Babe Ruth was the athlete of the century, I'd say, not Muhammad Ali.
O.J. Simpson was the football player of the century, I'm quite sure, not Jim Brown.
The negative--if that's the right word--on front-runners Ali and Brown is that, like Michael Jordan, they were specialists.
Great athletes are by definition not specialists.
The great ones do several things very well, at least two things, as Ruth did in the century's early dawn.
A winning World Series pitcher to begin with, he jarred baseball into a drastically different direction as the first of the great long-ball hitters.
Later, Simpson excelled in two mainstream sports.
A sprinter to begin with, he was on the USC 440-yard relay team that still holds the world record.
Next, after winning the Heisman Trophy as the best player in college football, Simpson went to the NFL's bottom team, Buffalo, where he quickly established himself as the best player in pro football--as well as the first running back to gain 2,000 single-season yards.
As ballcarriers, Gale Sayers had more moves and Brown more power, but Simpson did it all faster.
Top 11 NFL Players of the Century
In their 11-man sport, the roll call of the century's top 11 football players starts with Simpson and continues, I'd say, with passers Joe Namath, Steve Young and John Unitas, defensive players Deacon Jones, Dick Butkus and Deion Sanders, runners Jim Brown and Gale Sayers, and receivers Don Hutson and Jerry Rice.
As for Jim Thorpe, he's a legend whose greatness is now hard to verify.
As for Ali, he's the boxer of the century--he would have been too fast for Joe Louis.
But as a great athlete, Ali only proved it in the ring.
Brown as a mainstream athlete proved his greatness only as a running back.
He wasn't much blocker.