Sports

The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time 

Ranker Sports
Updated January 27, 2020 30.2k votes 1.9k voters 17.7k views 152 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
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Dec. at 76 (1897-1973)
Paavo Johannes Nurmi (Finnish pronunciation: [ˈpɑːʋo ˈnurmi] (listen); 13 June 1897 – 2 October 1973) was a Finnish middle-distance and long-distance runner. He was called the "Flying ...more
2
Bjørn Dæhli... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 51
Bjørn Erlend Dæhlie (born 19 June 1967) is a Norwegian businessman and retired cross-country skier. In the years from 1992 to 1999, Dæhlie won the Nordic World Cup six times, ...more
3
Alexander Karelin is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 51
Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Karelin (Russian: Александр Александрович Карелин; born 19 September 1967) is a retired Greco-Roman wrestler for the Soviet Union and Russia. Nicknamed the "Russian ...more

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#109 of 292 The Most Obnoxious Athletes #18 of 204 The Toughest Professional Fighters in History

4
Ole Einar Bjørnda... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 41
Ole Einar Bjørndalen (born 27 January 1974) is a retired Norwegian professional biathlete, often referred to by the nickname, the "King of Biathlon". With 13 Winter Olympic ...more
5
Sonja Henie is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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Died at 57 (1912-1969)
Sonja Henie (8 April 1912 – 12 October 1969) was a Norwegian figure skater and film star. She was a three-time Olympic Champion (1928, 1932, 1936) in Ladies' Singles, a ten-time World Champion ...more

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#79 of 473 Famous Role Models We'd Like to Meet In Person #12 of 231 The Best Female Athletes of All Time

6
Mike Tyson is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 52
Michael Gerard Tyson (born June 30, 1966) is an American former professional boxer who competed from 1985 to 2005. He reigned as the undisputed world heavyweight champion and holds the record as ...more

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#17 of 292 The Most Obnoxious Athletes #2 of 204 The Toughest Professional Fighters in Historyfeaturing Mike Tyson Loves and Hookups

7
Ingemar Stenmark is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 62
Jan Ingemar Stenmark (Swedish pronunciation: [ˈɪŋː(ɛ)mar ²steːnmark]; born 18 March 1956 in Joesjö, Sweden) is a former World Cup alpine ski racer from Sweden. He is regarded as one of ...more

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#1,407 of 1,472 The Greatest Minds of All Time #1 of 73 The Greatest Alpine Skiers of All Time

8
Jack Nicklaus is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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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

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#185 of 770 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasures #291 of 292 The Most Obnoxious Athleteslisted on Athletes You Didn't Know Were Conservative

9
George Foreman is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 70
George Edward Foreman (born January 10, 1949) is an American former professional boxer who competed from 1969 to 1977, and from 1987 to 1997. Nicknamed "Big George", he is a two-time ...more

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#135 of 770 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasures #156 of 2,198 The Best Athletes Of All Time

10
Marit Bjørgen is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Marit Bjørgen
age 35
Marit Bjørgen (born 21 March 1980) is a retired Norwegian cross-country skier. She is ranked first in the all-time Cross-Country World Cup rankings with 114 individual victories. ...more
11
Boris Becker is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 51
Boris Franz Becker (German pronunciation: [ˈboːʁɪs ˈbɛkɐ]; born 22 November 1967) is a German former world No. 1 professional tennis player. He was successful from the start of his career, ...more

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#138 of 2,198 The Best Athletes Of All Time #7 of 41 The Best Men's Tennis Serves of All Time

12
Johan Cruijff is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 71
Hendrik Johannes Cruijff OON (Dutch: [ˈjoːɦɑn ˈkrœyf] (listen), internationally spelled Cruyff; 25 April 1947 – 24 March 2016) was a Dutch professional football player and coach. As a player, he ...more

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#29 of 2,198 The Best Athletes Of All Time #2 of 103 Coolest Soccer Players

13
Hannes Kolehmainen is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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Dec. at 77 (1889-1966)
Juho Pietari "Hannes" Kolehmainen (Finnish: [ˈhɑnːes ˈkolehmɑinen] (listen); 9 December 1889 – 11 January 1966) was a Finnish four-time Olympic Gold medalist and a world record holder ...more
14
Oliver Kahn is listed (or ranked) 14 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 49
Oliver Rolf Kahn (German: [ˈɔlɪvɐ ˈkaːn]; born 15 June 1969) is a German former football goalkeeper. He started his career in the Karlsruher SC Junior team in 1975. Twelve years later, Kahn made ...more

