Sports

The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time 

Ranker Sports
Updated January 27, 2020 30.8k votes 2k voters 18.1k 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
Tattoo added Dec. at 76 (1897-1973)

Birthplace: Grand 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 ...more
2
Alexander Karelin is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Age: 51

Birthplace: Novosibirsk, 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 ...more

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#113 of 290 The Most Obnoxious Athletes #18 of 199 The Toughest Professional Fighters in History

3
Steffi Graf is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
karloman added Age: 49

Birthplace: Mannheim, 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 ...more

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#40 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #19 of 316 The Most Inspiring (Non-Hollywood) Female Role Models

4
Wayne Gretzky is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Age: 58

Birthplace: Brantford, 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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#1 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #171 of 452 Famous Role Models We'd Like to Meet In Person #9 of 119 The Greatest Left-Handed Athletes of All Time

5
Ole Einar Bjørnda... is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Age: 45

Birthplace: Drammen, 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 ...more
6
Ingemar Stenmark is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Age: 62

Birthplace: Joesjö, 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 ...more

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#1,408 of 1,471 The Greatest Minds of All Time #1 of 74 The Greatest Alpine Skiers of All Time

7
Sonja Henie is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Dec. at 57 (1912-1969)

Birthplace: Oslo, 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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#80 of 452 Famous Role Models We'd Like to Meet In Person #6 of 229 The Best Female Athletes of All Time

8
Mike Tyson is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Age: 52

Birthplace: Bedford-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 ...more

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#32 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #1,175 of 1,471 The Greatest Minds of All Time

9
Bjørn Dæhli... is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Age: 51

Birthplace: Elverum, 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, ...more
10
Larry Bird is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Age: 62

Birthplace: West Baden Springs, French Lick Township, Indiana, United States of America

Larry Joe Bird (born December 7, 1956) is an American former professional basketball player, former coach, and former executive who most recently served as President of Basketball Operations for ...more

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#56 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #13 of 878 The Top NBA Players Of All Time

11
Marit Bjørgen is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Marit Bjørgen Age: 38

Birthplace: Trondheim, 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. ...more
12
Kobe Bryant is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Dec. at 41 (1978-2020)

Birthplace: USA, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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 ...more

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#373 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #202 of 242 The Hottest Men Of 2019, Ranked 24 Touching Tributes To Kobe Bryant From Across The World

13
Babe Ruth is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Dec. at 53 (1895-1948)

Birthplace: Pigtown, Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America

George Herman "Babe" Ruth Jr. (February 6, 1895 – August 16, 1948) was an American professional baseball player whose career in Major League Baseball (MLB) spanned 22 seasons, from ...more

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#143 of 925 People We Wish Were Still Alive #22 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Timelisted on Longest Hitting Streaks in Baseball

14
Boris Becker is listed (or ranked) 14 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Age: 51

Birthplace: Leimen, 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, ...more

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#140 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #7 of 41 The Best Men's Tennis Serves of All Time

15
Nadia Comăneci is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Nadia Comăneci Age: 57

Birthplace: Onești, Romania

Nadia Elena Comăneci (UK: , US: , Romanian: [ˈnadi.a koməˈnetʃʲ] (listen); born 12 November 1961) is a Romanian retired gymnast and a five-time Olympic gold medalist, all in individual events. ...more

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#65 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #5 of 19 19 Things People Accomplished When They Were Teenagers

16
Jack Nicklaus is listed (or ranked) 16 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Age: 79

Birthplace: Upper 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 ...more

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#31 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #120 of 771 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasureslisted on Athletes You Didn't Know Were Conservative

17
Cristiano Ronaldo is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Age: 34

Birthplace: Santo António, Portugal

Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro GOIH ComM (European Portuguese: [kɾiʃˈtjɐnu ʁoˈnaɫdu]; born 5 February 1985) is a Portuguese professional footballer who plays as a forward for Serie A club ...more

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#86 of 242 The Hottest Men Of 2019, Ranked #1,558 of 2,828 The Most Influential People of All Time

18
Annika Sörenstam is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Age: 48

Birthplace: Bro, 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 ...more

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#82 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #16 of 229 The Best Female Athletes of All Time #7 of 179 The Smartest Professional Athletes

19
Maria Sharapova is listed (or ranked) 19 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Age: 31

Birthplace: Nyagan, 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 ...more

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#95 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #65 of 677 Rank the Sexiest Current Female Athletes

20
George Foreman is listed (or ranked) 20 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Age: 70

Birthplace: Texas, USA, Marshall

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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#157 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #134 of 771 American Public Figures Who Are National Treasures

21
Franz Beckenbauer is listed (or ranked) 21 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
karloman added Age: 73

Birthplace: Munich, Germany

Franz Anton Beckenbauer (pronounced [ˈfʁants ˈbɛkn̩ˌbaʊɐ]; born 11 September 1945) is a German former professional footballer and manager. Early in his playing career he was nicknamed Der Kaiser ...more

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#267 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #3 of 464 The Best Soccer Defenders of All Time #149 of 541 The Best Current Soccer Players

22
Alexander Ovechkin is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Age: 33

Birthplace: Moscow, Russia

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 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #24 of 513 The Best NHL Players of All Time

23
Michael Schumacher is listed (or ranked) 23 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
karloman added Age: 50

Birthplace: Hürth, Germany

Michael Schumacher (; German: [ˈmɪçaːʔeːl ˈʃuːmaxɐ] (listen); born 3 January 1969) is a retired German racing driver who raced in Formula One for Jordan Grand Prix, Benetton and Ferrari, ...more

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#35 of 2,166 The Best Athletes Of All Time #37 of 179 The Smartest Professional Athletes

24
Birgit Fischer is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Age: 57

Birthplace: Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Birgit Fischer (born 25 February 1962) is a German kayaker, who has won eight gold medals over six different Olympic Games, a record she shares with Aladár Gerevich, spanning seven ...more
25
Arne Borg is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Dec. at 86 (1901-1987)

Birthplace: Stockholm, 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 ...more