The Independent's 100 sportsmen and women of the 20th century: Ali bestrides the century: a colossus who transcended a sport to inspire the world

The winner of our poll to find the century's leading sportsmen and women had an appeal that only Pele came close to matching, says Richard Williams. Profiles of the top 100 by Mike Rowbottom

WHY A boxer, for goodness' sake? Why choose, as the greatest sporting figure of the 20th century, a representative of a discipline that its most eloquent spokesmen find hard to defend, faced with medical evidence which shows even a moderate tap forcing the brain to collide with the bony lining of the cranium like blancmange dashed against a coral reef? Why select a man whose mid-life existence appears to be an agonising testimony to the essential inhumanity and destructiveness of the pursuit to which he gave himself?

Because, alone of the nominees, Muhammad Ali transcended his sport. Of the 99 other distinguished names on our list, perhaps only Pele, the runner- up, could make the beginnings of a similar claim, on account of his pre- eminence within the game played by the poor people of the world, as well as by virtue of his own qualities as a man. But, in truth, he and the other 98 belong to the world of sport. Muhammad Ali belongs to the world.

Sport is entertainment for participant and spectator alike. Yet sometimes it also serves a deeper purpose, to remind us of the human condition. Our everyday strengths and virtues are magnified in the skill, endurance and teamwork needed to create champions. From them we learn not just that the odds are there to be upset, but that the struggle can be its own reward. Our weaknesses, too, are mirrored in sudden and calamitous collapses of mind or body on the track or the pitch. And then there are the more complicated scenarios, often just as instructive, in which defeat becomes ennobled, or victory is tainted.

Muhammad Ali checks in on the complicated side. Not just through his choice of sport (will there be any boxers, or any boxing at all, from whom to select a comparable figure at the end of the next century?) but in his manner of conducting himself within it. As David Remnick's fine book, King of the World, reminded us this year, the brash-mouthed young Cassius Clay was initially a figure greeted with dismay and distaste even by those who were looking for a figurehead for the black consciousness movement in the febrile atmosphere of the early Sixties.

Writing in 1963 about Sonny Liston, the reigning world heavyweight champion, as the awesome embodiment of the white race's worst nightmares, the black poet and activist LeRoi Jones declared: "There is no white man in the world who wants to fight Sonny Liston (though Cassius Clay has come from the Special Products Division of Madison Avenue to see what he can do)." A few months later, after Ali had taken Liston's title, Jones was forced to revise his view. "Clay is not a fake," he concluded, "and even his blustering and playground poetry are valid, and demonstrate, as far as I'm concerned, that a new and more complicated generation has moved on to the scene."

Three years later Ali would attract widespread condemnation from a very different sector of society for his decision to spurn the US draft board and refuse to fight in South-east Asia. Others, however, recognised his gesture, and the price it exacted, as an event of far greater significance than the winning or losing of a boxing title. "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong," Ali told a reporter, and in those nine simple words he had linked himself with a worldwide shift in the balance of society.

When he was stripped of his titles by the boxing authorities, it was the signal that he had made common cause with anti-establishment movements around the world. He was the first sportsman of world stature to stand alongside Bob Dylan, Che Guevara, Angela Davis and John Lennon in the pantheon of the Sixties counterculture. And it is in subconscious recognition of his impact in that dimension, as much as for the memories of his great fights, his brazen showmanship or his appearances on the Parkinson Show, that the emotions are stirred so profoundly by the sight of him today.

There are those who still criticise the decision by the organisers of the 1996 Olympic Games to invite him to light the flame at the opening ceremony in Atlanta. But as he stood there, his hand shaking helplessly and the torch flickering in the breeze of a southern evening, those of us who were in the stadium and the hundreds of millions watching the telecast were confronted with some of the less easily marketable truths about sport.

As Ali took an age to summon the co-ordination required to transfer the flame from his small torch to the fuse that would ignite the larger one,

the spectacle forced us to deal with the thought of what sport can do even to one of its most distinguished and successful practitioners. Nor was this just a question of a boxer damaged by too many punches to the head. Those involved in other sports are sometimes forced to count the cost - arthritis, broken limbs, paralysis, burns and worse. In that moment Ali stood for them, too, and for their sacrifices in pursuit of the thing that brought pleasure and glory and, sometimes, a missing focus to their lives.

So, in the end, although Ali was undoubtedly a great boxer, the question of whether he can be proved to have been a better one than Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano is less important than the fact that he is a great man. The choice of Ali to lead this end-of-the-century poll, and many others, is in its way a tribute not so much to an individual as to mankind's endless (and often well-disguised) search for the meaning of life and the goodness within ourselves.

