Top 10 greatest male athletes of all time

With the Rio Olympics drawing to an epic close last week, Billy Cotsis celebrates his pick of the top male athletes and sportsmen of the modern era

Sport and the Olympic Games are a precious gift from the ancient Hellenes to the world. While sport existed in one form or another across ancient tribes and territories, it was the Hellenes who honed the art of competition, training, gymnasium and created an array of sports such as boxing and running over a set distance.

Having travelled to a number of Olympics as a self-confessed sports fanatic, these are my top 10 male athletes based on achievements and their impact upon their chosen sport. Many have also participated at the Olympic Games, including the recently-concluded Rio Olympiad.

Stars that even had a whiff of using performance-enhancing drugs, or drugs in general for that matter, were not considered.

Every Olympics needs a star, someone that people will talk about for all time. In 1896, Spyridon stepped up to the plate and the marathon. This event had only been run the previous year for the first time ever in Greece (and by Philippides after the Battle of Marathon). Louis won a gold medal for the young country of Greece which was seemingly at war with the Ottomans every decade of the century, creating a boost for local morale. What he also delivered for the Olympics was a massive boost in profile, for his exploits were talked about around the world. All he wanted in return was a horse-drawn donkey carriage for his water delivery business.

The field was small, just 17, and included the brilliant medium distance runner from Australia, Edwin Flack. This didn’t matter, for few stars have had such an impact on the games and his sport. When Spyridon entered the 1896 Marble Stadium in Pangrati, the crowd was almost in tears; the royal princes joined him as he ran the final lap. Greece, momentarily, had no problems. The marathon soon evolved to become one of the most notable events in sport.

Poverty is a theme for many great athletes. As Spyridon was born into poverty, so too was Jesse Owens. Add to the mix the disgraceful virtual apartheid laws in many parts of the US, and Jesse was always going to start disadvantaged.

With incredible speed, the will and heart to forgive people, Jesse overcame all barriers. At one meet he officially broke three records and it should have been four but for archaic rules. At the 1936 Olympics, Jesse proved to be a star among the political turmoil of the era. Two of his Jewish teammates became unfortunate casualties of the politics and naturally his colour was not what white bigots wanted to see. Oh, and the fact he had to travel second class while the rest of the American team travelled first is a blot on the American Olympic movement. Yet he put all this behind him to win Berlin over and show the world what an incredible human being he was with four gold returns. One can only imagine how many more he would have won had the war not intervened. Jesse is a triumph for sport and humanity. A reminder that the world has never been fair, though occasionally a true genius can overcome barriers, especially racial.


At a time of great uncertainty around drug cheats, Usain is a breath of fresh air. His confidence and the belief in himself add to the aura of his track performances, which include 21 gold medals across World Championship meets and the Olympic Games. Having captured gold at three consecutive games, he is young enough to compete again in 2020, where he will be 33. The fastest man in the world in the 100 and 200 metres, he is the first to hold both titles. He commenced his career as an Olympian in Athens as a teenager.

What many may not realise is that Yannis actually wrote 1,000 poems in his lifetime and starred in a movie about Philippides. The now resident of Melbourne is also a truly brilliant athlete. In fact, I have lost count of the number of victories he has accumulated in events such as 24-hour, 48-hour and six-day races, and the Athens to Sparta, and the Partathlon which was another course run by Philippides.
The greatest ultra-marathon runner in history, who used his natural running abilities with the power of the mind to win. When he competed in the Australian ultra-marathon, he would provide a 24-hour handicap to other racers; yet whenever he would pass a competitor he would embrace them and give them a gift too. Arguably the successor to Philippides.


‘The Don’, as we came to know him, was a freak. An Australian poet laments how he was bowled for a duck in his last innings to drop his average to 99.94. The Bodyline mini-series was made about his team from the early 1930s – what a batter and inspiring captain. With no One Day or Twenty/Twenty circus in his era, the mind boggles at how he would have dominated these formats. Choosing the great Australian over the immortal Sachin Tendulkar was tough, considering the Indian maestro twice smashed double centuries in the ODI format and consistently carried a billion people on his shoulders.
Sir Don will be remembered for an eternity and young kids still grow up trying to emulate his remarkable achievements. And to show what an athlete he was, he even managed to win the South Australian Squash Open in 1939.


