Successfully working in the world of sports is no easy task. Immense hard work, perseverance, and skill is required to make it to the top, and stay there. This article talks about 26 such sports athletes who changed the world through their immense influence on the games that they played.
Did You Know?
The Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame was started in 1959 in remembrance of James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891. This place is testament to the greatest moments of the game and its brightest stars.
Whenever people talk about sports, it is inevitable that comparisons among players are debated a lot. While most of the discussion looks at cold and hard statistics, the character, guts, and the overall impact of the players on the game is just as important. In the following paragraphs, we have created our list of all-time sports greats, who inspired generations through their game play, and brought in such incredible skills that the way the game is played has changed, and occasionally, the rules of the game had to even be amended just for them.
Athletes That Changed Their Sports
Arguably one of the best players in the history of baseball, Hank Aaron is known for having the career home run record (755 home runs). He was one of the first black players in Major League Baseball, where he was a 25-time All Star, 4-time National League home run, 3-time Golden Glove Award, and 2-time National League batting champion. He was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball All Century Team.
This athlete won 10 medals at the Olympics track and field events, of which 9 were golds. This makes Carl Lewis one of the most decorated Olympians of all time. Apart from this, he also won 10 World Championship medals, of which eight were gold. His excellence in 100 m, 200 m, long jump, and various relay races earned him the titles of ‘World Athlete of the Century’ by the International Association of Athletics Federations, and ‘Sportsman of the Century’ by the International Olympics Committee.
Universally accepted as one of the best center players in basketball, Shaquille had only one weakness: free throws. Due to this, he was often victim to a strategy which involved fouling the center player, regardless of whether he was holding the ball at the time or not, forcing knock down free throws. Shaquille O’Neal made the league change the rules in 2008. Now, an intentional foul on a player without the ball leads to a penalty similar to that of a technical foul, including two free throws by the team in possession, before receiving the ball back.
Barry Bonds set many records in Major League Baseball, including maximum home runs in a season (70), maximum walks (177), and slugging percentage (.863). He became the only player in the history of baseball to score 400 career home runs along with 400 stolen bases. All of his achievements were marred by accusation and conviction of the use of performance-enhancement drugs in 2005. However, the conviction was overturned in 2015 in a federal appeals court.
Despite retiring from the game of American Football at only 29 years of age, Jim Brown’s nine-year career with the Cleveland Browns left a legacy which all running backs look up to even today. He created records for career touchdowns and rushing touchdowns, and became the only rusher in the history of the NFL to average more than 100 yards per game in a career. He also scored in 6 games with at least 4 touchdowns, which is a record that still stands unbroken. In 2002, he was named the Greatest Professional Football Player Ever. Besides his football exploits, he was also a very good lacrosse player, and has been inducted into NCAA’s Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
This amazing athlete is the only person to be in the All-Star teams of the National Football League and the Major League Baseball during the same season, winning several awards and accolades along the way, including the prestigious Heisman Trophy, which is awarded only to the most outstanding footballers in the United States.
The trapezoidal area behind the net in an ice hockey game has its origins with Martin Brodeur. In his early career, when the trapezoid did not exist, Brodeur used his supreme skills of handling the puck to act as a pseudo Third Defenseman, aside from his true post of being a goalie. Since no other goalie in the NHL could do what he did, Brodeur’s team had an advantage in every game that they played. In 2005, the NHL created the trapezoidal area, which would be the only area where goalies would be allowed to handle the puck. Even though the justification was that, the rule prevented goalies from taking undue advantage of their position, it was clear that they were talking only about Martin Brodeur.
Tiger Woods is the youngest golfer to ever win the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship, in a single year, and he has repeated the feat two more times. He has won the PGA Player of the Year 10 times. The dominance of Tiger Woods in the game of golf is so high, that after winning the Masters of Augusta National with a 12-stroke margin, the famed golf course went through significant changes to make it difficult for this great golfer. Despite the changes, Woods is still expected to be at an advantage, because the difficulty has increased for all the other golfers as well. With his 14 major titles, 16 World Golf Championship wins, and 71 PGA wins, Tiger Woods is a sporting legend like no other.
