London - Brazilian soccer maestro Pele has been voted Reuters Sports Personality of the Century, clinching the title by just six points from boxing's supreme champion Muhammad Ali.
"Brazil's number one player - a gentleman, a genius, the perfect sportsman," said Jeremy Walker of Yomiuri Shimbun in Tokyo, one of the senior sports journalists around the world who voted in the survey.
Pele scored 146 points out of a possible 270 in the poll, with Ali on 140 points ahead of fellow American, sprinter/long jumper Carl Lewis, who took third place with 94.
Other sports stars from the US completed the top five, with basketball ace Michael Jordan on 80 points and gold medal athlete Jesse Owens on 49.
Pele was at the heart of the Brazilian World Cup winning teams in 1958, 1962 and 1970. Blessed with enormous natural ball skills and athletic ability, Pele collected 12 goals in four World Cups and scored more than 1 200 in his career.
"Pele was outstanding. He's still known all over the world and has always been a great ambassador of soccer," said Andreas Jaros at Sportmagazin in Austria.
Fifty-four sports editors and journalists from 35 countries ranked their leading five sportsmen and women from a 100-strong list compiled by Reuters journalists. Each first place choice was awarded five points, second place four points and so on.
Ali, the self-proclaimed "greatest" heavyweight boxer who could "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee", regained the World Championship title more than 10 years after he first held it.
"Ali went beyond the boundaries of sport. He had unparalleled courage, grit, charisma and talent," said Alastair Himmer at Kyodo World Service in Tokyo.
His "rumble in the jungle" victory over George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 was the climax to his 21-year career, 10 years before he was diagnosed as suffering from Parkinson's disease.
"Ali gave boxing a new dimension. He has shown that boxing is not only about brawn but brain as well. He gave his life for boxing and it is sad that he has to suffer for it with Parkinson's," said Godfrey Robert at Straits Times in Singapore.
Carl Lewis won four gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and went on to win five more Olympic titles at three subsequent Games.
"He was one of the greatest athletes because of his achievements in athletics - gold medals at Olympics and breaking the world record in the 100m," said Gert Roets at Supersport International in South Africa.
Michael Jordan, whose gravity-defying slam dunks and unstoppable jump shots won him the nickname "Air Jordan", became a national hero after helping to revive basketball in the 1980s. He went on to lead the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles in eight years.
Jesse Owens in fifth place was best remembered for his defiant confrontation of Nazi propaganda at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning gold medals in the 100m and 200m, the 4x100m relay and the long jump.
"At the Berlin Games, Owens triumphed, managing to stand up against the psychological pressure of an environment made for him to lose," said Vitor Serpa of A Bola in Portugal.
"Everything was against him. He was American, he was black, the complete expression of Hitler's German enemy. He beat them all - opponents, prejudice and, above all, Hitler."
Other prominent sports figures in the top 10 were cricketer Don Bradman, cyclist Eddy Merckx, Olympics visionary Pierre De Coubertin, golfer Jack Nicklaus, swimming star Mark Spitz and athlete Paavo Nurmi.
"Pierre De Coubertin is the creator of the modern Olympics, the greatest sporting event known by mankind in the modern era," said Hassan el Mestikawi at Al Ahram in Egypt.
Baron de Coubertin, who died in 1937, was the founding force behind the first modern Olympics in 1896 - but those polled judged him a powerful influence on the growth of sport in the 20th century.
The best placed sportswoman in the poll was Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who finished 12th.
Journalists said sports personalities of the century must achieve worldwide fame and act as a role model in a leading sport. For a clear majority in the poll, Pele and Muhammad Ali fitted the bill.
"(The winner) must be an instantly recognisable world figure whose feats will occupy pages in history books in the future too," said Ori Lewis at The Jerusalem Post. "Ali is the ideal candidate and Pele also has legitimate claim to these qualities."
Following is a table of the top 15 sports personalities of the century as voted by senior sports journalists around the world:
Name Sport Nation Points
1 Pele Soccer Brazil 146
2 Muhammad Ali Boxing US 140
3 Carl Lewis Athletics US 94
4 Michael Jordan Basketball U.S. 80
5 Jesse Owens Athletics U.S. 49
6 Don Bradman Cricket Australia 22
7 Eddy Merckx Cycling Belgium 21
8 Pierre de Coubertin Olympics France 18
9 Jack Nicklaus Golf U.S. 16
9 Mark Spitz Swimming U.S. 16
9 Paavo Nurmi Athletics Finland 16
12 Nadia Comaneci Gymnastics Romania 12
13 Pete Sampras Tennis U.S. 11
14 Emil Zatopek Athletics Czechoslovakia 9
14 Ayrton Senna Motor racing Brazil 9 - Reuters