Who came second? Pele, of course, another figure who can be described as beloved of virtually all the people of the world. Nowadays the Brazilian genius is sometimes accused of having turned himself into a consummate PR man whose utterances are carefully calculated to please and flatter that day's audience. To get a truer view you only have to see Pele waiting quietly for a taxi in a hotel entrance, signing autographs for a pair of fans, agreeing to let them take his photograph and then himself handing their camera to a passer-by with a request to take a photograph of him with his arms around both of them. Then you understand that his graciousness and benevolence are as natural as his enjoyment of the status which fate and his talent have allocated to him.

Ali and Pele both have legitimate rivals for the titles of the best boxer and footballer of all time. Sir Donald Bradman, third in the list, need fear no challenge to his standing as the finest of all batsmen. The statistics say as much. More importantly, so does the sheer awe in which the Australian maestro is held by all other cricketers around the world. Do we admire him all the more because his second-ball duck against England at The Oval in 1948 deprived him of the chance to end his 20-year international career by establishing a lifetime Test average of 100, instead of leaving it at 99.94? Since it may have been the only sign of his mortality, probably we do.

Only one of our top 40 is still competing at the highest level. Steve Redgrave is the exception to the rule that no one can be the subject of a proper assessment during his or her active career, but then Redgrave is exceptional in every way. In general we need time to lend perspective, even if - in the case of Jack Nicklaus, for instance - it is only a very few years. Nicklaus's achievements may shine even more brightly for future generations, as have those of Jesse Owens, although the arrival of a new century may make Owens's magnificent rebuttal of Adolf Hitler's racial theories in Berlin's Olympic Stadium in 1936 seem less immediately relevant.

Rod Laver and Juan Manuel Fangio, sixth and seventh, benefit from the general perception of those in tennis and motor racing that, notwithstanding the changed conditions within their sports, their pre-eminence remains unchallenged. Wood-framed rackets and space-frame Formula One cars were their tools, but the Rockhampton Rocket and Old Bandylegs had the talent and the mentality to impose themselves on any era, with any equipment.

Emil Zatopek, Carl Lewis and Babe Didrikson complete the top 10, all representing phenomenal achievements in the world of athletics, although Didrikson (the leading woman) also excelled at golf. Together with Owens, their presence demonstrates that while track and field may not be the most commercially well endowed or productive of sports, its champions reach directly into the hearts of their audience and command an enduring affection.

The admirably non-partisan nature of our poll is demonstrated by the fact that the leading Briton comes no higher than 12th. Gareth Edwards thus finishes comfortably ahead of such iconic figures as Linford Christie (20th), Jack Hobbs (21st), Sebastian Coe (26th), Ian Botham (27th), Lester Piggott (28th), George Best (29th), Stanley Matthews (37th), Roger Bannister (39th) and Bobby Charlton (43rd).

As for the rest, readers may find themselves reacting with horror to what seems to be the outrageously lowly placing of a particular favourite, only to examine those ahead and recognise the quality and the depth of the competition. From those sportsmen and women whose deeds are left to us only in newspaper cuttings and a few black and white still photographs to those whose every movement is recorded by a dozen cameras and subjected to computer-enhanced analysis on television channels dedicated exclusively to the broadcasting of games, these are the figures who made the 20th century a pretty good time to be a fan.

Our list was compiled following a poll of journalists from The Independent's Sports Department

1 MUHAMMAD ALI

Boxing

Floating like a butterfly to the top of the sporting lists. He was the first man to win the world heavyweight boxing title three times, but it was the manner of his achievement which made an unrivalled public impact. Yet he defied opinion to embrace the Moslem faith at the height of his prowess, and missed four years through suspension after refusing to fight in Vietnam. Reclaiming his title in 1973 by outfoxing the mighty George Foreman confirmed his own estimation that he was "the greatest".

2 PELE

Football

At the age of 17 he scored a hat-trick for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup semi-final, and added two more extraordinary goals as his team won the final. Where do you go from there? In Pele's case, up. The man who was christened Edson Arantes Do Nascimento - he never knew how he came by his nickname - went on to thrill the world game with his imagination and talent, masterminding Brazil's 1970 World Cup victory a year after becoming the first player to score 1,000 goals.

