Ronaldo, Messi, Bolt, Ronaldinho: The 30 greatest athletes of the 21st century

  • Kobe Tong
Ronaldo and Messi meet.

Who is the greatest athlete of the 21st century?

With legendary sportspeople like Muhammad Ali, Steffi Graf, Pele, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jesse Owens and many more off the table, the search for number one status narrows, but the task becomes no easier.

Thats because the turn of the century has still been full to the brim with sportsmen and women who rank amongst the greatest to have ever served an ace, completed a tumble turn, scored a free-kick or gobbled up 100 metres.

Whether it’s the timeless golfing achievements of Tiger Woods or Serena Williams winning 23 Grand Slam titles, the last 22 years have been well and truly thronged with all-time greats.

As such, there is no one person who is qualified to answer who the greatest athlete of the 21st century really is by themselves, but rather the collective voice of sports fans is better off giving it a go.

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The top 30 athletes of the 21st century

And thanks to the interactive list titled: “Top 10 Best Sports Athletes of the 21st Century” over at, we are indeed able to see who comes out on top when the votes of the masses are aggregated.

Now, publicly available votes are by no means a flawless system, particularly if people are just blindly voting for their favourites, but it’s nevertheless a more representative way of answering the question at hand.

As such, let us speculate no more because the people have spoken, and you can check out who they consider to be the 30 greatest athletes of the 21st century down below:

30. Muttiah Muralitharan (cricket)

Sri Lanka's Muralitharan bowling.
Cricket – Pakistan v Sri Lanka – ICC World Twenty20 Final England 2009 – Lord’s – 21/6/09 Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan in action bowling Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Scott Heavey

29. Andrew Johns (rugby league)

28. Ma Long (table tennis)

27. Lewis Hamilton (motor racing)

26. Lauren Jackson (basketball)

25. Lasha Talakhadze (weightlifter)

Talakhadze at Tokyo 2020.
Tokyo 2020 Olympics – Weightlifting – Men’s +109kg – Medal Ceremony – Tokyo International Forum, Tokyo, Japan – August 4, 2021. Gold medalist Lasha Talakhadze of Georgia reacts. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

24. Drew Brees (American football)

23. Valentino Rossi (motor racing)

22. Sidney Crosby (ice hockey)

21. Michael Schumacher (motor racing)

20. Sachin Tendulkar (cricket)

India's Tendulkar celebrates.
India’s Sachin Tendulkar celebrates after he scored his 100th centuries against Bangladesh during their One Day International (ODI) cricket match of Asia Cup in Dhaka March 16, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj (BANGLADESH – Tags: SPORT CRICKET)

19. Dirk Nowitzki (basketball)

18. Novak Djokovic (tennis)

17. MS Dhoni (cricket)

16. Tom Brady (American football)

15. Usain Bolt (athletics)

Bolt at London 2012.
Olympics – London 2012 Olympic Games – Olympic Stadium – 11/8/12 Athletics – Men’s 4x100m Final – Jamaica’s Usain Bolt (R) and Yohan Blake celebrate winning Gold Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Paul Childs Livepic PLEASE NOTE: FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY

14. Ray Allen (basketball)

13. Rafael Nadal (tennis)

12. Michael Phelps (swimming)

11. Steve Nash (basketball)

10. Kobe Bryant (basketball)

Bryant wins Olympic gold.
Olympics – London 2012 Olympic Games – North Greenwich Arena – 12/8/12 Basketball – Men’s Basketball Gold Medal Game – USA v Spain – USA’s Kobe Bryant celebrates with his gold medal Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Paul Childs Livepic PLEASE NOTE: FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY

9. Samuel Eto’o (football)

8. Ronaldinho (football)

7. Roger Federer (tennis)

6. Manny Ramirez (baseball)

5. Tiger Woods (golf)

Woods celebrating at the Masters.
Golf – Masters – Augusta National Golf Club – Augusta, Georgia, U.S. – April 14, 2019 – Tiger Woods of the U.S. celebrates on the 18th hole after winning the 2019 Masters. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

4. Dwyane Wade (basketball)

3. Lionel Messi (football)

2. Cristiano Ronaldo (football)

  1. LeBron James (basketball)
James playing for the Lakers.
Apr 1, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) moves to the basket in the first half of the game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

James named number one

It’s a win for one of the most famous athletes on the planet with LA Lakers’ James emerging victorious for 22 years that have seen him named the NBA’s MVP four times to go along with his four championship rings.

And that’s no small feat when you consider that the never-ending Messi vs Ronaldo debate was breathing down his neck with the latter, despite having won fewer Ballon d’Or titles, snatching the silver medal.

Elsewhere, we think Phelps has been a little bit hard done by considering he became the most decorated Olympian of all time this century, while the fastest human being in recorded history, Bolt, could probably do with an upgrade too.

Bolt winning Olympic gold.
2016 Rio Olympics – Athletics – Victory Ceremony – Men’s 4 x 100m Relay Victory Ceremony – Olympic Stadium – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 20/08/2016. Gold medalist Usain Bolt (JAM) of Jamaica reacts during the medal ceremony. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.

It’s good to see Schumacher and Hamilton getting due praise as seven-time Formula 1 world champions, but we’d definitely like to see Nadal a little closer to Federer given his equally head-spinning total of Grand Slam wins.

And regardless of what you think about his personality, you’ve probably got to concede that Floyd Mayweather has been shortchanged considering he didn’t even make the top 30.

However, that’s just the way that the cookie crumbles when there are so many legendary athletes milling about because to say that the past 22 years have been stacked with talent would be the mother of all understatements.

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