Multi-sport athletes are a rare breed of individuals who succeed in more than one sport. The world of sport is notoriously competitive, and making it as a pro in one sport is difficult enough, making it in multiple sports then is quite rightly regarded as an almighty achievement. Some of the athletes on this list succeeded in as many as three or four different sports, often competing at the highest level, and are as such, considered among the greatest athletes of all time.
Qualifying greatness in any field can prove tricky, and this is no exception. The selection and ordering of this list is based primarily on the athlete's ability in more than one sport. That is to say, a remarkable athlete such as Michael Jordan, despite his incredible achievements in basketball, does not make the list due to his limited time and success in the world of baseball. An athlete who was good at two sports ranks higher than one who was exceptional at one and fairly poor in another.
Another example is Joe Louis. Widely regarded as one of the finest heavyweight boxers of all time, Louis was also pivotal in breaking down the color barriers within golf, and was the first African American to partake in a PGA Tour event. But despite being a talented golfer, Louis was not skilled enough in the sport to make this list. Others who narrowly missed out include Jackie Robinson, Dave Winfield, John Elway, Lottie Dodd, Carl Crawford and Otto Graham. Here are the top 15 greatest multi-sport athletes of all time:
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15 Herschel Walker
The man behind one of the most famous trades in NFL history, Herschel Walker was an outstanding all-round athlete. Best known for his career as a football player, Walker also competed as a bobsledder, sprinter and in MMA. In college football, Walker earned All-American honours three times and won the Heisman Trophy, before achieving consecutive Pro Bowls after turning professional, playing his best football for the Dallas Cowboys. He was also a two-time All-American selection as a sprinter, competed in the two-man bobsled at the 1992 Winter Olympics and had two professional MMA fights after his retirement from the NFL, winning both.
14 Alfred Lyttelton
A member of the British aristocracy, Alfred Lyttelton was one of the outstanding multi-sport athletes of his day. A sportsman turned politician, Lyttelton was a member of the Liberal Unionist party, and served as Secretary of State for the Colonies between 1903 and 1905. He competed, with success, in five sports at university level, namely; cricket, association football, athletics, rackets and real tennis. Lyttelton went on to become the first man to represent England in both football and cricket. An outstanding wicket-keeper in cricket and dribbler in football, he once took 4 wickets for only 19 runs against Australia at the Oval as well as playing in an FA Cup final and having a record of 1 goal from 1 cap for England.
13 Harvey Pulford
One of the great early Canadian athletes, Harvey Pulford was gifted in a remarkable number of sports, and won national championships in ice hockey, Canadian football, boxing, lacrosse, paddling and rowing. Despite his multitude of successes, it is fair to say Pulford is best known for his highly successful hockey career. He spent his entire 16 year hockey career with Ottawa Hockey Club, where he was one of the most talented defensemen of his day, and helped Ottawa to win four Stanley Cups.
12 Bob Hayes
The only man to have won both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring, that achievement alone means Bob Hayes is worthy of a place on this list. Florida-born, Hayes showed promise in both track and football from an early age. He first went into track, competing with great success as a sprinter at the 1962 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Hayes won two gold medals, in the 100 metres and the 4 x 100 metre relay, setting a world record in one and matching one in the other. In football, Hayes played as a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys for nine years, where he won the Super Bowl and made three Pro Bowl selections.
11 Cuthbert Ottaway
Of the same era as Alfred Lyttelton, Cuthbert Ottaway was arguably an even more gifted all-round athlete. He he won Blues for representing Oxford at five different sports, a record which stands to this day, and was good enough to compete at the highest level in three of them. Ottaway was the first ever captain of the English national football team, and played in three consecutive FA Cup finals, winning one, also as captain. He was injured in the 1875 FA Cup final, ending his football career aged 25. A talented cricketer and racquet player, Ottaway hit two first class centuries and was widely regarded as the finest amateur racquet player of his day. He achieved all this despite dying at the age of just 27.
10 Deion Sanders
Deion Sanders is the only man to have played in both a Super Bowl and a World Series, a rare distinction and one which will possibly never be done again either. A gifted baseball and track athlete, Sanders is best known for his achievements as a football player. Sanders represented five different NFL franchises over a 16 year football career, and his greatest success came with the Dallas Cowboys, where he won the Super Bowl twice. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
In baseball, Sanders was an outfielder with a batting average of .263. He reached the 1992 World Series with the Atlanta Braves, but they were defeated by Toronto Blue Jays.
9 Sir Ian Botham
Widely regarded as England's greatest ever cricket all-rounder, there can be few doubts over what was Ian Botham's finest sport ultimately. However, at a younger age, that question very much hung in the balance, and Botham was forced to make a decision between football and cricket. A talented defender, Botham played for both Yeovil Town and Scunthorpe United, representing an England non-league XI at one time. Ultimately, Botham chose cricket though, and the second most wickets of any England bowler in history probably suggests he made the right call.