3 DONALD BRADMAN

Cricket

Unquestionably the greatest batsman of all time, Bradman averaged 99.94 in his 52 Test matches. To put his mastery in perspective, the next best average is held by Graeme Pollock with 60.97. Only 5ft 7in tall, Bradman accumulated his runs through patience, concentration and fine judgement, though some saw his play as mechanical rather than inspired. He dominated Australian cricket throughout the 1930s and 1940s and survived the infamous "Bodyline" series against England.

4 JACK NICKLAUS

Golf

With 20 major championship wins to his name, the man who came to be known as the "Golden Bear" is acknowledged as the most successful golfer in history. It took a while for the public to embrace this bear, however, as he displaced the charismatic Arnold Palmer as the world's top player in the 1960s. Lost his natural chubbiness in the 1970s and 1980s but retained his phenomenal drive and concentration, winning his last US Open in 1986, 24 years after his first.

5 JESSE OWENS

Athletics

A place in history was assured for this sharecropper's son when he set six world records in the space of an hour at a meeting in 1935 - the last of which, in the long jump, stood for 20 years. And this despite the fact that he had a bad back... A year later, despite being shunned by Adolf Hitler, he became the outstanding figure of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning four gold medals. The grace of his running and personality won him as many admirers as did his achievements.

6 ROD LAVER

Tennis

The only player to win the Grand Slam twice, first as an amateur in 1962, then as a professional in 1969. The greatest-ever left-hander was also undefeated in the four successive Wimbledon tournaments he contested in 1961, 1962, 1968 and 1969. It was the tenacity and aggression of this red-haired player's game which wore down his opponents, earning him the nickname of "The Rocket". The effectiveness of his serve, with its kick and placement, was unmatched in his era.

13 Gary Sobers

Cricket

The greatest all-rounder in cricket history. A brilliant fielder and versatile bowler (fast medium, slow left-arm orthodox or spin), the West Indian was also one of the greatest batsmen of all time. His unbeaten 365 against Pakistan stood for years as the highest Test score.

14 Martina Navratilova

Tennis

When she retired in 1994, this Czech-born US citizen had won 167 singles titles, including a record nine at her beloved Wimbledon, where she became a hugely popular crowd pleaser. Brave and emotional on court, and off, where she risked scorn as a lesbian.

15 Alfredo Di Stefano

Football

The inspiration - and dictatorial presence - in the Real Madrid team which won the first five European Cups, Di Stefano was a deep-lying centre forward of immense power and cunning. Outstanding in the 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European final at Hampden.

16 Joe Louis

Boxing

The "Brown Bomber" was arguably the most effective heavyweight champion, winning the title in 1937 and retiring in 1948 after 25 successful defences, memorably in 1938 against Germany's Max Schmeling in a match imbued with racist overtones by the Nazis.

17 John McEnroe

Tennis

Celebrated equally for his consummate skill and on-court behaviour which took brattishness to new levels - "You cannot be serious...you are the pits of the world" - he won four US titles and three at Wimbledon, where he ended the winning streak of Bjorn Borg.

18 Fanny Blankers-Koen

Athletics

Put women's athletics on the map when, as a 30-year-old mother of two, was persuaded to revive her career by her husband and went on to win four gold medals at the 1948 Olympics. In her career, the Flying Dutchwoman set world records in seven events.

19 Ayrton Senna

Motor racing

By the time he was killed at Imola in 1994, this Brazilian had won three world championships and established himself as an idol in the sport, recognised for his unrivalled intensity and perfectionism. He pushed his car, and himself, to the limits, at all times.

20 Linford Christie

Athletics

At his high point, in 1994, this late starter ruled the world of sprinting: he was Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth champion. The west London contender took the battle to the American sprinters for 10 years before his controversial exit at the 1996 Olympics.

21 Jack Hobbs

Cricket

The first batsman to reach 4,000 and 5,000 runs in Test cricket (in 1926 and 1929), his exploits for Surrey and England were celebrated as much for their style as their statistics. Deceptively strong, he scored 98 of his 197 first-class centuries after the age of 40.

22 Steve Redgrave

Rowing

Britain's supreme oarsman, the dyslexic son of a Marlow builder, he has won four successive Olympic titles and is currently seeking a fifth in Sydney. An unyielding and remorseless trainer, he has produced some of his finest results despite suffering from colitis.

23 Sugar Ray Robinson

Boxing

The balance and rhythm he developed as a nightclub tap dancer enabled Robinson to bestride the ring between 1943 and 1951, when he won 91 consecutive fights. Five times world middleweight champion, he earned his nickname for being "sweet as sugar".

