The greatest athlete of all time, according to Americans
April 20th, 2021, Graeme Bruce

The greatest athlete of all time, according to Americans

When Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl in February 2021 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it relit fierce debate around who the greatest athlete of all time really is.

While Brady is highly regarded among football fans in the United States, there are several athletes who more sports fans see as the Greatest of All Time, or the G.O.A.T.

A new YouGov study ranks which sports stars, alive or dead, are most likely to be considered the greatest. We asked people to choose the “greatest of all time” between two athletes in a series of head-to-head matchups. Athletes are rated based on their “win percentage,” that is, how often they won the head-to-head matchup when they were one of the two athletes shown.

Muhammad Ali, nicknamed “The Greatest,” perhaps would be better described from now on as The Equal Greatest,” according to the study. In head-to-head matches against others, the boxer came out on top 78% of the time, tied with six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan.

In our ranking, NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar comes in third place, winning 73% of his matchups, tied with baseball legend Babe Ruth and just ahead of Jim Thorpe, who is seen as one of the most versatile athletes of all time. Thorpe competed in Olympic-level pentathlon and decathlon, as well as football, baseball and basketball. He also won 72% of his matchups in our survey.

Half of the athletes who cracked our top 10 are basketball players, and survey data shows basketball players won the most matches regardless of which sports respondents are fans of. Michael Jordan appears in top-five lists among self-identified fans of basketball, football, and baseball. Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant are ranked No. 2 and 3 respectively behind Jordan among basketball fans.

Basketball stars dominate our list, perhaps due in part to the fact that while basketball is a team sport, a single player can have a massive impact on team performance.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bryant appear fourth and fifth place among football fans. Notably, no football players rose to the top five among fans of the sport. And while baseball great Jackie Robinson makes it into the top five among football and basketball fans, he doesn’t appear in the same ranking for fans of baseball.

Jordan, Thorpe and Abdul-Jabbar appear yet again, in third, fourth and fifth respectively among baseball fans. Ali and Ruth, the lone baseball player, appear in the top two slots.

Our data shows racking up Super Bowl rings is no guarantee of G.O.A.T status among football fans. While seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady is seen by a majority of football fans to be the G.O.A.T among football players, the multi-sport phenom Jim Thorpe from the turn of the 20th century still bested the modern-day quarterback legend. Joe Montana, Jim Brown and Jerry Rice make up the remaining top-five players among football fans in our survey.

Babe Ruth is the greatest of all time among baseball players, winning 83% of his matchups. Thorpe, Jackie Robinson, Derek Jeter and Bo Jackson crack the top five baseball players who are most considered the greatest among the game’s fans.

Looking along gender lines, we see considerable differences in opinion regarding Jesse Owens, who won 60% of his matchups among women and 76% among men. Other polarizing sports figures in the top 10 list were Kobe Bryant (78% among women vs. 60% among men) and Magic Johnson (71% among women vs. 63% among men).

Results also show women consistently more likely than men to upvote female athletes. Tennis phenom Serena Williams won two-thirds of her matchups among women (66%), but only 57% among men. Similar differences were seen for soccer star Mia Hamm (58% among women vs. 51% among men) and track and fielder Jackie Joyner-Kersee (57% among women vs. 48% among men).

Finally, looking at American Millennials specifically, the list changes slightly. LeBron James tops the list, winning 82% of his matchups, followed by Muhammad Ali (77%), Michael Jordan (70%), sprinting legend Usain Bolt (68%) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (66%).

Methodology: YouGov ran a survey consisting of 1,643 panelists, including 722 sports fans. Every sports fan was randomly assigned to see 69 different athletes, which appeared in ten head-to-head matchups. For each, respondents were asked to indicate who would be the “greatest of all time.” YouGov scored athletes by looking at their “win percentage” or how often they were selected as the better athlete in a head-to-head matchup. Interviews took place online between March 25 – 26, 2021.

Image: Getty