8 Gene Conley
A MLB and NBA star of the 1950s and 60s, Gene Conley is one of only two men to have won championships in two of the four traditional major American sports. In an 11 year MLB career as a pitcher, Conley was made an All-Star four times, and won the World Series with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957. His basketball career was somewhat longer, spanning 16 years, although he only played six seasons in the NBA. Conley became a three-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, but was most commonly deployed as a backup rebounder.
7 Babe Didrikson
The only woman to make the top 15, although Lottie Dodd can be considered unfortunate not to have done so, Babe Didrikson (later Babe Didrikson Zaharias) is the finest multis-sport female athlete of all time. Born in Texas to Norwegian parents, Didrikson found particular success in golf, basketball and track & field, although she was competitive in a number of other fields also.
She first made her mark at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, where she won two gold medals and one silver, setting one world record, one Olympic record and equalling another world record. In golf, she won a total of 82 tournaments, including 10 majors and 41 LPGA wins. Didrikson also received All-American status in basketball.
6 Jim Brown
Jim Brown can make quite a legitimate claim to being the greatest athlete of all time in two different a sports, something no-one else can. Best known of course as arguably the greatest NFL player in history, and certainly the finest running back. In nine years with the Cleveland Browns, Brown was selected for the Pro Bowl every single year, and set a number of NFL records which have still never been beaten. Brown is also regarded as one of, if not the, finest lacrosse player of all time. He was named an All-American lacrosse player whilst at university and is a member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
5 Lionel Conacher
Nicknamed 'The Big Train', Lionel Conacher was voted Canada's greatest athlete of the first half of the Twentieth Century. An outstanding athlete in an array or different sports, Conacher won championships in Canadian football, hockey, wrestling, boxing and lacrosse. Best known for his achievements and abilities in hockey and football, where he won the Grey Cup, the Memorial Cup and the Stanley Cup twice. He was one of only two men to have won both the Grey Cup and Stanley Cup. Conacher is a member of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame, Hockey Hall of Fame and the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
4 CB Fry
CB Fry is truly one of the most astonishing athletes and individuals in modern history. His talents lied not only in sport but beyond. In sport, cricket was his finest game, widely regarded as one of the most gifted players of his day, with a batting average of over 50, the second highest in history at the time of his retirement. Fry was also a talented footballer, playing in an FA Cup final and being capped by England.
Long considered one of Britain's finest track and field athletes, he also equalled the long jump world record, but turned down the chance to represent Great Britain at the 1896 Olympics as he was making his Test Match debut. Fry later became a diplomat, politician and an author, before suffering serious mental health issues and befriending Adolf Hitler, but failed in his attempts to encourage the Fuhrer to take up cricket to test level in Germany.
3 Bo Jackson
The only athlete to have been named an All-Star in two major U.S. sports, Bo Jackson was clearly an incredible multi-sport athlete. Best known for his achievements in baseball, where he devoted most of his career, Jackson could just as easily have made it to the top in either sport. He was made a MLB All-Star in 1989, while playing for the Kansas City Royals, and was named MVP in that All-Star Game. Jackson gained All-Star status in football a year later, while playing for the Los Angeles Raiders, where he made the 1990 Pro Bowl.
2 Max Woosnam
Unfortunate to only be in second place, it was an extraordinarily close call between the two front runners on this list. In terms of the sheer number of sports in which Woosnam excelled in, no-one comes close. His list of achievements include winning both gold and silver at the 1920 Olympics, winning at Wimbledon, captaining the British Davis Cup team, captaining Manchester City, captaining the English national football team, finishing as a runner-up in the Football League, hitting a century at Lords and compiling a 147 break in snooker. Often described as the greatest British athlete of all-time, Woosnam famously once beat Charlie Chaplain in a game of table tennis using a butter knife instead of a bat.
1 Jim Thorpe
Narrowly taking top spot is Jim Thorpe, quite simply one of the finest athletes to have ever lived. Born in Oklahoma to Native American, Irish and French ancestry, Thorpe was raised as a Sac and Fox. At college, Thorpe's sporting prowess became clear, winning plaudits in the high jump, lacrosse, football and baseball. In 1911 and 1912 he was awarded All-American honours in football. At the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm Thorpe won gold in both the decathlon and pentathlon, showing his versatility as an athlete.
Both of these medals were stripped from him when it was revealed Thorpe was already playing baseball as a semi-pro at that time, but they were re-instaded 30 years later. Thorpe spent six years playing in the MLB, most notably for the New York Giants, and had a batting average of .252. In football he was major trade for the Canton Bulldogs in 1915, and went on to win 3 titles with the team; much less is known of his basketball career. Thorpe played 52 NFL games for 6 different teams before retiring from all sport at the age of 41.
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