Sports
2.1k voters

The Most Influential Athletes Of All Time

Updated January 27, 2020 39.3k votes 2.1k voters 20.2k 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. 

Photo:
...more
  • Mike Tyson1
    232
    132

    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...  more

    More Mike Tyson 

    #95 of 157 Ranking The Greatest WWE Hall of Fame Inductees#6 of 178 The Best Boxers of All Time

  • Paavo Nurmi2
    341
    224

    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...  more
  • Ole Einar Bjørndalen3

    BirthplaceDrammen, Norway

    Ole Einar Bjørndalen (born 27 January 1974) is a retired Norwegian professional biathlete,...  more
  • George Foreman4
    141
    70

    BirthplaceMarshall, Texas, USA

    George Edward Foreman (born January 10, 1949) is an American former professional boxer who...  more

    More George Foreman 

    #139 of 269 The Most Trustworthy Celebrities in the World#8 of 65 The Best Boxers of the 1990s

  • Alexander Karelin5
    344
    229

    BirthplaceNovosibirsk, Russia

    Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Karelin (Russian: Александр Александрович Карелин; born 19 September...  more

    More Alexander Karelin 

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

  • Ingemar Stenmark6
    279
    179

    BirthplaceJoesjö, Sweden

    Jan Ingemar Stenmark (Swedish pronunciation: [ˈɪŋː(ɛ)mar ²steːnmark]; born 18 March 1956 in...  more

    More Ingemar Stenmark 

    #20 of 62 The Greatest Alpine Skiers of All Time#1 of 205 The Best Olympic Athletes from Sweden

  • Jack Nicklaus7
    185
    106

    BirthplaceUpper Arlington, Ohio, United States of America

    Jack William Nicklaus, nicknamed "The Golden Bear", is a retired American professional golfer....  more

    More Jack Nicklaus 

    #24 of 150 Athletes You Didn't Know Were Conservative#2 of 162 The Best Golfers Of All Time

  • Wayne Gretzky8
    595
    441

    BirthplaceBrantford, Canada

    Wayne Douglas Gretzky (; born January 26, 1961) is a Canadian former professional ice hockey...  more

    More Wayne Gretzky 

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

  • Sonja Henie9
    253
    167

    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...  more

    More Sonja Henie 

    #153 of 753 People We Wish Were Still Alive#2 of 43 The Greatest Female Figure Skaters of All Time

  • Ronaldinho10
    126
    64

    Ronaldinho

    Age: 40

    BirthplacePorto Alegre, Brazil

    Ronaldo de Assis Moreira (born 21 March 1980), commonly known as Ronaldinho Gaúcho (Brazilian...  more

    More Ronaldinho 

    #2 of 138 The Greatest South American Footballers of All Time#5 of 114 The Best FC Barcelona Players Of All Time, Ranked

  • Bjørn Dæhlie11
    194
    119

    BirthplaceElverum, Norway

    Bjørn Erlend Dæhlie (born 19 June 1967) is a Norwegian businessman and retired cross-country...  more
  • Maria Sharapova12
    159
    96

    BirthplaceNyagan, Russia

    Maria Yuryevna Sharapova (Russian: Мари́я Ю́рьевна Шара́пова, IPA: [mɐˈrʲijə ˈjʉrʲjɪvnə...  more

    More Maria Sharapova 

    #336 of 583 The Greatest Entertainers of All Time#9 of 77 The Best Athletes Who Have Used Performance Enhancing Drugs

  • Annika Sörenstam13
    165
    102

    BirthplaceBro, Sweden, Sweden

    Annika Sörenstam (pronounced [ˈanːɪka ²sœːrɛnˌstam] (listen); born 9 October 1970) is a...  more

    More Annika Sörenstam 

    #92 of 240 The Best Female Athletes of All Time#12 of 163 The Smartest Professional Athletes

  • Boris Becker14
    198
    131

    BirthplaceLeimen, Germany

    Boris Franz Becker (German pronunciation: [ˈboːʁɪs ˈbɛkɐ]; born 22 November 1967) is a German...  more

    More Boris Becker 

    #6 of 216 The Greatest Men's Tennis Players of All Time#11 of 83 The Greatest Male Tennis Players of the Open Era

  • Marit Bjørgen15
    212
    144

    Marit Bjørgen

    Age: 40

    BirthplaceTrondheim, Norway

    Marit Bjørgen (born 21 March 1980) is a retired Norwegian cross-country skier. She is ranked...  more
  • Johan Cruijff16
    97
    48

    BirthplaceAmsterdam, Netherlands

    Hendrik Johannes Cruijff OON (Dutch: [ˈjoːɦɑn ˈkrœyf] (listen), internationally spelled...  more

    More Johan Cruijff 

    #13 of 1,294 The Best Soccer Players of All Time#3 of 103 Coolest Soccer Players

  • Larry Bird17
    502
    403

    Larry Bird

    Age: 63

    BirthplaceWest Baden Springs, French Lick Township, Indiana, United States of America

    Larry Joe Bird (born December 7, 1956) is an American former professional basketball player,...  more

    More Larry Bird 

    #1 of 232 The Best White Players in NBA History#1 of 135 The Best Small Forwards of All Time

  • Steffi Graf18
    489
    393

    BirthplaceMannheim, Germany

    Stefanie Maria "Steffi" Graf (German pronunciation: [ˈʃtɛfiː ˈɡʁaːf]; born 14 June 1969) is a...  more

    More Steffi Graf 

    #31 of 319 The Most Inspiring (Non-Hollywood) Female Role Models#4 of 72 The Greatest Women's Tennis Players of All Time

  • Mika Häkkinen19
    77
    32

    BirthplaceVantaa, Finland

    Mika Pauli Häkkinen (Finnish: [ˈmikɑ ˈhækːinen] (listen); born 28 September 1968), nicknamed...  more
  • Kobe Bryant20
    535
    434

    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...  more

    More Kobe Bryant 

    The 100 Best Songs That Reference Kobe Bryant#7 of 256 The Top NBA Players Of All Time

  • Babe Ruth21
    484
    390

    Babe Ruth

    Dec. at 53 (1895-1948)

    BirthplacePigtown, Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America

    George Herman "Babe" Ruth Jr. (February 6, 1895 – August 16, 1948) was an American...  more

    More Babe Ruth 

    #34 of 39 Longest Hitting Streaks in Baseball#527 of 2,443 The Most Influential People of All Time

  • Arne Borg22
    135
    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...  more
  • Ronaldo23
    70
    27

    Ronaldo

    Age: 44

    BirthplaceRio de Janeiro, Brazil

    Ronaldo is a Portuguese and Spanish equivalent of the name Ronald. Notable people known as...  more

    More Ronaldo 

    #383 of 403 Famous Role Models We'd Like to Meet In Person#2 of 164 The Best Soccer Players of the '90s

  • Miguel Indurain24
    90
    43

    BirthplaceNavarre, Spain

    Miguel Induráin Larraya (Spanish pronunciation: [miˈɣel induˈɾain laˈraʝa]; born 16 July 1964)...  more
  • Ayrton Senna25
    89
    44

    Ayrton Senna

    Dec. at 34 (1960-1994)
    Ayrton Senna da Silva (Brazilian Portuguese: [aˈiʁtõ ˈsẽnɐ dɐ ˈsiwvɐ] (listen); 21 March 1960...  more

    More Ayrton Senna 

    #1 of 71 The Greatest Formula One Drivers Ever#81 of 143 Athletes Whose Careers Ended Too Soon