Venus and Serena Williams
These two sisters dominate women’s tennis, changing the sport from one of finesse and skill into one characterizing violent power. Venus Williams has seven grand slam titles, of which 5 are at Wimbledon, making her one of the best in the game. On the other hand, Serena Williams far surpasses her sister, with 20 Grand Slam wins, and has been ranked as the world No. 1 six times.
When Magic Johnson entered the NBA in the 1980s, he was an immediate hit. He could play skillfully at any position, especially that of a point guard, with superb no-look passes, and such cool moves which enthralled spectators. His rivalry with Larry Bird earned him and the NBA huge fame at a time when fan interest was waning. His skill had him proclaimed as the ‘greatest point guard’ of the game. This 5-time NBA champ won 3 MVP and Finals MVP awards, along with 9 NBA First Team selections.
Along with his teammates from the Edmonton Oilers, Wayne Gretzky was such a pro at exploiting open ice situations after off-setting penalties, that the National Hockey League made changes which completely removed such play from the game. This rule was however criticized heavily in all quarters, and was eventually removed in 1992. He revolutionized the game with his team centric approach, and is often thought to be the greatest ice hockey player ever.
With his massive height of 7’1″, dunks were a cakewalk for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, when he played in the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the 1960s. To neutralize this unfair advantage, the association banned dunking from the entire game. However, this posed little problem to Kareem, as he would simply score the points by bouncing the ball of the glass board, which won consecutive national championships for his team, the Boston Bruins. Eventually, the ban on dunking was lifted in 1976. However, the ban benefited Kareem actually, as it forced him to work on the sky hook, which would become his signature move during his NBA career, allowing him to score the most points in the history of the league.
An exceptional player in women’s basketball, Lisa Leslie is one of the few women who have made the Women’s National Basketball Association a nationally respectable sports body. She was the first player to score a dunk in a WNBA game. She has won 3 MVP awards, 9 All WNBA selections, 2 Defensive Player of the Year awards, and 15 WNBA Player of the Week awards, which is an unbroken record in the league. Besides this, she is also a 4-time gold medalist with the U.S. Women’s Basketball Team, and has also been part of two World Championship winning teams.
With 17 grand slam titles, Roger Federer is a male tennis player with the highest number of championship wins. He also held the World No.1 position for an astounding record 302 weeks, which is why he is unanimously considered to be the greatest tennis player of all time.
Considered as one of the best soccer players in the world of his time, this Argentine captained his country’s team in 1986, winning the World Cup. Although Diego Maradona was a controversial sports figure, there is no question that his skill in the game was more than amazing.
One of the best black woman athletes that changed how sports was viewed, Althea Gibson achieved greatness in not just one, but two sports: golf and tennis. After winning several local tournaments in New York, she won a scholarship for college, after which there was no looking back. She was the first black woman to have been invited to compete at Wimbledon in 1951. Then, in 1956, 1957, and 1958, she won the French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open titles respectively, becoming the first black woman to win a Grand Slam title. In 1964, she became the first African-American woman to enter the Ladies Professional Golf Association, where she reached the 27th rank, despite being subjected to racial prejudice throughout her career. In 1980, she was finally inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, testament to the steel of her character.
Named by BBC as the Sportsman of the 20th century, few have come close to attaining the level of fame or skills of Muhammad Ali in the world of professional boxing. Born Cassius Clay Jr., Ali began his tryst with boxing only to punish a thief who had stolen his bicycle. But within the next 6 years, not only had he won the Golden Gloves Championship, but had also become a gold medalist at the Olympics, showing that he truly could ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee’. Following his success at the Olympics, he won almost every boxing tournament he entered throughout the 1960s, making him the only person to win three World Heavyweight Champion titles. Even today, he serves as an inspiration for millions of boxing aspirants across the world.
Known for being the first American athlete to have won four gold medals in a single Olympics, ‘Jesse’ James Cleveland Owens started his race to fame in high school, where he set national records for long jump and the 100- and 200-yard races, and continued to create new milestones when he attended Ohio State University. All this, besides him being the son of a slave. However, this sports athlete truly changed the world’s perspective, by challenging prejudices about race, when he won 4 gold medals in the track and field events in the 1936 Summer Olympics of Berlin, in Nazi Germany. This was a powerful punch against Hitler’s claims of the greatness of pure Aryan blood. For this accomplishment, Owens received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976. In 1990, ten years after his death, President George Bush posthumously awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal, an honor truly well deserved.