35 Daley Thompson

Athletics

Laid claim to being the greatest athlete in the world during the 1980s, when he won two Olympic titles and set a world record in the decathlon. His superb natural ability was allied to a natural arrogance which psyched out his rivals on the big occasions.

36 Bill Russell

Basketball

Though only 6ft 9in and 220lb, Russell earned the reputation as the sport's gretest player in a 13-year career which saw him help Boston Celtics to 11 NBA Championships. Known as "The Ghost" for his uncanny ability to rise up and block his opponents' shots.

37 Stanley Matthews

Football

The Wizard of the Dribble employed his devastating body swerve to good effect at the top level for more than 30 years, playing for Stoke at 50. Famously and finally won an FA Cup winner's medal for Blackpool in 1953, in a match now known as "The Matthews final".

38 Arnold Palmer

Golf

His bold and powerful style was perfect to launch the game into the modern professional era. He wowed the crowds as he won seven major championships between 1958 and 1964 before giving way at the top of the game to the up and coming Jack Nicklaus.

39 Roger Bannister

Athletics

Fixed in history as the first man to break the four-minute mile, a feat he achieved on 6 May 1954, this Oxford medical student earned a second place in the annals with his tenacious victory over Australian rival John Landy in the Empire Games of the same year.

40 Babe Ruth

Baseball

The dynamic hitting of this orphan who was raised in Baltimore, Maryland, brought him 714 home runs, a record unequalled in his lifetime. He was a giant of American sport in the 1920s, helping to shape baseball into a hugely popular spectacle.

41 Mark Spitz

Swimming

Astonished the world by making good his prediction of winning seven golds at the 1972 Olympics. It was ample recompense for what happened four years earlier, when as a cocky 18-year-old he had failed to pull off a similar feat at the Mexico Olympics.

42 Sergei Bubka

Athletics

Unrivalled as the supreme pole-vaulter of his generation, winning six consecutive world titles from 1983, this son of a Red Army sergeant was the first man to clear 6 metres, and became legendary for the financial rewards he managed to reap as the sport went open.

43 Bobby Charlton

Football

Known above all as an ambassador for the game because of his grace on the pitch and dignity off it, he survived the 1958 Munich air crash to help win the 1966 World Cup (he made a record 106 appearances for England) and the 1968 European Cup for Manchester United.

44 Haile Gebrselassie

Athletics

This little Ethiopian, one of eight brothers and sisters, has been the dominant figure at everything from 3,000m to 10,000m for the last five years, winning Olympic and world titles and reshaping the record books in the process. Has had a film made of his life.

45 Jahangir Khan

Squash

A spindly boy named "Conqueror of the World" lived up to that onerous burden as he became the No 1 player, winning 10 British Open and six world titles. Fulfilled the ambitions of his elder brother Torsam, a top-10 player who died of a heart attack on court.

57 Ben Hogan

Golf

Unsmiling, uncommunicative, private, he gained a reputation for being the hardest-working player of his day. After a near-fatal car accident in 1949, he returned to enjoy even greater success in the game, adding Open, US Open and Masters titles.

58 Duncan Edwards

Football

By the time of his premature death at 21 following the 1958 Munich air crash, he was an established England international of towering strength and ability who had also helped Manchester United to two League titles. What might he have gone on to do?

59 Jack Dempsey

Boxing

A former hobo who had fought for his supper, he won the heavyweight title in 1919 with a ferocious defeat of Jess Willard. As the Manassa Mauler, he defeated Georges Carpentier two years later in a bout which attracted the first one million dollar gate.

60 Vivian Richards

Cricket

Imperious and powerful as a batsman, highly effective as a motivator, Richards captained the West Indies to 27 wins in 50 Tests between 1980 and 1991. Always big on big occasions, his match-winning innings of 138 to win the 1979 World Cup final was typical.

61 Nadia Comaneci

Gymnastics

Sprang to the world's attention at the 1976 Olympics when, as a 14-year- old, she received the first perfect 10 for an exercise. Similar scores in five other disciplines brought the diminutive Romanian an overall title she narrowly failed to retain four years later.

62 Serge Blanco

Rugby union

Colourful, glamorous, sublimely gifted, this Venezuelan-born Frenchman was a hugely influential figure as he made 93 international appearances at full back up to 1991. He scored 38 tries, most gloriously to take France into the 1987 World Cup final.

63 Pete Sampras

Tennis

Acknowledged by his peers as the greatest grass court player of all time, Sampras surpassed Bjorn Borg's record of five Wimbedon wins this year despite being in poor form and health earlier in the season. Has a fine all-round game and a blessedly calm temperament.

