The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary American Athletes of all time. This list of famous American Athletes is sorted by HPI (Historical Popularity Index), a metric that aggregates information on a biography’s online popularity. Visit the rankings page to view the entire list of American Athletes.
With an HPI of 81.42, Jesse Owens is the most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 76 different languages on wikipedia.
James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) was an American track and field athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games.Owens specialized in the sprints and the long jump and was recognized in his lifetime as "perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history". He set three world records and tied another, all in less than an hour, at the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan—a feat that has never been equaled and has been called "the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport".He achieved international fame at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, by winning four gold medals: 100 meters, long jump, 200 meters, and 4 × 100-meter relay. He was the most successful athlete at the Games and, as a black American man, was credited with "single-handedly crushing Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy".The Jesse Owens Award is USA Track and Field's highest accolade for the year's best track and field athlete. Owens was ranked by ESPN as the sixth greatest North American athlete of the 20th century and the highest-ranked in his sport. In 1999, he was on the six-man short-list for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Century.
With an HPI of 74.88, Louis Zamperini is the 2nd most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 24 different languages.
Louis Silvie Zamperini (January 26, 1917 – July 2, 2014) was an American World War II veteran and an Olympic distance runner. He took up running in high school and qualified for the United States in the 5,000 m race for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, finishing 8th while setting a new lap record in the process. Zamperini was commissioned in the United States Army Air Forces as a lieutenant. He served as a bombardier on B-24 Liberators in the Pacific. On a search and rescue mission, his plane experienced mechanical difficulties and crashed into the ocean. After drifting at sea on a life raft for 47 days, with two other crewmates, Zamperini landed on the Japanese occupied Marshall Islands and was captured. He was taken to two different prisoner-of-war camps in Japan where he was tortured and beaten by Japanese military personnel—specifically by Mutsuhiro Watanabe—due to Zamperini's status as a famous Olympic runner. He was later taken to a new prison camp at a coal factory, and after much hardship, he was finally released. Following the war he initially struggled to overcome his ordeal, battling with post traumatic stress. He later became a Christian evangelist with a strong belief in forgiveness. From 1952 onwards, he devoted himself to at-risk youth. Zamperini is the subject of three biographical films: Unbroken (2014), its sequel Unbroken: Path to Redemption (2018), and Captured by Grace (2015).
With an HPI of 72.01, Bob Beamon is the 3rd most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 46 different languages.
Robert Beamon (born August 29, 1946) is an American former track and field athlete, best known for his world record in the long jump at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. By jumping 8.90 m (29 ft. 2.5 in), he broke the existing record by a margin of 55 cm (21+2⁄3 in.) and his world record stood for almost 23 years until it was broken in 1991 by Mike Powell. As of 2021, the jump is still the Olympic record and the second longest wind legal jump in history.
With an HPI of 71.58, Carl Lewis is the 4th most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 67 different languages.
Frederick Carlton Lewis (born July 1, 1961) is an American former track and field athlete who won nine Olympic gold medals, one Olympic silver medal, and 10 World Championships medals, including eight gold. His career spanned from 1979 to 1996, when he last won an Olympic event. He is one of only six Olympic athletes who won a gold medal in the same individual event in four consecutive Olympic Games. Lewis was a dominant sprinter and long jumper who topped the world rankings in the 100 m, 200 m and long jump events frequently from 1981 to the early 1990s. He set world records in the 100 m, 4 × 100 m and 4 × 200 m relays, while his world record in the indoor long jump has stood since 1984. His 65 consecutive victories in the long jump achieved over a span of 10 years is one of the sport's longest undefeated streaks. Over the course of his athletics career, Lewis broke 10 seconds for the 100 meters fifteen times and 20 seconds for the 200 meters ten times. Lewis also long jumped over 28 feet seventy-one times. His accomplishments have led to numerous accolades, including being voted "World Athlete of the Century" by the International Association of Athletics Federations and "Sportsman of the Century" by the International Olympic Committee, "Olympian of the Century" by Sports Illustrated and "Athlete of the Year" by Track & Field News in 1982, 1983, and 1984. After retiring from his athletics career, Lewis became an actor and has appeared in a number of films. In 2011, he attempted to run for a seat as a Democrat in the New Jersey Senate, but was removed from the ballot due to the state's residency requirement. Lewis owns a marketing and branding company named C.L.E.G., which markets and brands products and services including his own.
With an HPI of 70.57, Dick Fosbury is the 5th most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 34 different languages.
