Sports

The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time  

Ranker Sports
28.6k votes 1.8k voters 14.9k views 153 items

List Rules Vote up the athletes who changed their sport forever, bringing major contributions each time they performed.

The most influential athletes of all time aren't just the best stars from their respective sports, but some of the most iconic individuals in the sports world. Whether they broke countless records or changed the way we all look at a specific sport, they influenced generations to come and will always be remembered at the top of their class. So, who do you think are the most influential athletes ever?

No matter the sport or discipline, these top athletes are true icons. Whether you're talking the New York Yankees great Babe Ruth or NBA GOAT Michael Jordan, the athletes listed here are far from your average sports stars. Take the legendary Deion Sanders, for example. Not only is he considered an NFL great, he's also an established professional baseball player—proving he's one of the greatest all-around athletes of all time. While he's a rare case in terms of athletes, others on this list of influential sports stars have contributed greatly to their sport. 

Now, check out the list of athletes below and vote up your favorites for the most influential of all time. You can also vote athletes down, as well as add other sports icons to the list. 

list ordered by
1
Paavo Nurmi is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Dec. at 76 (1897-1973)
Paavo Johannes Nurmi was a Finnish middle- and long-distance runner. He was nicknamed the "Flying Finn" as he dominated distance running in the early 20th century. Nurmi set 22 ...more
2
Bjørn Dæhlie is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 51
Bjørn Erlend Dæhlie is a Norwegian businessman and retired cross-country skier. In the years from 1992 to 1999, Dæhlie won the Nordic World Cup 6 times, finishing second in ...more
3
Ingemar Stenmark is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 62
Jan Ingemar Stenmark, born 18 March 1956 in Joesjö, Sweden, is a former World Cup alpine ski racer from Sweden. He is regarded as one of the most prominent Swedish sportsmen, and as the ...more
4
Alexander Karelin is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 51
Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Karelin is a Hero of the Russian Federation and retired Greco-Roman wrestler for the Soviet Union and Russia. Nicknamed the "Russian Bear", "Russian King ...more
5
Ole Einar Bjørndalen is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 45
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen is a biathlete.
6
Sonja Henie is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Dec. at 57 (1912-1969)
Sonja Henie was a Norwegian figure skater and film star. She was a three-time Olympic Champion in Ladies' Singles, a ten-time World Champion and a six-time European Champion. Henie won more ...more
7
Mike Tyson is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 52
Michael Gerard "Mike" Tyson is an American retired professional boxer. Tyson is a former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and holds the record as the youngest boxer to win ...more
8
Marit Bjørgen is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 38
Marit Bjørgen is a Norwegian cross-country skier and six times Olympic champion from Midtre Gauldal, Norway. She is ranked first in the all-time Cross-Country World Cup rankings with ...more
9
Jack Nicklaus is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 79
Jack William Nicklaus, nicknamed "The Golden Bear", is a retired American professional golfer. He is widely regarded as the greatest professional golfer of all time, winning a total of ...more
10
Boris Becker is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 51
Boris Franz Becker is a former World No. 1 professional tennis player from Germany. He is a six-time Grand Slam singles champion, including the distinction of being the youngest ever Wimbledon ...more
11
Georges Miez is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Dec. at 95 (1904-1999)
Georges Miez was a Swiss gymnast. He competed at the 1924, 1928, 1932 and 1936 Summer Olympics, winning a total of four gold, three silver and one bronze medals – a record for Switzerland, ...more
12
Birgit Fischer is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 57
Birgit Fischer is a German kayaker, who has won eight gold medals over six different Olympic Games, a record she shares with Aladár Gerevich, spanning seven Olympiads: twice representing ...more
13
Miguel Indurain is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 54
Miguel Indurain Larraya is a retired Spanish road racing cyclist. Indurain won five consecutive Tours de France from 1991 to 1995, the fourth, and last, to win five times. He won the Giro ...more
14
Alexei Nemov is listed (or ranked) 14 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 42
Alexei Yurievich Nemov is a gymnast from Russia and one of the most medaled gymnasts, male or female, of all time. He has won 12 Olympic medals. Nemov's sense of showmanship and his difficult ...more
15
Szilveszter Csollány is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 48
Szilveszter Csollány is a former gymnast from Hungary. He won gold in the men's rings at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney with a score of 9.85. This achievement earned him the title ...more
16
George Foreman is listed (or ranked) 16 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 70
George Edward Foreman (nicknamed "Big George"[2]) (born January 10, 1949) is a retired American professional boxer, former two-time World Heavyweight Champion, Olympic gold medalist, ...more
17
Mika Häkkinen is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 50
Mika Pauli Häkkinen is a retired Finnish professional racing driver. He was the 1998 and 1999 Formula One World Champion, driving for McLaren and has been ranked among the greatest Formula ...more
18
Annika Sörenstam is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 48
Annika Sörenstam is a Swedish retired professional golfer whose achievements rank her as one of the most successful female golfers in history. Before stepping away from competitive golf at ...more
19
Pirmin Zurbriggen is listed (or ranked) 19 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 56
Pirmin Zurbriggen is a former World Cup alpine ski racer from Switzerland. One of the most successful ski racers ever, he won the overall World Cup title four times, an Olympic gold medal in ...more
20
Ayrton Senna is listed (or ranked) 20 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Dec. at 34 (1960-1994)
Ayrton Senna da Silva was a Brazilian racing driver who won three Formula One world championships. He was killed in an accident while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. He was among the ...more
21
Eddy Merckx is listed (or ranked) 21 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 73
Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Merckx, better known as Eddy Merckx, is a Belgian former professional road and track bicycle racer, considered to be the greatest cyclist ever. The French magazine ...more
22
Ronaldinho is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 38
Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, commonly known as Ronaldinho or Ronaldinho Gaúcho, is a Brazilian footballer who plays for Mexican club Querétaro. His main playing position is as an ...more
23
Laura Dahlmeier is listed (or ranked) 23 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 25
Laura Dahlmeier is a German biathlete. Dahlmeier started in her first world cup races in the 2012/13-season. In 2014 she participated in the Winter Olympics in Sochi. She was officially ...more
24
Kornelia Ender is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 60
Kornelia Ender is a former East German swimmer who at the 1976 Summer Olympics became the first woman swimmer to win four gold medals at a single Olympic Games, all in world record times. It was ...more
25
Magnus Wislander is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 55
Hans Einar Magnus Wislander is a former Swedish handball player, who has been voted Handball Player of the Century. Since his debut in the national team in 1985 he has played over 380 games and ...more