64 Dawn Fraser

Swimming

Before her career was ended by a 10-year ban following horseplay at the 1964 Olympics - attempting to steal a flag from the Emperor's Palace - she won eight Olympic titles. She was unique in winning three consecutive 100m freestyle gold medals.

65 Juan Schiaffino

Football

Scorer of one of the goals which won the World Cup for Uruguay in 1950, this skilful, unhurried inside left was a fine passer of the ball and possessed a strong left-foot shot. Helped Milan win the title after joining them in 1954 for a world record fee of pounds 72,000.

66 Sugar Ray Leonard

Boxing

His natural ability recalled that of his near namesake, Sugar Ray Robinson, as he won world titles from light-welterweight to light-heavyweight. He came out of retirement four times - once too often for those who recalled his epic 1981 win over Thomas Hearns.

67 Olga Korbut

Gymnastics

The dazzling emergence of this waif-like figure - 5ft and 6st - at the 1972 Olympics, where she won golds for beam and floor, established a new pattern of child-like gymnasts. Although her colleague Lyudmila Tourischeva took overall gold, Korbut's impact was unmatched.

79 Joe Montana

American football

A master of the winning comeback, this durable product of a Pennsylvania mill town led the San Francisco 49ers to win four Super Bowl titles from quarterback. A superb passer, he was voted Most Valuable Player in three of those matches.

80 Phil Bennett

Rugby union

Celebrated for his jinking side-step, demonstrated twice at the start of the Barbarians' legendary try against the All Blacks in 1973, Bennett set an international points record of 210 from fly-half, and in 1977 became only the second Welshman to captain the Lions.

81 Alex Murphy

Rugby league

An outstanding scrum-half who played in four winning Challenge Cup finals for three different teams, he won the first of 27 Great Britain caps in 1958 at the age of 19, contributing to a 2-1 Test victory over Australia. His GB Test match record of four tries stood for 32 years.

82 Bobby Moore

Football

Fair-haired and imperturbable at the heart of the West Ham and England defence, Moore played a captain's part as his country won the World Cup in 1966. His stature at the 1970 World Cup was graphically illustrated as he swapped shirts with Pele.

83 Paul Elvstrom

Sailing

This Dane became the first sportsman to win individual gold medals at four successive Olympics in 1960, and went on to become one of only four to have competed at eight Olympics. In 1983-4, won European titles in Tornado class partnered by his daughter, Trine.

84 Suzanne Lenglen

Tennis

Scandalised prevailing views of "decency" as she won Wimbledon six times between 1919 and 25 in flowing dresses, scorning to wear the standard corsets and petticoats. A dominant player, she never conceded more than four games in her last five finals.

85 Miguel Indurain

Cycling

The Spaniard became the first rider to win the Tour de France five times in succession in 1995 thanks to an extraordinary physiology - low heart- rate, and huge lung capacity. This gave him time-trialing ability allied to strength on the mountain rides.

86 Lev Yashin

Football

Tall, acrobatic, always dressed in black, this former ice hockey player was renowned for his sportsmanship as well as his goalkeeping. Known as the Black Panther, he won 78 caps for the Soviet Union and was voted European Player of the Year in 1963.

87 Ellery Hanley

Rugby league

Exhilaratingly effective as either a forward or a back, this particular blunt Yorkshireman joined Wigan for a record fee of pounds 150,000 in 1985 after establishing himself as a prolific scorer for Bradford Northern and GB. Scored 63 tries for Wigan in his first season.

88 Yamashita

Judo

Brought up to be a fighter - he was regularly dipped in cold water as a baby to toughen him up - Yamashita won 203 consecutive contests between 1977 and 1985, winning the 1984 Olympic title en route. Only 5ft 11in, he weighed 20st 6lb and moved fast.

89 Mark Todd

Equestrianism

Acknowledged as the foremost horseman in modern eventing, this New Zealand dairy farmer showed his special gift by winning Badminton in 1994 on a pick-up ride. Sold most of his herd in 1984 to finance his trip to the Los Angeles Olympics, where he won gold.

7 JUAN FANGIO

Motor racing

World champion at Formula One in 1951 and each year from 1954 to 1957, he won 24 of his 51 grand prix races, a success rate that has not been bettered. He was renowned for his stamina, concentration and ability to handle a car in all conditions. Born in Argentina, the son of an Italian father, he learned his business as a garage mechanic in Argentina and by 21 he had built his own racing car - but he soon tranferred to those of Mercedes, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati.

