Sports

The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time  

Ranker Sports
29.2k votes 1.8k voters 15.5k 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
Sonja Henie is listed (or ranked) 4 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
5
Bjørn Dæhlie is listed (or ranked) 5 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
6
Ole Einar Bjørndalen is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 45
Ole Einar Bjoerndalen is a biathlete.
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
Ronaldinho is listed (or ranked) 11 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
12
Maria Sharapova is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 28
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
13
Hannes Kolehmainen is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added Dec. at 77 (1889-1966)
Juho Pietari "Hannes" Kolehmainen was a Finnish middle-distance and long-distance runner. He was the first in a generation of great Finnish long distance runners, often named the ...more
14
Sergei Kharkov is listed (or ranked) 14 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 48
Sergei Kharkov AKA Sergej Charkov is a Russian gymnast, Olympic champion and world champion. He competed for the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation before immigrated to Germany where he won ...more
15
Arne Borg is listed (or ranked) 15 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
16
Alexander Vladimirovich Popov is listed (or ranked) 16 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
17
Katarina Witt is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 53
Katarina Witt is a retired German figure skater. Witt won two Olympic gold medals for East Germany, first at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics and the second in 1988 at the Calgary Olympics. She is a ...more
18
Magdalena Neuner is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 32
Magdalena "Lena" Neuner is a retired German professional biathlete. She is the most successful woman of all time at Biathlon World Championships and a two-time Olympic gold medalist. ...more
19
Georges Miez is listed (or ranked) 19 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
20
Annika Sörenstam is listed (or ranked) 20 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
21
Ayrton Senna is listed (or ranked) 21 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
22
Szilveszter Csollány is listed (or ranked) 22 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
23
Betty Cuthbert is listed (or ranked) 23 on the list The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time
Tattoo added age 80
Elizabeth Cuthbert AM, MBE is an Australian athlete, and a fourfold Olympic champion. During her career, she set world records for 60 metres, 100 yards, 200 metres, 220 yards and 440 yards. ...more
24
George Foreman is listed (or ranked) 24 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
25
Alexander Ovechkin is listed (or ranked) 25 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