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#220 of 473 Famous Role Models We'd Like to Meet In Person #30 of 208 The Best Soccer Players of the '90s #3 of 228 The Best Soccer Goalies of All Time

15
Alexander Ovechkin is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 33
Alexander Mikhailovich Ovechkin (Russian: Александр Михайлович Овечкин, IPA: [ɐlʲɪˈksandr ɐˈvʲetɕkʲɪn]; born September 17, 1985), often referred to as "Ovi" or "the Great ...more

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#304 of 2,198 The Best Athletes Of All Time #24 of 497 The Best NHL Players of All Time

16
Annika Sörenstam is listed (or ranked) 16 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 48
Annika Sörenstam (pronounced [ˈanːɪka ²sœːrɛnˌstam] (listen); born 9 October 1970) is a retired Swedish American professional golfer. She is regarded as one of the best female golfers ...more

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#96 of 2,198 The Best Athletes Of All Time #9 of 231 The Best Female Athletes of All Time #7 of 179 The Smartest Professional Athletes

17
Katarina Witt is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 53
Katarina Witt (German pronunciation: [ˈkataʁiːna vɪt]; born 3 December 1965) is a retired German figure skater. Witt won two Olympic gold medals for East Germany, first at the 1984 Sarajevo ...more

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#418 of 2,198 The Best Athletes Of All Time #7 of 231 The Best Female Athletes of All Time

18
Ronaldinho is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 38
Ronaldo de Assis Moreira (born 21 March 1980), commonly known as Ronaldinho Gaúcho (Brazilian Portuguese: [ʁonawˈdʒĩɲu ga'uʃu]) or simply Ronaldinho, is a Brazilian former professional ...more

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#18 of 1,405 The Best Soccer Players of All Time #6 of 103 Coolest Soccer Players

19
Kjetil André Aamo... is listed (or ranked) 19 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 44
Kjetil André Aamodt (born 2 September 1971) is a former World Cup alpine ski racer from Norway, a champion in the Olympics, World Championships, and World Cup. He is the most decorated ...more
20
Maria Sharapova is listed (or ranked) 20 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 31
Maria Yuryevna Sharapova (Russian: Мари́я Ю́рьевна Шара́пова, IPA: [mɐˈrʲijə ˈjʉrʲjɪvnə ʂɐˈrapəvə] (listen); born April 19, 1987) is a Russian professional tennis player. A United States ...more

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#96 of 2,198 The Best Athletes Of All Time #65 of 678 Rank the Sexiest Current Female Athletes

21
Arne Borg is listed (or ranked) 21 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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Dec. at 86 (1901-1987)
Claes Arne Borg (18 August 1901 – 7 November 1987) was a Swedish swimmer. He is best known for breaking 32 world records and winning five Olympic medals in the 1920s. In 1926 Borg won the ...more
22
Andreas Thorkildsen is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 36
Andreas Thorkildsen (born 1 April 1982) is a retired Norwegian track and field athlete who competed in the javelin throw. He was the Olympic Champion in 2004 and 2008, European Champion in 2006 ...more
23
Boris Shakhlin is listed (or ranked) 23 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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Dec. at 76 (1932-2008)
Boris Anfiyanovich Shakhlin (Russian: Борис Анфиянович Шахлин; 27 January 1932 – 30 May 2008) was a Soviet gymnast who was the 1960 Olympic all-around champion and the 1958 all-around World ...more
24
Alexei Nemov is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
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age 42
Alexei Yurievich Nemov (Russian: Алексей Юрьевич Немов; born 28 May 1976 in Barashevo, Mordovia) is a former artistic gymnast from Russia and one of the most celebrated gymnasts of all time. ...more
25
Pirmin Zurbriggen is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added
age 56
Pirmin Zurbriggen (born 4 February 1963) 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 ...more

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#148 of 2,198 The Best Athletes Of All Time #12 of 73 The Greatest Alpine Skiers of All Time