Who is the most successful athlete? How can you compare athletic accomplishments across sports? And aside from a handful of really nerdy sports fans, who actually cares?

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There is 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 nonsports 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.

Last updated: July 15, 2021