Famous 20th Century Athletes

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Find out more about the greatest 20th Century Athletes, including Ross Rebagliati, Usain Bolt, Oscar Pistorius, Debi Thomas and Jesse Owens.
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 1 
Jesse Owens
(American Track and Field Athlete Who Won Four Gold Medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics)
Jesse Owens
11
Birthdate: September 12, 1913
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Oakville, Alabama, United States
Died: March 31, 1980

Widely regarded as one of the greatest track and field athletes of all time, Jesse Owens' three world records in less than an hour in 1935 came to be known as the greatest 45 minutes ever in sports. He was credited with destroying Adolf Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics.

 2 
Mo Farah
(British Long-Distance Runner and the Most Successful Male Track Distance Runner Ever)
Mo Farah
22
Birthdate: March 23, 1983
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Mogadishu, Somalia
Long-distance runner Mo Farah shot to fame with his 10,000-meter and 5,000-meter wins at the 2012 London Olympics. The first athlete to score a quadruple double, Farah has won 10 major international titles. He became the European Athlete of the Year thrice and has also received the CBE.
 3 
Florence Griffith Joyner
(American Track and Field Athlete Who Won Gold Medal in 100 m and 200 m in 1988 Olympics)
Florence Griffith Joyner
11
Birthdate: December 21, 1959
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, United States
Died: September 21, 1998

Legendary American sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner is still regarded as the fastest woman in the world. Her world records in both the 100m and 200m categories have still not been broken. The three-time Olympic gold medal winner was also known for her six-inch nails and her unconventional outfits.

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 4 
Jim Thorpe
(Athlete)
Jim Thorpe
9
Birthdate: May 28, 1887
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Lincoln County, Oklahoma, United States
Died: March 28, 1953

Jim Thorpe was an American athlete who was counted among the most versatile athletes of the modern era. Jim Thorpe won two gold medals at the 1912 Olympics and became the first Native American to give the United States an Olympic gold. He also played American football, professional baseball, and basketball. He was memorialized in the 1951 film Jim Thorpe – All-American.

 5 
Nadia Comaneci
(Romanian Retired Gymnast and a Five-Time Olympic Gold Medalist)
Nadia Comaneci
7
Birthdate: November 12, 1961
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Onești, Romania

Nadia Comaneci is a Romanian former gymnast. One of the best-known gymnasts in the world, Comaneci has five Olympic gold medals under her belt. Credited with popularizing gymnastics around the world, Nadia Comaneci was honored by the Laureus World Sports Academy by including her in their Athletes of the 20th Century list in 2000.

 6 
Eliud Kipchoge
(Long-distance runner)
Eliud Kipchoge
12
Birthdate: November 17, 1984
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Kapsisiywa, Nandi County, Kenya
 7 
Allyson Felix
(Retired American Track and Field Athlete Who Competed in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters)
Allyson Felix
7
Birthdate: November 18, 1985
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, United States

The most-decorated track and field athlete, Allyson Felix, once bullied for having skinny legs, now has a record 9 Olympic medals, including 6 gold medals. Named to Time 100 in 2020, she is also part of the board of Right to Play, which caters to children in underdeveloped countries.

 8 
Carl Lewis
(American Track-and-Field Athlete Who Won Nine Olympic Gold Medals During the 1980s and 1990s)
Carl Lewis
11
Birthdate: July 1, 1961
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Birmingham, Alabama, United States

A dominant sprinter and long jumper, Carl Lewis has won ten Olympic medals, nine of them gold. From 1981 to 1991, he topped the world rankings in the 100 m, 200 m and long jump events, slowly starting to lose his dominance thereafter, eventually retiring in 1997. Currently a businessperson, he has also appeared in films and television productions.

 9 
Michael Johnson
(American olympic athlete)
Michael Johnson
9
Birthdate: September 13, 1967
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Dallas

Four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson remains the only man to win both the 200m and the 400m events in the same Olympics. He was the Track & Field News 1996 Athlete of the Year. In 2008, he returned his 2000 Olympic relay medal, as a teammate had taken performance-enhancing drugs.

 10 
Tyson Gay
(Sprinter, Athletics competitor)
Tyson Gay
9
Birthdate: August 9, 1982
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Lexington

Born into an athletic family, Tyson Gay naturally developed an interest in sports. One of the fastest sprinters in both the 100m and the 200m categories, he was part of the 2016 Olympic relay team that was stripped of its medal for breaking game rules.

