Sports
2.2k voters

The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time

Updated January 27, 2020 36.9k votes 2.2k voters 21.0k views152 items

List RulesVote 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. 

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    BirthplaceBotoșani, Nord-Est, Romania

    Georgeta Damian (born 14 April 1976 in Botoșani, Romania) is a female rower from Romania and winner of five Olympic gold medals. She married the rower Valeriu Andruanche in 2006. Damian rowed in the...  more
  • 2

    BirthplaceSki, Norway

    Linn-Kristin Riegelhuth Koren (born 1 August 1984) is a retired Norwegian handball player for the Norwegian national team, who last played for Larvik HK. She is commonly known as Linka. Outside...  more
  • 3
    238
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    Mike Tyson

    Age: 54

    BirthplaceBedford-Stuyvesant, New York City, New York, United States of America

    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 the...  more

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    #1213 of 1,355 The Greatest Minds of All Time#286 of 362 The Greatest Entertainers Of All Time

  • 4

    BirthplaceDrammen, Norway

    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 Games medals, he is second...  more
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    112

    BirthplaceUpper Arlington, Ohio, United States of America

    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 18 career...  more

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    #1 of 164 The Best Golfers Of All Time#231 of 574 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasures

  • 6
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    Paavo Nurmi

    Dec. at 76 (1897-1973)

    BirthplaceGrand Duchy of Finland, Russian Empire

    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 Finn" or the...  more
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    BirthplaceNovosibirsk, Russia

    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 Bear",...  more

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    #41 of 190 The Toughest Professional Fighters in History#1 of 58 The Best Olympic Athletes in Greco-Roman Wrestling

  • 8
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    Kobe Bryant

    Dec. at 41 (1978-2020)

    BirthplacePhiladelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America

    Kobe Bean Bryant (August 23, 1978 – January 26, 2020) was an American professional basketball player. He played his entire 20-year career in the National Basketball Association (NBA) with the Los...  more

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    The 100 Best Songs That Reference Kobe Bryant#6 of 289 The Top NBA Players Of All Time

  • 9
    136
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    BirthplaceMarshall, Texas, USA

    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 world...  more

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    #136 of 243 The Most Trustworthy Celebrities In The World#8 of 178 The Best Boxers of All Time

  • 10
    263
    185

    BirthplaceJoesjö, Sweden

    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 the most...  more
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    187
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    BirthplaceElverum, Norway

    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, finishing second in 1994...  more
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    529
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    BirthplaceBrantford, Canada

    Wayne Douglas Gretzky (; born January 26, 1961) is a Canadian former professional ice hockey player and former head coach. He played 20 seasons in the National Hockey League (NHL) for four teams...  more

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    #866 of 904 Celebrity Death Pool 2021#1 of 502 The Best NHL Players of All Time

  • 13
    236
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    Sonja Henie

    Dec. at 57 (1912-1969)

    BirthplaceOslo, Norway

    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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    #197 of 753 People We Wish Were Still Alive#15 of 344 Famous Role Models We'd Like to Meet In Person

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    Ronaldinho

    Age: 40

    BirthplacePorto Alegre, Brazil

    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 footballer and...  more

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    #5 of 137 The Greatest South American Footballers of All Time#4 of 103 Coolest Soccer Players

  • 15
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    BirthplaceBro, Sweden, Sweden

    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 in history....  more
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    427
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    BirthplaceMannheim, Germany

    Stefanie Maria "Steffi" Graf (German pronunciation: [ˈʃtɛfiː ˈɡʁaːf]; born 14 June 1969) is a German former professional tennis player. She was ranked world No. 1 and won 22 Grand Slam singles...  more

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    #134 of 319 The Most Inspiring (Non-Hollywood) Female Role Models#57 of 143 Athletes Whose Careers Ended Too Soon

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    BirthplaceNyagan, Russia

    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 resident...  more

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    #305 of 325 The Most Obnoxious Athletes#11 of 77 The Best Athletes Who Have Used Performance Enhancing Drugs

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    BirthplaceAmsterdam, Netherlands

    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 won...  more

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    #11 of 1,293 The Best Soccer Players of All Time#92 of 1,316 The Best Athletes Of All Time

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    BirthplaceLeimen, Germany

    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, winning...  more

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    #5 of 217 The Greatest Men's Tennis Players of All Time#12 of 83 The Greatest Male Tennis Players of the Open Era

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    195
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    Marit Bjørgen

    Age: 40

    BirthplaceTrondheim, Norway

    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. Bjørgen is also the...  more
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    126
    83

    Arne Borg

    Dec. at 86 (1901-1987)

    BirthplaceStockholm, Sweden

    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 Svenska...  more
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    73
    35

    BirthplaceVantaa, Finland

    Mika Pauli Häkkinen (Finnish: [ˈmikɑ ˈhækːinen] (listen); born 28 September 1968), nicknamed "The Flying Finn", is a Finnish former racing driver. He was the 1998 and 1999 Formula One World Champion,...  more
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    86
    48

    Ayrton Senna

    Dec. at 34 (1960-1994)
    Ayrton Senna da Silva (Brazilian Portuguese: [aˈiʁtõ ˈsẽnɐ dɐ ˈsiwvɐ] (listen); 21 March 1960 – 1 May 1994) was a Brazilian racing driver who won Formula One world championships for McLaren in 1988,...  more

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    #1 of 71 The Greatest Formula One Drivers Ever#11 of 13 Deaths Broadcast On Live TV

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    110
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    BirthplaceSaas-Almagell, Switzerland

    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 Olympic...  more
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    BirthplaceNavarre, Spain

    Miguel Induráin Larraya (Spanish pronunciation: [miˈɣel induˈɾain laˈraʝa]; born 16 July 1964) is a retired Spanish road racing cyclist. Induráin won five Tours de France from 1991 to 1995, the...  more