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 71.38, Jesse Owens is the most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 80 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.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 65.41, Louis Zamperini is the 2nd most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 25 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 four different prisoner-of-war camps (total) 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 64.67, Bob Beamon is the 3rd most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 48 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. The jump is still the Olympic record and the second-longest wind legal jump in history.
With an HPI of 64.38, Carl Lewis is the 4th most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 68 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 60.69, Ronnie Coleman is the 5th most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 30 different languages.
Ronald "Ronnie" Dean Coleman (born May 13, 1964) is an American retired professional bodybuilder. The winner of the Mr. Olympia title for eight consecutive years, he is widely regarded as either 'the greatest' or one of the two greatest bodybuilders of all time along-with Arnold Schwarzenegger and as the most dominant bodybuilding physique ever to grace the stage. Winner of 26 IFBB professional titles, he is also renowned for his combination of size and conditioning, dominant body-parts and extremely heavy workouts, making him the strongest bodybuilder and Mr. Olympia of all time.
With an HPI of 60.23, Dick Fosbury is the 6th most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 36 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, 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, won the seat, and took office in January 2019.
With an HPI of 60.17, Florence Griffith Joyner is the 7th most famous American Athlete. Her biography has been translated into 47 different languages.
Florence Delorez Griffith Joyner (born Florence Delorez Griffith; December 21, 1959 – September 21, 1998), also known as Flo-Jo, was an American track and field athlete. She set world records in 1988 for the 100 m and 200 m. During the late 1980s she became a popular figure due to both her record-setting athleticism and eclectic personal style. Griffith Joyner was born and raised in California. She was athletic from a young age and began running at track meets as a child. While attending California State University, Northridge (CSUN) and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), she continued to compete in track and field. While still in college, she qualified for the 100 m 1980 Olympics, although she did not actually compete due to the U.S. boycott. She made her Olympic debut four years later, winning a silver medal in the 200 meter distance at the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles. At the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials, Griffith set a new world record in the 100 meter sprint. She went on to win three gold medals at the 1988 Olympics. In February 1989, Griffith Joyner abruptly retired from athletics. She remained a pop culture figure through endorsement deals, acting, and designing. She died in her sleep as the result of an epileptic seizure in 1998 at the age of 38. She is buried at the El Toro Memorial Park in Lake Forest.
With an HPI of 59.02, Mike Powell is the 8th most famous American Athlete. His biography has been translated into 37 different languages.
Michael Anthony Powell (born November 10, 1963) is an American former track and field athlete, and the holder of the long jump world record. He is a two-time world champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist in this event. His world record of 8.95 m (29 ft 4+1⁄4 in) has stood since 1991.
With an HPI of 58.77, Ray Ewry is the 9th 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 58.77, Thomas Burke is the 10th 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.
Pantheon has 636 people classified as athletes born between 1864 and 2002. Of these 636, 365 (57.39%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living athletes include Bob Beamon, Carl Lewis, and Ronnie Coleman. The most famous deceased athletes include Jesse Owens, Louis Zamperini, and Florence Griffith Joyner. As of April 2022, 169 new athletes have been added to Pantheon including Ed Ablowich, George Underwood, and Ragnar Malm.
1946 - Present
1961 - Present
1964 - Present
1947 - Present
1963 - Present
1944 - Present
1946 - Present
1959 - Present
1973 - Present
1967 - Present
1955 - Present
1947 - Present
1913 - 1980
1917 - 2014
1959 - 1998
1873 - 1937
1875 - 1929
1938 - 2014
1936 - 2007
1942 - Present
1874 - 1949
1897 - 1967
1876 - 1957
1876 - 1928
1913 - 1998
1884 - 1943
1893 - 1959
1898 - 1932
1932 - 1994
1908 - 1995
1875 - 1945
1883 - 1920
1878 - 1955
1937 - Present
1867 - 1938
1880 - 1958
Which Athletes were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 25 most globally memorable Athletes since 1700.