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Most Successful Athlete from Every Decade

GOBankingRates Logo By Joel Anderson of GOBankingRates | Slide 1 of 23: Who is the most successful athlete? If you measure it purely by success in their field of competition, Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx, Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner and hockey player Wayne Gretzky are likely among the greatest athletes of all time, but how does one really judge “success?” Is winning 11 grand tours and 19 monuments more or less impressive than being the first person to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks or scoring 894 goals? For that matter, aside from a handful of really nerdy sports fans, who actually cares?
There is, however, one measure of success that translates across any medium: the almighty dollar. Whether your game is knocking out other boxers, hitting jaw-dropping home runs or slamming down monster dunks, the scorecard that matters most for some people — including a lot of non-sports fans — is how much money the best athletes make.
So, while no one in the modern era comes anywhere near matching the all-time highest-paid athlete — illiterate Roman charioteer, Gaius Appuleius Diocles’ 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money would translate to about $15 billion today — the richest athletes of the 20th century still did pretty well for themselves. Here’s a closer look at the most successful athlete from each decade and just how much they earned.

Who is the most successful athlete? If you measure it purely by success in their field of competition, Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx, Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner and hockey player Wayne Gretzky are likely among the greatest athletes of all time, but how does one really judge “success?” Is winning 11 grand tours and 19 monuments more or less impressive than being the first person to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks or scoring 894 goals? For that matter, aside from a handful of really nerdy sports fans, who actually cares?

There is, however, one measure of success that translates across any medium: the almighty dollar. Whether your game is knocking out other boxers, hitting jaw-dropping home runs or slamming down monster dunks, the scorecard that matters most for some people — including a lot of non-sports fans — is how much money the best athletes make.

So, while no one in the modern era comes anywhere near matching the all-time highest-paid athlete — illiterate Roman charioteer, Gaius Appuleius Diocles’ 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money would translate to about $15 billion today — the richest athletes of the 20th century still did pretty well for themselves. Here’s a closer look at the most successful athlete from each decade and just how much they earned.

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