 11 
Wilma Rudolph
(Sprinter and First American Woman to Win Three Gold Medals at the Single Olympics)
Wilma Rudolph
7
Birthdate: June 23, 1940
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Clarksville, Tennessee, United States
Died: November 12, 1994

Sprinter Wilma Rudolph made history by becoming the first American female athlete to win three track and field gold medals in a single Olympic game. As a child, she needed orthopedic shoes to help her walk. The sports icon lost her life to cancer but was immortalized through books and movies.

 12 
Jackie Joyner-Kersee
(One of the Greatest Female Athletes of All-Time)
Jackie Joyner-Kersee
6
Birthdate: March 3, 1962
Sun Sign: Pisces
Birthplace: East St. Louis, Illinois, United States

The first to score over 7,000 points in the heptathlon, Jackie Joyner-Kersee is considered by many as one of the greatest female athletes ever. While in school, she excelled in sports such as volleyball, basketball, and track, and also did well in studies. She later won three Olympic golds medals.

 13 
Cathy Freeman
(Australian Former Sprinter Who Specialised in the 400 metres Event)
Cathy Freeman
10
Birthdate: February 16, 1973
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: Mackay, Queensland, Australia

Cathy Freeman is a former sprinter known for her achievements in the 400 meters events. Her personal best of 48.63, set at the 1996 Olympics, makes her the eighth-fastest woman of all time. She gave Australia an Olympic gold at the 2000 Olympics. Also a humanitarian, Freeman is credited with founding the Cathy Freeman Foundation.

 14 
Denise Lewis
(Athletics competitor)
Denise Lewis
5
Birthdate: August 27, 1972
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: West Bromwich

Denise Lewis is a British sports commentator and former athlete. She won the heptathlon gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and became the first European to win Olympic gold in the heptathlon. A two-time Commonwealth Games champion, Lewis also won silver medals in the 1997 and 1999 World Championships. She was also the 1998 European Champion. 

 15 
Linford Christie
(Retired Sprinter)
Linford Christie
7
Birthdate: April 2, 1960
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Saint Andrew, Jamaica

Linford Christie is a Jamaican-born British former sprinter who won gold medals in the 100 meters at the Olympic Games, the World Championships, the European Championships, and the Commonwealth Games. He is one of the most highly decorated British athletes of all time. He was awarded the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1993. 

 16 
Kelly Holmes
(Middle-Distance Runner Who Won Two Golds in the 2004 Olympics in Athens)
Kelly Holmes
7
Birthdate: April 19, 1970
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Pembury, Kent, England

Kelly Holmes is a retired English middle-distance athlete who specialized in the 800 meters and 1,500 meters events. She won gold medals for both distances at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Beginning her career with the British Army, she turned to professional athletics in 1993. She took part in her final major championship in 2004. 

 17 
Haile Gebrselassie
(Former Ethiopian Long-Distance Track Athlete and Two-Time Olympic Gold Medalist)
Haile Gebrselassie
4
Birthdate: April 18, 1973
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Assela, Ethiopia
 18 
Daley Thompson
(Decathlete)
Daley Thompson
7
Birthdate: July 30, 1958
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Notting Hill, London, United Kingdom

Daley Thompson is a British former athlete who specialized in decathlon. He has won gol medals in decathlon at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. He also broke the world record for decathlon on four occasions. He also won three Commonwealth titles and is regarded as the greatest decathlete ever. 

 19 
Abebe Bikila
(First African to Win Olympic Gold Medal and First Athlete to Win Two Olympic Marathons Back-to-Back)
Abebe Bikila
5
Birthdate: July 7, 1932
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Shewa, Ethiopia
Died: October 25, 1973

Ethiopian marathon runner, Abebe Bikil,a became the first black African Olympic gold medalist at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Four years later, he won his second gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. He created world record both the times. A pioneer in long-distance running, he participated in a total of 16 marathons. 

 20 
Donovan Bailey
(Former Sprinter)
Donovan Bailey
4
Birthdate: December 16, 1967
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: Manchester, Jamaica

Donovan Bailey is a retired Jamaican-Canadian sprinter. He once held the world record for the 100 meters and is considered the greatest Canadian sprinter of all time. Noted for his top speed, he became the first Canadian to legally break the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters. In 2004,  he was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame.

