Sports

The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time  

Ranker Sports
28.5k votes 1.8k voters 14k 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
Alexander Karelin is listed (or ranked) 2 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
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
Ole Einar Bjørndalen is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 45
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen is a biathlete.
5
Sonja Henie is listed (or ranked) 5 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
6
Bjørn Dæhlie is listed (or ranked) 6 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
7
Marit Bjørgen is listed (or ranked) 7 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
8
Steffi Graf is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
karloman added age 49
Stefanie Maria "Steffi" Graf is a German former world No. 1 tennis player. Graf won 22 Grand Slam singles titles. Her 22 singles titles is second all time behind Margaret Court, and ...more
9
Mike Tyson is listed (or ranked) 9 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
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
Jack Nicklaus is listed (or ranked) 11 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
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
Wayne Gretzky is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
age 58
Wayne Douglas Gretzky, CC is a Canadian former professional ice hockey player and former head coach. He played 20 seasons in the National Hockey League for four teams from 1979 to 1999. ...more
14
Annika Sörenstam is listed (or ranked) 14 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
15
Boris Shakhlin is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Dec. at 76 (1932-2008)
Boris Anfiyanovich Shakhlin was a Soviet gymnast who was the 1960 Olympic all-around champion and the 1958 all-around World Champion. He won total of 13 medals including seven gold medals at the ...more
16
Maria Sharapova is listed (or ranked) 16 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 31
Maria Yuryevna Sharapova is a Russian professional tennis player, who as of October 6, 2014 is ranked world No. 2 by the Women's Tennis Association. A United States resident since 1994, ...more
17
Lidia Skoblikova is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 79
Lidiya Pavlovna Skoblikova is a retired Russian speed skater and coach. Representing the USSR Olympic team during the Olympic Winter Games in 1960 and 1964, she won a total of six gold medals, ...more
18
Alexander Ovechkin is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 33
Alexander Mikhailovich "Alex" Ovechkin is a Russian professional ice hockey winger and captain of the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League. Prior to playing in the NHL, ...more
19
Arne Borg is listed (or ranked) 19 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Dec. at 86 (1901-1987)
Claes Arne Borg 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 Dagbladet Gold Medal, shared with ...more
20
Pirmin Zurbriggen is listed (or ranked) 20 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
21
Georges Miez is listed (or ranked) 21 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
22
Alexander Vladimirovich Popov is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 47
Aleksandr Vladimirovich Popov; is a Russian former Olympic gold-winning swimmer regarded as one of the greatest sprint freestyle swimmers of all time, and the only swimmer in history, male or ...more
23
Miguel Indurain is listed (or ranked) 23 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
24
Jenny Thompson is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 45
Jennifer Beth Thompson is an American former competition swimmer, and one of the most decorated Olympians in history, winning twelve medals, including eight gold medals, in the 1992, 1996, 2000, ...more
25
George Foreman is listed (or ranked) 25 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