8 EMIL ZATOPEK

Athletics

He ran like a man on the brink of collapse, his face contorted with effort, his head lolling. But far from succumbing, this self-trained Czech - he would run in army boots for stamina - registered startling achievements in the post-War years. After taking the 10,000m at the 1948 Olympics, he brought off an unprecedented triple four years later, winning the 5,000m and 10,000m and, at his first attempt, the marathon. In all, this modest, much-loved man set 18 world records.

9 CARL LEWIS

Athletics

Matched the achievement of Jesse Owens when he won four Olympic titles at the Los Angeles Games of 1984, and took that total to nine 12 years later when he won his fourth consecutive long jump title in Atlanta at the age of 35. He was as graceful and exuberant on the track at the end of his career as he had been at the beginning, but his manner in everyday life - which was seen as calculating and arrogant - meant that he was never received as warmly as Owens had been.

10 MILDRED `BABE' DIDRIKSON

Golf, athletics and basketball

One of the most versatile sporting figures in history, she excelled at basketball in her early career and was an All-American player in 1930- 32. At the 1932 Olympics she won two of the three events she entered, the javelin and 80m hurdles, in world records. She also set a world record for throwing a baseball - 90.22m. But she is best remembered as a golfer who once drove 315 yards and amassed 17 tournament victories in a row in 1947, including the British Women's Amateur.

11 DIEGO MARADONA

Football

Small and squat, with dynamic acceleration and enterprise, this child of an impoverished Argentinian family elevated himself to the pinnacle of the game before dropping away amid charges of cocaine abuse. Only able to show glimpses of his potential at the 1982 World Cup, he led his country to victory four years later, disposing of England en route thanks partly to "The Hand of God" and partly to a goal which demonstrated his sublime gifts.

12 GARETH EDWARDS

Rugby union

Key member of the Welsh team during their glory years in the 1970s, he played 53 consecutive times for his country and 10 Tests for the British Lions, including the series victories against New Zealand and South Africa. Fast, strong and astute, he formed legendary half-back pairings with Barry John and Phil Bennett, and scored a record 20 tries for Wales, but it was his try for the Barbarians, against the All Blacks in 1973, for which he is perhaps most often celebrated.

24 Johan Cruyff

Football

Elegant, intelligent and absurdly gifted, Cruyff did not get the World Cup winner's medal his performance at the 1974 finals deserved as the Netherlands lost to West Germany, but he led Ajax to European Cup wins between 1971 and 1973 and led the way in "Total Football".

25 Bjorn Borg

Tennis

Headband, topspin, fanatic will - these were the key features as the long-locked Swede turned from teen idol to serial champion at Wimbledon in the 1970s. It took John McEnroe at his inspired best to end Borg's five-year winning streak in the 1981 final.

26 Sebastian Coe

Athletics

Twice Olympic 1500m champion, 11 times a world record breaker, this slight, electrifying figure - at one time uniquely holding 800m, 1,000m, 1,500m and mile records simultaneously - ruled the middle-distance scene with British rival Steve Ovett in the 1980s.

27 Ian Botham

Cricket

Botham's braggadocio swept away the doubts from English cricket in the early 1980s as he became the world's leading all-rounder with exuberant performances on and off the pitch, notably a match-winning 149 not out against Australia in 1981.

28 Lester Piggott

Horse racing

His first winner was in 1948 at the age of 13; by 1993 he had ridden more than 5,300 winners to establish himself as the foremost jockey of his generation. Withdrawn, due to his partial deafness and speech impediment, he expressed himself to the utmost on the turf.

29 George Best

Football

His looks and lifestyle in the 1960s saw him dubbed the "Fifth Beatle", but Best was a one-off, a genius of a player whose inspired goal effectively won Manchester United the European Cup in 1968 but whose problems with alcohol saw him quit the stage too early.

30 Eddie Merckx

Cycling

He rode so hard so often they called him "The Cannibal". As a rider ihe had no weakness: he was the strongest time trialler and mountain climber in the world. LIttle wonder the tough Belgian won five Tour de France races and five titles in the Giro D'Italia.

31 Michael Jordan

Basketball

Immensely popular athlete whose unique scoring ability for his NBA team, the Chicago Bulls, established him in popular culture before he retired for the first time in 1993, by which time he had led the Bulls to three titles and the US to two Olympic titles.

32 Billy Boston

Rugby league

Huge Welsh winger who scored 571 tries in a superb rugby league career after being snapped up by Wigan scouts in 1953 after he had completed National Service. At 15st, and in full flight, he was a persuasive argument to opposing players to leave well alone.