Yes I do find him a little boring at times; his ability to win without breaking a sweat just drives me insane. With 88 titles to his credit and 17 Grand Slams, 302 weeks as the world number one, there is every chance he may win some more. He picked up gold at the 2008 Beijing Games and silver at the following London Olympics. His grace as a player and his unlimited array of shots means he is the one player that all tennis players look up to. His tennis abilities are matched only by Serena Williams.

Most people think Muhammad threw his gold medal into a river due to his frustration over racism, but it’s probable he actually lost it, as many sources have told us. Irrespective of that, the people’s champion extended beyond sportsmanship to civil rights and equality. His refusal to accept a call-up to fight the Vietcong was more courageous than fighting the brilliant Joe Frazier or our own Aussie Jo Bugner. The three-time world heavy champion, when this title truly meant WORLD CHAMPION, was the greatest boxer in history. He was probably the most confident athlete too, even more than Usain Bolt or Michael Jordan. His fight against the powerful George Foreman will forever be remembered as the fight when brains beat brawn.

After uniting most of Zaire and Africa behind him as he immersed himself with locals, the people’s champion took a pounding against the ropes, or so we thought. George tired and when he did, he was knocked to the ground as Muhammad came away from the ropes and showed what he could do. Oh, and not content with being a boxer, he also took on several acting roles in the ’70s and ’80s. The Champion was the highlight of the Atlanta Games and he didn’t even compete.


While most people want to be like Usain, everyone wants to be like Mike. Most kids have grown up wanting to slam dunk like Mike or to win a basketball match with seconds to go with a clutch shot. This great could do it all on the court. Having won two Three-Peats with the magical Chicago Bulls team of the 1990s, he helped turn very good players such as Scottie Pippen and our own decent Luc Longley into bonafide stars. Twice he won a gold medal with the US basketball side (including the Dream Team) and for a season he even hit home runs in the baseball minors. He just edges past Muhammad.

#2 – PELE
Being patriotic, a gentleman and from a poor background tells just part of the story of Edson Arantes do Nascimento. As a kid, he played around Santos with his mates, often with no shoes, and these kids became known as ‘the shoeless ones’. His commitment to his club (Santos) and Brazil tells you that football was his love, not cash (back then). No footballer in history had his impact on the pitch. Yes, Beckham won titles in four different countries, yes Messi has won with Barcelona, but Pelé brought home three Mondials. His World Cup exploits came from four tournaments against many evenly-matched teams, more competitive tournaments than what we are used to these days. One thousand two hundred and eighty-one goals from 1363 is a remarkable striking ability, and his 77 goals from 91 for Brazil tell you another. From the ’50s to the ’70s, Santos and then New York Cosmos became global brands, almost as big as Manchester United. His rival for greatest footballer is of course Diego Maradona, but sadly the latter’s dalliance with drugs and cheating (1986) mean he is no match for Pele.

One can only wonder how many medals he would have earned the Samba Kings had he played at the Olympics.

Phelps began his Olympic Games career in Athens, and he boasts 23 (Jordan’s number) gold medals … so enough said.

Notable mentions:
George Foreman, who at his peak was as good as Ali, and was able to come back decades later to become the world champion; Pete Sampras, the Greek American who won 14 Grand Slams and 68 titles in arguably the strongest era of tennis since the great Aussies dominated (Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall, Fred Stolle); Christiano Ronaldo for his football magic at Manchester United and European titles. Then there is Dally Messenger for his brilliance across both rugby codes while also playing for New Zealand and his native Australia; baseballer Babe Ruth; Greg Louganis, who kept wining gold and should have had more but for an Olympics (Moscow) boycott, and Tiger Woods in that sport for rich people called gulf between rich and poor. Another Greek is Pyrhos Dimas, while Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi also registers. Finally, a personal favourite has always been Brian Bevan, the Warrington-based Aussie who scored a phenomenal 796 tries across 688 top-level rugby league matches.

* Billy Cotsis is an author and admittedly has no significant sporting achievements himself.