 21 
Terry Fox
(Canadian Athlete and Activist Who Became a National Hero and an Inspirational Figure for His Battle Against Cancer)
Terry Fox
5
Birthdate: July 28, 1958
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Winnipeg, Canada
Died: June 28, 1981

Terry Fox was a popular cancer research activist and humanitarian. Despite suffering from cancer and having lost one of his legs to cancer, he embarked on a cross-country run to raise money for cancer research. Although he died at the age of 22, his efforts resulted in a worldwide legacy and gave rise to the annual Terry Fox Run.

 22 
Wim Hof
(Dutch Extreme Athlete Known for His Ability to Withstand Low Temperatures)
Wim Hof
9
Birthdate: April 20, 1959
Sun Sign: Taurus
Birthplace: Sittard, Limburg, Netherlands

Wim Hof, or The Iceman, is a Dutch extreme athlete and motivational speaker who holds a Guinness record for the fastest half-marathon completed barefoot on ice/snow. He has also devised the Wim Hof Method, which helps one gain control over one’s body through extreme cold tolerance.

 23 
Antonio Rüdiger
(Footballer)
Antonio Rüdiger
9
Birthdate: March 3, 1993
Sun Sign: Pisces
Birthplace: Berlin, Germany
 24 
Sergey Bubka
(Former Soviet-Ukrainian Pole Vaulter Who Broke the World Record for Men's Pole Vault 35 Times)
Sergey Bubka
7
Birthdate: December 4, 1963
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: Luhansk, Ukraine

Russian star pole-vaulter Sergey Bubka had started training at age 9. He soared to fame after winning the world championship in Finland at age 15 and later became the first to jump 6.1m. He won the 1988 Seoul Olympic gold and shattered the global men’s pole vault record 35 times.

 25 
Alex Scott
(Footballer)
Alex Scott
13
Birthdate: October 14, 1984
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: London, England

Alex Scott is an English TV presenter and former professional football player. Apart from playing for popular clubs like Arsenal and Birmingham City, Scott also represented the women's national football team. She also played for Great Britain at the London Olympics. In 2019, she was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.

 26 
Kerri Walsh Jennings
(Beach Volleyball player)
Kerri Walsh Jennings
6
Birthdate: August 15, 1978
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Santa Clara, California, United States

American beach-volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings was born to a baseball player father and a volleyball player mother, and was naturally drawn toward sports. She later attended Stanford on a sports scholarship and won three gold medals at the Olympics. She is married to fellow beach-volleyball player Casey Jennings

 27 
Milkha Singh
(Indian track and field athlete)
Milkha Singh
6
Birthdate: November 20, 1929
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Govindpura, Muzaffargarh District, India
Died: June 18, 2021

Indian track and field legend Milkha Singh, also known as "The Flying Sikh,” was orphaned during the Partition of India. The former army man won four Asian Games gold medals. He also competed in the 1956, 1960, and 1964 Summer Olympics, finishing fourth in the 400-meter event in 1960.

 28 
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce
(Sprinter, Athletics competitor)
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce
4
Birthdate: December 27, 1986
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Kingston

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is a Jamaican sprinter who achieved international recognition in 2008 when she won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing. She then went on to win gold medals at the 2012 and 2020 Olympic Games. Counted among the greatest sprinters of all time, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce also has many World Championship gold medals under her belt.

 29 
Bob Beamon
(Best Known for His World Record in the Long Jump at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968)
Bob Beamon
4
Birthdate: August 29, 1946
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: South Jamaica, New York, United States

Bob Beamon is a former American track and field athlete who won the gold medal for the long jump at the 1968 Olympics. He created a world record in the process of winning the gold medal; the record was broken by Mike Powell almost 23 years later. Beamon was inducted into United States Olympic Hall of Fame.

 30 
Ben Johnson
(Canadian Sprinter Who was the World's Fastest Man During the 1987-88 Season)
Ben Johnson
4
Birthdate: December 30, 1961
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Falmouth, Jamaica

Ben Johnson is a Canadian retired sprinter who was adjudged the world's fastest man during the 1987–88 season after he broke the 60m and 100m indoor world records. He is best known for his performance in the 1984 Olympic Games, where he won two bronze medals. Ben Johnson also won a gold medal at the 1985 World Indoor Championships.

