Friday, January 14
Wide World of Sports athlete of the century

 Now that you have cast your votes for the Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year, ABC's Wide World of Sports wants your help in determining its Athlete of the Century.

Selecting the "best" of anything is a tortuous task. But deciding between athletes who are among the most widely known names in history (Ali, Pele and Jordan), not to mention some of the most courageous (Owens and Robinson), most dominant (Thorpe, Didrikson and Brown) and most influential (Ruth) is practically impossible. No choice is the correct choice, no matter what rationale one uses.

Yet, it is the end of the millennium, so such difficult choices have to be made.

After reading the following bios of the century's 15 greatest athletes, make your best selection in the fan poll on the right.

Voting will take place from Dec. 20 until Jan. 28. The winner will be announced during the Super Bowl pregame show on ABC on Jan. 30.

Muhammed Ali (1942- )
After the winning the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, Clay won the heavyweight championship in 1964 with a stunning defeat of Sonny Liston. Immediately after the fight, Clay announced that he was a Black Muslim and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. After defending the championship nine times within two years, he was stripped of his title in 1967 when he refused induction into the U.S. Army on religious grounds.

His actions, which drew both respect and anger from around the nation, kept him out of boxing for three-and-a-half years. Ali lost the first of three monumental battles with Joe Frazier in 1971, but regained the title by knocking out George Foreman in Zaire, Africa. Ali defended his title 10 times before losing to Leon Spinks in 1978. When he defeated Spinks later that same year, he became the first boxer ever to regain the championship twice.

Famous for his flamboyant manner, boasting predictions of which round he'd defeat his opponent, Ali was also recognized as one of the all-time great boxers with his quick jab and footwork. He compiled a career record of 56 wins (including 37 knockouts) and five losses before retiring in 1981.

Jim Brown (1936 - )
The perfect combination of size and speed, Brown was one of the most versatile athletes the world has ever seen. At Syracuse, he lettered in basketball and was an All-America in football and lacrosse. Brown finished fifth in the national decathlon championships as a sophomore. He led the NFL in rushing eight times in his nine seasons, totaling 12,312 yards and 106 rushing touchdowns. He set records for rushing attempts and, despite being a marked man on the field, never missed a down due to injury. Brown rushed for more than 100 yards 58 times and topped 200 yards four times. He rushed for a career-high 1,863 yards in 1963 and NFL MVP in 1958 and 1965. He retired in 1966 to pursue a career in action-adventure films.

Babe Didrikson (1914-1955)
Perhaps the greatest all-around athlete in sports history, Didrikson excelled in a wider variety of sports than any of her peers -- man or woman. She first gained notoriety playing high school basketball. In the 1932 Olympics, she won gold medals in the javelin and the 80-meter hurdles and a silver in the high jump. (She had set a world record in the high jump that was disqualified because she had used the then-unacceptable "western roll.")

In 1933 she turned to golf. After winning various amateur championships, she turned professional in 1948 and won the U.S. Open championship three times (1948, 1950, 1954). She also excelled at swimming, tennis and rifle shooting. The Associated Press voted Didrikson the Greatest Female Athlete of the first half of the 20th century, as well as the greatest woman track-and-field athlete. She died of cancer in 1955.

Wayne Gretzky (1961 - )
Gretzky set 61 NHL scoring records and played in 18 All-Star games in his 21-year career. Gretzky made his debut with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Assocation. In 1978 his contract was sold to the Edmonton Oilers, and Gretzky became the NHL's youngest MVP ever, as well as the youngest player to score 50 or more goals and 100 or more points in a single season. Gretzky led the Oilers to four Stanley Cup Championships during the 1980s. In 1981-82, he scored 92 goals -- still an NHL record. Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, and his career continued through the '90s with the Kings, the St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers.

Michael Jordan (1963 - )
"His Airness" began his storied career with the University of North Carolina (1982-84) and led the Tar Heels to an NCAA championship in 1982. Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to NBA championships in 1991, 1992 and 1993 and was the league's Most Valuable Player in 1988, '91 and '92. He played for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and for the "Dream Team" in the 1992 Olympics, taking the gold medal both times. Jordan shocked the basketball world by retiring from the game in 1993 to pursue a professional baseball career. But he rejoined the Bulls in 1995, winning two more MVPs and leading the Bulls to three more titles, hitting the winning shot with 5.2 seconds left in Game 6 against Utah in 1998 to close out his career.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee (1962 - )
Joyner-Kersee overcame asthma and an underprivileged background to become one of the greatest female athletes in history and the world heptathlon record holder. After graduating in 1985 from UCLA, where she starred in track and field and basketball, Joyner-Kersee became the only woman to win gold in a multi-event (heptathlon) and in a specialty event (long jump) in the same Olympics (1988). She is also the only woman to win two Olympic heptathlons (1988, 1992). She added bronze medals in the long jump in 1992 and 1996. Joyner-Kersee retired from competition in 1998 following her final victory in the heptathlon at the Goodwill Games in Atlanta.

Willie Mays (1931 - )
During his 22-year career (1951-73), primarily with the New York and San Francisco Giants, Mays hit 660 home runs, third-highest in major league history, and twice won the league MVP Award (1954, 1965). Famous for his "basket" catches, he was one of the greatest defensive center fielders in the game's history. From 1954-63, Mays batted lower than .300 just once (.296 in 1956). He is one of three players (Hank Aaron and Eddie Murray) to have 3,000 hits and 500 homers and holds the record for most home runs in extra innings (22). Mays, Aaron and Stan Musial played in the most All-Star Games (24). Voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979, he was the ninth player to be so honored in his first year of eligibility.

