Francina Elsja Blankers-Koen (1918 – 2004)

Running: Fanny Blankers-Koen

Who were the top athletes in the 20th Century? Since Americans seem most passionate about such questions, it is a long list of US men, for the most part. A lot of these lists are biased toward pugilistic sports like boxing, football, and ice hockey. The most popular sports included baseball, basketball and football whose stars reached the top tier. Sports such as track and field, gymnastics, wrestling or soccer and other Olympic-sports fell to second tier. Stepping away from US centric lists, there have been some remarkable women athletes in the past 100 years.

Many sports writers felt that Babe Zaharias as the best female athlete of the last century; however, the winner of the top female athlete in the century, as voted in 1999 at an event in Monaco was Fanny Blankers-Koen. Having heard her name, but knowing little else about her, it was time to do some research.

Background on Fanny Blankers-Koen

Francina Elsje Blankers-Koen (1918 – 2004) was a Dutch track and field athlete, best known for winning four gold medals at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. She competed in the 100m, 200m, 60m Hurdles, and the 4x100m Relay, winning four golds.


Known as Fanny, in those Olympic games she competed as a 30-year-old mother of two, earning her the nickname “the flying housewife,” and she was the most successful, and most decorated individual athlete at the event.


Having started competing in athletics in 1935 at the age of 17, she took part in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin just one year later. At the games Fanny got an autograph of Jesse Owens, the US track star of the 1936 Games, a signature she treasured for the rest of her life. During World War II, international competition was stopped, yet Blankers-Koen set several world records during that period, in individual track events as diverse as the long jump, high jump, sprints and hurdles.


Apart from her decorated Olympic successes, Blankers-Koen won five European titles, 58 Dutch championships, and she set or tied 12 World Records. She set her last record, in the five-event pentathlon in 1951, at the age of 33. She retired from athletics in 1955, after which she became captain of the Dutch female track and field team. In 1999, she was voted “Female Athlete of the Century” by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Her Olympic victories are credited with helping to eliminate the belief that age and motherhood were barriers to success in women’s sport.


Fanny Blankers-Koen by Getty Images


Resources and References:

The list below of 100 American athletes does not reach outside of the US. The list includes 89 males, 8 females, and 3 thoroughbred horses. The top female athlete, Babe Didriksen Jaharias, just cracks the top ten, and five women crack the top 50, though their dominance in their respective sports receive scant recognition. Babe Jaharias, for example, who played golf, basketball, baseball, and track and field was successful at the highest level in every sport she tried. She won 10 major LPGA championships and is considered one of the greatest athletes of all time, period.


Babe Didriksen Jaharias

Number Athlete Sport
1 Michael Jordan Basketball
2 Babe Ruth Baseball
3 Muhammad Ali Boxing
4 Jim Brown Football
5 Wayne Gretzky Ice hockey
6 Jesse Owens Track and field
7 Jim Thorpe Multiple sports
8 Willie Mays Baseball
9 Jack Nicklaus Golf
10 Babe Zaharias Multiple sports
11 Joe Louis Boxing
12 Carl Lewis Track and field
13 Wilt Chamberlain Basketball
14 Hank Aaron Baseball
15 Jackie Robinson Baseball
16 Ted Williams Baseball
17 Magic Johnson Basketball
18 Bill Russell Basketball
19 Martina Navratilova Tennis
20 Ty Cobb Baseball
21 Gordie Howe Ice hockey
22 Joe DiMaggio Baseball
23 Jackie Joyner-Kersee Track and field
24 Sugar Ray Robinson Boxing
25 Joe Montana Football
26 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Basketball
27 Jerry Rice Football
28 Red Grange Football
29 Arnold Palmer Golf
30 Larry Bird Basketball
31 Bobby Orr Ice hockey
32 Johnny Unitas Football
33 Mark Spitz Swimming
34 Lou Gehrig Baseball
35 Secretariat Horse racing
36 Oscar Robertson Basketball
37 Mickey Mantle Baseball
38 Ben Hogan Golf
39 Walter Payton Football
40 Lawrence Taylor Football
41 Wilma Rudolph Track and field
42 Sandy Koufax Baseball
43 Julius Erving Basketball
44 Bobby Jones Golf
45 Bill Tilden Tennis
46 Eric Heiden Speed skating, cycling
47 Edwin Moses Track and field
48 Pete Sampras Tennis
49 O. J. Simpson Football
50 Chris Evert Tennis


51 Rocky Marciano Boxing
52 Jack Dempsey Boxing
53 Rafer Johnson Track and field
54 Greg Louganis Diving
55 Mario Lemieux Ice hockey
56 Pete Rose Baseball
57 Bill Shoemaker Horse racing
58 Elgin Baylor Basketball
59 Billie Jean King Tennis
60 Walter Johnson Baseball
61 Stan Musial Baseball
62 Jerry West Basketball
63 Satchel Paige Baseball
64 Sammy Baugh Football
65 Althea Gibson Tennis, golf
66 Eddie Arcaro Horse racing
67 Bob Gibson Baseball
68 Al Oerter Track and field
69 Bonnie Blair Speed skating
70 Dick Butkus Football
71 Roberto Clemente Baseball
72 Bo Jackson Football, baseball
73 Josh Gibson Baseball
74 Deion Sanders Football, baseball
75 Dan Marino Football
76 Barry Sanders Football
77 Cy Young Baseball
78 Bob Mathias Track and field
79 Gale Sayers Football
80 A. J. Foyt Auto racing
81 Jimmy Connors Tennis
82 Bobby Hull Ice hockey
83 Honus Wagner Baseball
84 Man o’ War Horse racing
85 Maurice Richard Ice hockey
86 Otto Graham Football
87 Henry Armstrong Boxing
88 Joe Namath Football
89 Rogers Hornsby Baseball
90 Richard Petty Auto racing
91 Bob Beamon Track and field
92 Mario Andretti Auto racing
93 Don Hutson Football
94 Bob Cousy Basketball
95 George Blanda Football
96 Michael Johnson Track and field
97 Citation Horse racing
98 Don Budge Tennis
99 Sam Snead Golf
100 Jack Johnson Boxing