 31 
Steve Prefontaine
(Long-distance Runner)
Steve Prefontaine
7
Birthdate: January 25, 1951
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: Coos Bay
Died: May 30, 1975

Long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine had competed in only one Olympic, finishing fourth in the 5000m race in Munich. However, he had begun breaking records since high school and excelled in cross-country running. His tragic death in a car accident after attending a party ended his life and his sports dreams.

 32 
Roger Bannister
(English Neurologist Who was the First Athlete to Run a Mile in Less Than Four Minutes)
Roger Bannister
8
Birthdate: March 23, 1929
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Harrow, England
Died: March 3, 2018

British middle-distance athlete and neurologist Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister was the first athlete to run a mile in less than four minutes. Before achieving such feat, Bannister set a British record in the 1500 metres during the 1952 Summer Olympics. In the medical field, Bannister became a neurologist and Master of Pembroke College, Oxford.

 33 
Katarina Johnson-Thompson
(Athletics competitor)
Katarina Johnson-Thompson
14
Birthdate: January 9, 1993
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Liverpool

Katarina Johnson-Thompson is an English heptathlete whose performance at the 2018 Commonwealth Games earned her a gold medal. She also won the gold at the 2019 World Championships. Katarina Johnson-Thompson holds the British record for the women's pentathlon with 5,000 points. A highly talented athlete, Katarina Johnson-Thompson also holds the British records for high jump in both outdoors and indoors.

 34 
Jim Kelly
(Martial Artist and Actor Known for His Action Films ‘Enter the Dragon’ and ‘Black Belt Jones’)
Jim Kelly
4
Birthdate: May 5, 1946
Sun Sign: Taurus
Birthplace: Paris, Kentucky, United States
Died: June 29, 2013

Athlete and martial artist Jim Kelly won hearts with his Afro hairstyle and his roles in action film such as Enter the Dragon and Black Belt Jones. Apart from films, he also excelled in karate, winning contests such as the International Middle Weight Karate Championship. He has also played professional tennis.

 35 
Paavo Nurmi
(Finnish Middle-Distance and Long-Distance Runner Who Dominated Distance Running in the Early 20th Century)
Paavo Nurmi
3
Birthdate: June 13, 1897
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Turku, Finland
Died: October 2, 1973

Paavo Nurmi was a Finnish athlete who specialized in long-distance and middle-distance running. Nicknamed the Flying Finn, Nurmi dominated important distance running events in the early 20th century. He won nine gold medals and three silver medals across three Olympics in 1920, 1924, and 1928. Paavo Nurmi also set 22 official world records during his career.

 36 
Magnús Scheving
(Creator of the Children's Television Series ‘LazyTown’)
Magnús Scheving
4
Birthdate: November 10, 1964
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Borgarnes, Iceland

Magnús Scheving is best known as the creator of the BAFTA-winning children’s series Lazy Town, which has its roots in Scheving’s first book and centers around children’s fitness. The Icelandic aerobic gymnastic champion is also a motivational speaker and has previously been a fitness trainer at a school.

 37 
Rebecca Adlington
9
Birthdate: February 17, 1989
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Birthplace: Mansfield

Rebecca Adlington made headlines with her double-gold win at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in which she aced both the 400m and 800m freestyle events. After retiring at 23, she has worked for BBC as a sports pundit and participated in shows such as I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!

 38 
Jay Silverheels
(Actor and Athlete Known for His Role as ‘Tonto’ in the TV Series ‘The Lone Ranger’)
Jay Silverheels
6
Birthdate: May 26, 1912
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Brantford, Canada
Died: March 5, 1980

Indigenous Canadian actor Jay Silverheels gained international popularity for playing Tonto, the Native American companion of the protagonist in the American western TV series The Lone Ranger. As a young man, he excelled in athletics and became a lacrosse player. He later quit sports to pursue acting. He bred and raced Standardbred horses as a hobby. 

 39 
Maurice Greene
(Track & Field Sprinter)
Maurice Greene
5
Birthdate: July 23, 1974
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Kansas City, Kansas, United States

Maurice Greene is a former track and field athlete and a former world record holder in 100-metre dash. Greene won four Olympic medals, including two gold medals, representing the United States of America in two Olympic Games. Maurice Greene also has five gold medals at the World Athletics Championships under his belt.