33 Rocky Marciano

Boxing

A heavyweight champion who finished in 1955 with a perfect record: 49 fights, 49 wins, 43 by knockout. A devastating puncher with both hands, he could also absorb terrible punishment, although that was rare. His mother prayed for his opponents.

34 Ferenc Puskas

Football

The casual roll-back with which he left England's Billy Wright lunging at thin air before he lashed in a goal for Hungary in their 6-3 victory at Wembley in 1953 said everything about this forward, who excelled in Britain seven years later as Real Madrid won the European Cup.

46 Barry John

Rugby union

Master of the side-step and the drop kick, it was not just fellow Welshmen who referred to this fly-half and British Lion as "the King". In partnership with Gareth Edwards, he established Wales as the leading home nation before retiring at the early age of 27.

47 Al Oerter

Athletics

Known as "The Man with the Golden Arm", this tough New Yorker won four successive Olympic discus titles from 1956. Each victory came against more favoured contenders and in 1964 Oerter defied back and rib injuries to hurl out an excruciating winning throw.

48 Shane Warne

Cricket

Spin bowling in general and leg-spin bowling in particular were becoming lost arts until Warne's arrival. No spinner has taken more Test wickets and he is now poised to break Dennis Lillee's record number of Australian wickets. Injury threatened his career until this year's comeback.

49 Jansher Khan

Squash

Succeeded fellow Pakistani Jahangir as the world's leading player, taking the world title in 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1992. A relentless competitor, he struggled to overthrow the old master, losing to him in the World Open of 1988 and the British Open of 1991.

50 Paavo Nurmi

Athletics

The introverted, unlovable but unstoppable Flying Finn won a record nine Olympic golds as he dominated middle distances in the 1920s with scientific training methods. His statue now stands outside the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, where he carried the 1952 Olympic flame.

51 Joe DiMaggio

Baseball

Briefly married to Marilyn Monroe, celebrated in song by Simon and Garfunkel, here was a genuine folk hero whose baseball exploits for the New York Yankees set new standards - notably his streak of hitting in 56 consecutive games in 1941.

52 Johnny Unitas

American football

Born to a poor coal-mining family, this steely- nerved quarterback helped the Baltimore Colts to NFL titles in 1958 and 1959 and a Super Bowl in 1971. Threw a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games from 1956 to 1960, considered the game's safest record.

53 Franz Beckenbauer

Football

The "Kaiser" led West Germany to 1974 World Cup victory from the back after losing to England eight years earlier. He became the only man to captain and manage a World Cup-winning team when he guided his country to victory in the 1990 tournament.

54 Joe Davis

Snooker

The original snooker supremo, he was world champion from 1926 until 1955, when he became the first man to make a maximum break of 147 under championship conditions. Helped turn snooker into a world game; also world billiards champion.

55 Garrincha

Football

A brilliantly tricky and speedy right-winger, if undisciplined, the "Little Bird" flew to telling effect for Brazil as they won the 1958 and 1962 World Cups. Won 50 caps in a career which also embraced the 1966 World Cup finals in England.

56 Abebe Bikila

Athletics

Revered in his native Ethiopia after becoming surprise winner of the 1960 Olympic marathon, running barefoot. In 1964, wearing shoes, he became the first man to retain the title - six weeks after an operation for appendicitis. Won 12 of his 15 marathons.

68 Mike Hailwood

Motorcycling

At 21, became youngest-ever world motorcycle champion in 1961 (at 250cc), and won further titles at 250 and 500cc. "Mike the Bike" also won 14 Isle of Man TT races up to 1979, a record which stood until 1993. Turned to Formula One motor racing in 1971.

69 Colin Meads

Rugby union

An uncompromising master of the hand-off, this All Black was often in trouble with referees. In 1967 he became only the second player to be sent off in an international match, but he was a hugely effective lock forward who played a record 15 seasons.

70 Wayne Gretzky

Ice hockey

"The Great One", who retired last year aged 37, smashed all NHL scoring records, surpassing Gordy Howe's career points total of 1,850. He became ice hockey's greatest-ever goalscorer. No giant, he dominated the game with skill, stickhandling and unrivalled vision.

71 David Campese

Rugby union

One of the most exciting and inventive running backs of the modern era, he was a player of the old style, never afraid to attempt the unorthodox. Won the 1991 World Cup with Australia. An acknowledged master of winding up opponents, he retired last year.

72 Gordon Richards

Horse racing

Rode a record 4,870 winners in Britain and was champion jockey a record 26 times. A strong, perfectly-balanced jockey with a fierce will to win, he was nevertheless a model sportsman. He was also the first professional jockey to be knighted.