When we talk about athletes who have changed sports, we cannot omit ‘His Airness’. Few have had as much influence on a sport as him. Coming with a bang into the NBA in 1984, he led the Chicago Bulls through a sensational championship run, with exquisite leaps, dunks, scoring, and awesome defense. What is truly astounding however, is that Jordan retired from basketball after the Bulls won all three titles from 1991 – 1993. He however returned in 1995 to again win three championships from 1996 – 1998. Apart from these, he has won almost every accolade in the sport, including 5 MVP awards and 10 scoring titles. It can be said that, he took the NBA, which was till then popular only in the United States, and gave it international fame.
While Bill Russell played basketball for the University of San Francisco, his average Points Per Game and Rebounds Per Game were an astounding 20.7 and 20.3 respectively. One could attribute this achievement to the fact that he was allowed to hold his post within 10 feet of the paint, which he ruthlessly exploited with his 6’9″ body and superb athleticism. When he won his team the national championship two years in a row, the National Collegiate Athletic Association decided that changes were to be made to even out the odds for the other players. This led to the free throw lane being widened to 12 feet, a measure that is used even today. He was also a part of the U.S. Olympic gold medal winning team, and went on to win 5 MVP awards, 12 All Star selections, and 11 All NBA selections. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
A man ahead of his time, Chamberlain averaged a staggering 50 points and 25 rebounds per game in the 1962 NBA season. Such was his athleticism, that he could simply leap from behind the foul line to directly dunk the ball or score from a close range. This prompted a rule, which made it mandatory for a player not to cross the foul line before the ball crossed the basket rim. He is a 2-time NBA champion, with 4 MVP awards. Apart from his basketball exploits, Wilt Chamberlain has also earned himself a spot in the Volleyball Hall of Fame.
Born Edison Arantes do Nascimento, this Brazilian football legend is arguably the best footballer in world history, even being named the Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee in 1999. In his career, Pelé scored 1,281 goals in 1,363 games, and is the only footballer to have been the part of three World Cup winning squads. Known for his immense athleticism and superhuman skills of dribbling, passing, heading, and scoring, he was the face of international football till David Beckham’s arrival in the 1990s, and was probably the only footballer to be recognized in the United States in his time.
Since the segregation of the Major League Baseball in 1889, no African-American had played for the tournament. However, when the Brooklyn Dodgers invited Robinson to play for their team in 1947, he became the first black player to enter the majors in around 80 years. This kicked off a decade-long, legendary career, which included 6 pennants, and a World Series Championship win, despite a daily heap of racial abuse. He earned the titles of National League Rookie of the Year, Most valuable Player of the Year, and was even inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. Even today, long after his death, Jackie Robinson is still a part of American public consciousness, leading to a movie, a commemorative stamp, and even a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal.
Despite being born prematurely and having contracted polio at a young age, Wilma Rudolph worked her way into her high school basketball team, even taking them to the state championship level, all the while working to strengthen her twisted leg. Her skills were noticed by the coach of the Tennessee State University, where she became a member of the track and field team, and made her first Olympic appearance at the age of 16, in Melbourne. However, she gained world fame at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where she won the gold medal in the 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4 × 100 meter relay races, even setting a world record in the process. Proclaimed to be the ‘Fastest Woman in History’, Wilma Rudolph is an inspiration for multiple generations of athletes, not only through her achievements, but also the struggles she went through to get her wins.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Known as the ‘World’s Greatest Woman Athlete’, Zaharias dominated multiple sports, including golf, tennis, basketball, baseball, and track and field games, breaking the traditional stereotype of femininity. She played baseball so well, that she earned the nickname ‘Babe’, comparing her to the baseball legend Babe Ruth. At the 1932 Olympics, she won two gold medals and a silver for her efforts in track and field events. However, her primary sport was golf, where she won more than 80 amateur and professional tournaments. It can easily be said that her name should be included in all lists of greatest athletes in any form of media.
Despite a world of pressure regarding race and gender, nothing could dampen the competitive spirit of these sports persons and their love for the game. All of us owe them a debt of gratitude for not admitting defeat, and bringing the various sports to where they are today. if you strongly feel that someone else besides these deserves a mention, feel free to let us know through the comments section below.