 40 
Paula Radcliffe
(Marathon runner, Long-distance runner, Athletics competitor)
Paula Radcliffe
9
Birthdate: December 17, 1973
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: Northwich

Paula Radcliffe is a retired distance runner, credited with winning the London Marathon and the New York Marathon three times each. Born into an athletic family, she emerged as a running talent by the time she was in her teens, winning the world junior cross-country title at the age of nineteen, eventually. She held the Women's World Marathon Record from 2003 to 2019.

 41 
Matt Miazga
(Association football player)
Matt Miazga
6
Birthdate: July 19, 1995
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Clifton

American soccer player and Chelsea defender Matt Miazga has previously also represented the New York Red Bulls. Born to Polish immigrant parents in the U.S., Miazga is a staunch Christian and often expresses his religious views on social media. He was part of the American Olympic campaign in 2016.

 42 
Sebastian Coe
(Middle Distance Runner, Politician)
Sebastian Coe
8
Birthdate: September 29, 1956
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Hammersmith

Sebastian Coe is a politician and former athlete who represented Great Britain in two Olympic events. He won four Olympic medals including two gold medals as a middle-distance runner. In 2012, he was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame. The same year, Coe was honored at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. 

 43 
Dominique Dawes
(American Retired Artistic Gymnast and Olympic Gold Medalist)
Dominique Dawes
5
Birthdate: November 20, 1976
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Silver Spring, Maryland, United States

Known as Awesome Dawesome, Dominique Dawes is a retired star gymnast from the U.S. who was part of the gold-winning team at the Atlanta Olympics. She also became the first African-American to earn an individual Olympic medal, with her bronze. She is also part of the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

 44 
Efren Reyes
(Filipino Professional Pool Player Who is Widely Considered the Greatest Pool Player of All Time)
Efren Reyes
8
Birthdate: August 26, 1954
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Angeles

Efren Reyes is a Filipino professional pool player who is regarded as the greatest player of all time. Nicknamed The Magician, Reyes is best known for his ability to display numerous trick shots. Efren Reyes has also won more than 100 international titles over the course of his illustrious career. Reyes is a WPA World Eight-ball and Nine-ball champion.

 45 
Woody Strode
(One of the First Black American Players in the National Football League in the Postwar Era)
Woody Strode
4
Birthdate: July 25, 1914
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, United States
Died: December 31, 1994

One of the first Black football players of the NFL, Woody Strode was also a talented decathlete. He had dabbled in professional wrestling, too, but later gained fame solely for his film roles, such as that of gladiator Draba in Spartacus, for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination.

 46 
Teemu Selänne
(Former Finnish Ice Hockey Player Who Played as a Winger)
Teemu Selänne
5
Birthdate: July 3, 1970
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Helsinki

Teemu Selänne is a Finnish retired ice hockey player who played as a winger. Dubbed the Finnish Flash, Teemu is the highest scoring player from Finland in the history of the National Hockey League (NHL). In 2017, he became only the second Finn after Jari Kurri to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

 47 
Hicham El Guerrouj
(One of the Greatest Middle-Distance Runners in History)
Hicham El Guerrouj
4
Birthdate: September 14, 1974
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Berkane, Morocco

Moroccan former middle-distance runner Hicham El Guerrouj is a four-time 1500m world champion. The UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador became the second athlete to win both the 1500m and 5000m titles in the same Olympics. He won the IAAF World Athlete of the Year thrice and holds many indoor and outdoor records.

 48 
Edwin Moses
(Athletics competitor)
Edwin Moses
4
Birthdate: August 31, 1955
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Dayton
 49 
Chris Hoy
(Sport cyclist, Racecar driver)
Chris Hoy
4
Birthdate: March 23, 1976
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Edinburgh

Chris Hoy is a British racing driver and former track cyclist. A highly decorated Olympic cyclist, he is the recipient of six gold and one silver medals. He is also an 11-time World Champion. He announced his retirement from competitive cycling in 2013. He is also interested in motorsport and competed at the 2015 Race of Champions.

 50 
Ellen Whitaker
(Show Jumper)
Ellen Whitaker
9
Birthdate: March 5, 1986
Sun Sign: Pisces
Birthplace: England

Ellen Whitaker is an English show jumping rider. In September 2019, she was ranked 211 on the FEI riders' Longines Ranking list. She began competing at the tender age of five and qualified for the Horse Of The Year Show (HOYS) at just eight years old. She represented Great Britain in the European Championships in 2007.