73 Naim Suleymanoglu

Weightlifting

Pound for pound, perhaps the strongest man who has ever lived. A member of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, he sought political asylum in Turkey after winning two world titles for Bulgaria in 1985 and 1986. Became Olympic champion for his new country two years later.

74 Guo Yue-Ha

Table tennis

Arguably his sport's greatest ever player, Guo deserved to win more than his two world titles (1981 and 1983). A modest and unassuming man, he was a superb athlete with a wonderful forehand, which he would sometimes play from wide on the backhand side.

75 Nancy Lopez

Golf

Her good looks, easy smile and pleasant personality turned her into a focus of the women's game in the 1970s, when she won nine tournaments, five consecutively, in 1978. Remained a dominant force in the women's game throughout the 1980s.

76 Michael Schumacher

Motor racing

Seen by many as the natural Formula One successor to the late Ayrton Senna, this German driver allies superb natural gifts to a now-unrivalled intensity which makes him the most feared driver on the circuit. Already has two world titles to his name.

77 Franz Klammer

Skiing

Fulfilled his position as clear favourite for the Olympic downhill title in 1976, withstanding enormous pressure of expectation from his native Austrians. Last of the top seeds to race, he made up crucial time in the late stages of his run. A farmer's son, famously determined.

78 Jim Clark

Motor racing

World Formula One champion in 1964 and 1965, he beat Fangio's record with 25 grand prix wins in his career before dying in a crash in 1968 while testing at Hockenheim. The son of a Scottish sheep farmer, he was one of the great natural drivers.

90 Susie Susanti

Badminton

Graceful, athletic and supremely talented, the Indonesian is widely regarded as the best woman badminton player of all time. Became the first player to hold all the major championships, winning the world, World Grand Prix, World Cup and All-England titles.

91 Mal Meninga

Rugby league

This barrel-chested policeman from Queensland was a great attacking centre who made a record 39 appearances for Australia between 1982 and 1992. Top scorer in the 1982 tour of Britain with 118 points. Became highest- paid player when he moved to St Helens in 1985.

92 Jack Johnson

Boxing

Black heavyweight who was hated by white America because of his arrogant manner. He was forced to win the heavyweight title in Australia after bigotry prevented him fighting in his native land. Despite the controversy of his life he was an outstanding boxer.

93 Eric Heiden

Speed skating

Made a unique clean sweep of all five speed skating gold medals at the 1980 Winter Olympics, setting Olympic records at each distance. After retiring in 1987, he employed his hugely powerful legs in another career as a professional cyclist.

94 Dhyan Chand

Hockey

Hockey's greatest ever player led India to the Olympic titles in 1928, 1932 and 1936. Supremely gifted, Chand was a prolific goalscorer. In the 1936 Olympic final he scored six goals in an 8-1 win over Germany. He learned the game from British Army officers in Allahabad.

95 Steve Davis

Snooker

Achieved domination in the game to rank with his namesake, Joe. Composure and generally flawless technique brought him world titles in 1981, 1983, 1984, 1987 and 1989. Although overtaken by a younger generation, he remains an ambassador for the sport.

96 Irina Rodnina

Ice skating

Recognised as the greatest pairs skater in history, she won three Olympic golds and 10 world titles, the first four of which came alongside Aleksey Ulanov, and the next six with husband, Aleksandr Zaitsev. Received maximum marks from all 12 judges at 1973 Europeans.

97 Johnny Weismuller

Swimming

Before becoming world- famous on screen as Tarzan, this Hungarian-born American set a string of world records and won three golds at the 1924 Olympics, adding two more four years later. He was the first man to beat a minute for 100m with 58.6 in 1922.

98 John Surtees

Motorcycling/racing

This Kent-born racer was the only man to become world champion on both two wheels and four. He won the 350 and 500cc titles from 1958 to 1960 before moving on to Formula One where, driving for Ferrari, he won the title in 1964.

99 Jim Thorpe

Athletics

An American Indian originally named Wa-Tho-Huck (Bright Path), he won the Olympic decathlon and pentathlon in 1912, setting world records in both. Stripped of the medals a year later because he had earned 15 dollars a week playing baseball.

100 Christy Ring

Hurling

Arguably the greatest hero in Irish sporting history, Ring towered over his sport in the 1940s and 1950s and was the first player to win eight all-Ireland medals. A great competitor who put a strong emphasis on fitness, Ring was highly skilled and could play in numerous positions.

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