Richard Douglas Fosbury (born March 6, 1947) is an American retired high jumper, who is considered one of the most influential athletes in the history of track and field. Besides winning a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics, he revolutionized the high jump event with a "back-first" technique, now known as the Fosbury Flop, along with Debbie Brill and her Brill Bend, adopted by almost all high jumpers today. His method was to sprint diagonally towards the bar, then curve and leap backwards over the bar, which gave him a much lower center of mass in flight than traditional techniques. He continues to be involved in athletics and serves on the executive board of the World Olympians Association.In 2014, Fosbury unsuccessfully challenged Steve Miller for a seat in the Idaho House of Representatives. Fosbury ran for Blaine County Commissioner against incumbent Larry Schoen in 2018. He won the seat and took office in January 2019.
With an HPI of 70.20, Thomas Burke is the 6th most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 39 different languages.
Thomas Edmund "Tom" Burke (January 15, 1875 – February 14, 1929) was an American sprinter. He was the first Olympic champion in the 100 and 400 meter dash races.
With an HPI of 69.94, Ray Ewry is the 7th most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 30 different languages.
Raymond "Ray" Clarence Ewry (October 14, 1873 – September 29, 1937) was an American track and field athlete who won eight gold medals at the Olympic Games and two gold medals at the Intercalated Games (1906 in Athens). This puts him among the most successful Olympians of all time.
With an HPI of 68.28, Bobby Morrow is the 8th most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 35 different languages.
Bobby Joe Morrow (October 15, 1935 – May 30, 2020) was an American sprinter who won three gold medals at the 1956 Olympics. He has been called "the dominant sprinter of the 1950s" and "the most relaxed sprinter of all time, even more so than his hero Jesse Owens".
With an HPI of 68.28, Wilma Rudolph is the 9th most famous American Athlete. Her biography has been translated into 44 different languages.
Wilma Glodean Rudolph (June 23, 1940 – November 12, 1994) was an American sprinter, who became a world-record-holding Olympic champion and international sports icon in track and field following her successes in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games. Rudolph competed in the 200-meter dash and won a bronze medal in the 4 × 100-meter relay at the 1956 Summer Olympics at Melbourne, Australia. She also won three gold medals, in the 100- and 200-meter individual events and the 4 x 100-meter relay at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. Rudolph was acclaimed the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games. Due to the worldwide television coverage of the 1960 Summer Olympics, Rudolph became an international star along with other Olympic athletes such as Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali), Oscar Robertson, and Rafer Johnson who competed in Italy. As an Olympic champion in the early 1960s, Rudolph was among the most highly visible black women in America and abroad. She became a role model for black and female athletes and her Olympic successes helped elevate women's track and field in the United States. Rudolph is also regarded as a civil rights and women's rights pioneer. In 1962 Rudolph retired from competition at the peak of her athletic career as the world record-holder in the 100- and 200-meter individual events and the 4 × 100-meter relays. After competing in the 1960 Summer Olympics, the 1963 graduate of Tennessee State University became an educator and coach. Rudolph died of brain and throat cancer in 1994, and her achievements are memorialized in a variety of tributes, including a U.S. postage stamp, documentary films, and a made-for-television movie, as well as in numerous publications, especially books for young readers.
With an HPI of 67.50, Al Oerter is the 10th most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 36 different languages.
Alfred Oerter Jr. (September 19, 1936 – October 1, 2007) was an American athlete and a four-time Olympic Champion in the discus throw. He was the first athlete to win a gold medal in the same individual event in four consecutive Olympic Games. Oerter is an inductee of the IAAF Hall of Fame.
Pantheon has 463 people classified as athletes born between 1868 and 2000. Of these 463, 268 (57.88%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living athletes include Bob Beamon, Carl Lewis, and Dick Fosbury. The most famous deceased athletes include Jesse Owens, Louis Zamperini, and Thomas Burke. As of October 2020, 130 new athletes have been added to Pantheon including Frederick Lorz, Ben Adams, and Marc Wright.
1946 - Present
1961 - Present
1947 - Present
1963 - Present
1964 - Present
1944 - Present
1946 - Present
1945 - Present
1947 - Present
1959 - Present
1967 - Present
1939 - Present
1913 - 1980
1917 - 2014
1875 - 1929
1873 - 1937
1935 - 2020
1940 - 1994
1936 - 2007
1874 - 1949
1876 - 1928
1876 - 1957
1897 - 1967
1942 - Present
1884 - 1914
1890 - 1961
1890 - 1975
1915 - 1993
1906 - 2004
1879 - 1956
1933 - 2020
1882 - 1950
1885 - 1929
1868 - 1945
1893 - 1979
1912 - 2008
Which Athletes were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 25 most globally memorable Athletes since 1700.