However, because of swimming’s esoteric nature (it’s not even one of the ten most played sports among youth in America, for instance), Phelps’ achievements aren’t as impressive, relatively speaking, as those higher than him on this list who have had to out-perform certainly hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of more athletes around the world.
Also, it goes without saying that his legacy was severely damaged after losing to that “great white shark.”
8 Kobe Bryant
We remember early-2000’s Kobe for his explosive dunks, mid-2000’s Kobe for his ridiculous scoring outbursts, and late-2000’s Kobe for putting the Lakers on his back en route to consecutive titles. It’s no surprise, therefore, that ‘the Black Mamba’ concluded his career as one of the most influential stars in NBA history.
7 Serena Williams
Most Grand Slam titles in the Open era…yeah, that’s enough to make Serena, one of the most instantly recognizable stars on the planet, the greatest female athlete of the century, and in the conversation for most accomplished athlete overall.
6 Roger Federer
Few have been as effortlessly dominant as Federer, the men’s leader in major titles. He epitomizes control and class in all aspects of life, making him one of the suavest and most respected athletes of all-time.
5 Tom Brady
All Brady did in the 2000’s was become the greatest quarterback of all-time by winning five Super Bowl’s. His dominance in arguably the most physically demanding of all sports, and his mastery of the most noteworthy position of all, make him a lock for a spot in the top five.
*Note: the following four athletes are essentially interchangeable. Honestly, I spent way too much time flip-flopping the precise order of these guys, I eventually just had to make a decision. In short, it was a lot harder to do these rankings than you might think…
4 LeBron James
Nonetheless, LeBron settles in at number four. His on-court resume is second only to Jordan, and his off-court impact has been just as huge. James may be the most physically gifted athlete on the planet, and there’s no doubt he could’ve been highly accomplished in other sports, namely football.
I have no legitimate explanation for why James isn’t higher on my list. He could very easily be number one. All I’ll say is that I think the following three guys have been a tad more impressive.
3 Cristiano Ronaldo
If you were wondering where the soccer players were, here they are. First is Ronaldo, a four-time Ballon d’Or winner for international player of the year (second most all-time) and the key piece to four Champions League-winning teams. Athletically, there’s arguably been no one else like him on a soccer pitch–his strength, explosive bursts, and leaping ability are on another level. Plus, he’s a global icon in the world’s most popular sport, even if he isn’t quite as revered in the U.S.
If only if it weren’t for…
2 Lionel Messi
Shame on me, because I’m a (bandwagon) Real Madrid fan. But I’ve got Messi over Ronaldo, because Messi has the slight edge in player of the year awards (five, to Ronaldo’s four) and both goals and assists per game. And like Ronaldo, he also has won four Champions League titles.
Messi’s brilliance is truly a thing of beauty. And the fact that he has a case to be considered the greatest soccer player in history, out of all the hundreds of millions, if not billions, who have played the game that requires the most technical skill of all, is unbelievable.
But there’s just one legend ahead of him…
1 Usain Bolt
The athletic attribute most valued by us all is speed. Usain Bolt is the fastest man ever, and it’s not even close. From the Beijing Olympics in 2008 to last summer’s Rio games, Bolt continuously proved that no one else could touch him on the track: he won gold in all nine of his events in each of those three Olympic’s, becoming the first person to accomplish such a feat. Moreover, Bolt also won gold at every international competition in between, including 2009, where he set the 100m record with an unprecedented 9.58 that still stands.
Bolt was must-watch television every time he ran in the summer games, even when you knew he would win. Think about how remarkable that is: it was essentially a question of by how much Bolt would outrun the other fastest guys in the world! And in the process, Bolt became one of the most celebrated and admired athletes ever, with seemingly everyone, not just Jamaicans, hoping he would prosper.
From Jeter to Messi, every aforementioned athlete on this list displayed varying levels of excellence over the past seventeen years. But the man with the highest athletic honor–fastest man ever–stands above all.
Usain Bolt, as of now, is the greatest athlete of the 21st century.
Jeter photo courtesy of Getty Images; Mayweather photo courtesy of Eric Jamison, AP; Taurasi photo courtesy of SI; Duncan photo courtesy of Bob Doonan, USA Today Sports; Pujols photo courtesy of Bill Greenblatt, UPI; Manning photo courtesy of NY Daily News; Biles photo courtesy of LA Times; Crosby photo courtesy of Christopher Hanwickel, USA Today Sports; Woods photo courtesy of Eurosport; Phelps photo courtesy of Bet.com; Brady photo courtesy of Gregory Paynan; Federer photo courtesy of SI; Messi photo courtesy of Getty Images; James photo courtesy of STACK; Ronaldo photo courtesy of Getty Images; Bolt photo courtesy of The Trent