Martina Navratilova (1956 - )
Born in Czechoslovakia, Navratilova defected to the U.S. in 1975 and turned professional, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1981. Her rivalry with Chris Evert was one of the great features of women's tennis. She won a record nine singles titles at Wimbledon (1978-79, 1982-87, 1990), including five over Evert. Navratilova won 167 singles titles (including 18 Grand Slam events) and 165 doubles titles with her partner Pam Shriver (including 37 Grand Slam events), becoming the most prolific winner in women's tennis history. Navratilova was ranked No. 1 in singles from June 18, 1983, through June 9, 1985. She reached a record 23 consecutive finals during that span. Her 167 singles titles are more than any man or woman.

Jack Nicklaus (1940 - )
Voted Golfer of the Century in 1988 by the PGA, Nicklaus won more majors (21) than any other player. Nicknamed the "Golden Bear," the blond-haired golfer won the Masters six times, the U.S. Open four times and the British Open three times between 1962 and 1986. From 1971-73, he had 45 Top 10 finishes in 55 events, including 19 victories and seven seconds. Nicklaus finished first in scoring eight times, second six times and shares the record for most consecutive years with at least one tour victory at 17 (1962-78) with Arnold Palmer. At 46, he was the oldest player ever to win the Masters, in 1986.

Jesse Owens (1913-1980)
On May 25, 1935, at the Big Ten Championships (then called the Western Championships) in Ann Arbor, Mich., Owens set three world records and tied another in a span of 45 minutes. But his century-standing accomplishment came at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Owens disproved for the world Adolf Hitler's proclamation of "Aryan supremacy" by achieving the finest Olympic performance in track history with four gold medals (100 meters, 200 meters, 4x100 meters, long jump). Hitler left the stadium to avoid having to congratulate a black man. Although he gained worldwide publicity for his feat, back in the United States he gained few financial or social benefits and was reduced to running "freak" races against horses and dogs. Owens was passed up for the Sullivan Award as the best U.S. amateur athlete in favor of golfer Lawson Little, but was voted Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in 1936.

Pele (1940 - )
Widely considered the best player in soccer history, Pele made his international debut for Brazil at 16, and at 17 starred in the 1958 World Cup Final, scoring two goals in the 4-2 win over Sweden. He won a second championship in 1962 and a third in 1970. He scored 12 goals in 14 World Cup matches and is the only player to win three World Cups. Over a 22-year span (1955-77) with Santos and the New York Cosmos, Pele's scoring prowress forever changed the way soccer was played. He appeared in 1,363 first-class games and scored 1,281 goals.

Jackie Robinson (1919-1972)
A four-sport star at UCLA, Robinson became the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues this century with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Ironically, baseball was his worst sport at UCLA, where he batted just .097 in his one season (1940) and tied for the most errors on the team. Robinson was Rookie of the Year and was the MVP in 1949. An excellent fielder, clutch hitter and superb baserunner during his 10-year career (1947-56), he led the Dodgers to six National League championships and their first World Series victory in 1955. After retiring from baseball in 1956, he became an active spokesperson for civil rights, and was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1962.

Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994)
At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Rudolph became "the fastest woman in the world" and the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics. She won the 100- and 200-meter races and anchored the U.S. team to victory in the 4x100 relay. In the 100, she tied the world record of 11.3 seconds in the semifinals, then won the final in a wind-aided 11.0. In the 200, she broke the Olympic record in the opening heat in 23.3 seconds and won the final in 24.0 seconds. In the 400 relay, Rudolph's team took the gold in 44.5 seconds after setting a world record of 44.4 seconds in the semifinals. Rudolph is the only track athlete to be named the Associated Press' Female Athlete of the Year more than once (1960 and 1961). In 1961, she continued breaking track records, setting an indoor record of 6.9 seconds in the 60-yard dash. That year she also won the Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete (male or female) in the United States.

Babe Ruth (1895-1948)
The "Great Bambino" began his career as a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in 1914, compiling a 78-40 record in four years. Because of his tremendous ability as a hitter, Ruth became a full-time outfielder in 1919, a season in which he set a new home run record (29) and led the league in runs, RBIs and slugging. During the winter of 1919, Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees and over the next two years hit 113 home runs to earn the nickname "Sultan of Swat." Ruth went on to lead the league in home runs in eight of the next 10 years, breaking his own record by hitting 60 home runs in 1927. During his 20 full seasons, he led the league in home runs 12 times, runs eight times, RBIs six times and slugging 13 times. Ruth had a lifetime batting average of .342, and his 714 home runs was a major league record until 1974.

Jim Thorpe (1888-1953)
Thorpe was the winner of the 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon. With 8,412 points, he broke the decathlon world record by an incredible 998 points. Thorpe was later forced to return the medals because he had played semi-professional baseball in 1909. Not only was Thorpe voted the Greatest Athlete of the first half of the century by the Associated Press in 1950, he also was named the greatest football player, beating out Red Grange. Besides starring in football and track at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1903-12), Thorpe excelled in a number of other sports, including basketball, lacrosse, baseball, golf, swimming, rowing, hockey and boxing. He played major league baseball as an outfielder for six years (1913-19) and dominated professional football during its early years (1917-29). In 1984 the International Olympic Committee returned the gold medals to Thorpe's family.