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The Most Famous Athletes In The World

So, there’s a poll up asking you to vote on who you think are the five most famous active athletes in the world. Now, among the trickier parts of this question is the word “world.” What does it mean? Take a look at the 10 most populous countries on earth.

1. China, 1.35 billion

2. India, 1.21 billion

3. United States, 315 million

4. Indonesia, 237 million

5. Brazil 193 million

6. Pakistan, 192 million

7. Nigeria, 171 million

8. Bangladesh, 152 million

9. Russia, 143 million

10. Japan, 127 million

OK. So when you consider that Asia has more than 4 billion people — more than all other continents in the world combined by more than a billion people*, well, any question about the world’s most famous athletes would have to skew heavily toward China and India. And, of course, you can certainly vote that way. It makes perfect sense.

*With Antarctica adding literally nothing to the world total.

But I must admit I’m looking for something a little bit different. What I’m looking for are the athletes who most famous EVERYWHERE in the world. There was a time when this was an easy answer — Muhammad Ali was not only the most famous athlete in the world, he was almost certainly for a time the most famous PERSON in the world. He fought all over the world, he was political, he was outspoken, he was funny … he crossed pretty much every line.

I don’t think there’s an athlete today who is quite that famous. I have my own opinion who is the most famous athlete in the world, which I will share later. But for now, one way you might look at it is this: Which athlete, if he made significant news somehow (won a Nobel Prize, died, committed a horrible crime, retired and gave up all their money and dedicated their life to the sick and poor) would be on the front page of the most newspapers and Websites around the world? Another less gruesome way to look at it is this: Which athlete would sell out in the most nations around the world?

Obviously, most of the readers here are American, and so I would expect this to have a bit of an American slant. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing, though. The U.S., though it is only the third largest country in the world, is hugely influential as a media and entertainment powerhouse. So that plays in the conversation too.

But, as Marty DeBergi says: Enough of my yakkin’. Please take the poll and we’ll discuss more later.

43 Responses to The Most Famous Athletes In The World

  1. Scott says:

    I did this on a blind guess, but I’m glad you mentioned India and China because widespread popularity there would heavily tilt the scales, even compared to a star in a global sport like soccer or Formula One. As far as I know (and this is guesswork, not research) there are no truly major domestic sports stars in China in the same sense we have here, sports just aren’t as popular. Again, guesing, but I think the biggest sports stars in China are Michael Jordan, Yao Ming, and Olympians from the Beijing games, most of whom are not active. Now, I do know that India is pretty heavily into Cricket, so I voted for both Cricket Stars, neither of whom I have ever heard of. I also voted for Lebron, a global Nike presence is a powerful thing. Outside of that I’m guessing the biggest international names have to come from soccer (Ronaldo), or Formula One (Hamilton).

  2. tarhoosier says:

    I, too went with cricket. The most watched sporting event is World Cup cricket. Tendulkar, then Bolt as my two choices. I checked the list after I read the post.

  3. SEHumphrey says:

    Lionel Messi. Greatest football player in the world (by a large margin). Only downside is he’s kind of boring (so, not Ali kind of self-promotion).

  4. Clearly it’s David Wells…

  5. Ross Densley says:

    I know a while ago the BBC ran an experiment to find out if anyone in the world hadn’t heard of David Beckham. (this was at the peak of his powers, just before he was shipped from Man United to Real Madrid – when a hair cut was met with mass hysteria). I believe they eventually found someone who lived in the middle of nowhere in central Africa who wasn’t sure who he was. Isn’t that the definition of world famous?

  6. Ficta says:

    I immediately thought Beckham, too.

    I mean he’s got his wife’s fame, so he’s famous squared. Even people who know absolutely nothing about sports, like my brother, know who he is.

  7. Ed McDonald says:

    I would think most of us don’t know enough about pop culture in China and India to answer this accurately.

    • Ross Densley says:

      I respectfully disagree – to me, for example, David Beckham is known by a significant number of people in a significant number of countries, which makes him a world star. If you take Sachin Tendulkar – god-like status in India (so is recognised by a billion people) but outside of India and cricketing nations he is likely unknown he becomes less of a ‘world’ star but more of a national hero and cricketing legend. I would guess that athletes like Derek Jeter is the same.

    • macomeau says:

      Of course it’s worth considering that ‘cricketing nations’ includes not just India (#2), but also Pakistan (#6) and Bangladesh (#8). Tendulkar may not be one of the five most famous athletes in all the (test) cricketing nations (like Australia, England or New Zealand, which have larger followings for other sports), but he is almost certainly one of the five most famous athletes in three of the top 10 most populous nations on earth.

  8. Nick Xouris says:

    David Beckham and Manny Pacquiao!

  9. Beckham is #1 and it isn’t close. LeBron James would struggle to make the Top 10 – some serious US bias there. You think the majority of the people in Europe/India/Africa have any idea who he is? I’d go with Messi, Bolt, Ronaldo, and Woods, along with Beckham obviously.

  10. Aranathor says:

    There is one name on this list that sticks out like a sore thumb. Shivnarine Chanderpaul? Seriously? I think the majority of his fame nowadays comes from his first name sounding like Sunil Narine. Why not Chris Gayle or even Virat Kohli to go along with Sachin Tendulkar as Cricket’s representative?

  11. macomeau says:

    Of the options, I took Beckham, Bolt, Messi, C. Ronaldo and Tendulkar. There are other cricketers I might have picked, but Chanderpaul isn’t one of them. Kevin Pietersen and Chris Gayle come immediately to mind. The latter is probably a bigger deal just on the West Indian team than Chanderpaul, and because of his prolific scoring in the IPL, much bigger in India. Bolt is probably my weakest pick.

    I like F1, but I’m not sure that Hamilton and Vettel have achieved the star power of, say, Schumacher or Senna (or other greats of the further past). I love baseball and like (college) football, but I doubt those sports have much play outside North America. Basketball (meh) and hockey (<3) do have more legitimate international reach, but their great stars are essentially locked in North America and don't really appear on anything like the world's stage outside their respective Olympics. I also think that golf and tennis have a bit too much of a whiff of 'rich, white people sport' for their stars to have the biggest international impact. Though partly breaking that mould did help Tiger's popularity. I think his personal stock has dropped a lot over the last few years though. Pacquiao is the biggest boxer in the world, but between the rise of MMA (in NorthAm at least) and the distaste many have for the violence of both, I don't think a modern boxer can pull off true mass appeal anymore.

    The biggest confounding factor for me is China. While I’m sure they do celebrate their own athletes, I’ve always gotten the impression that the real star power in China belongs to the biggest names elsewhere; like Beckham, who has built himself into a brand far beyond his current talent level.

  12. yoyodyne says:

    Jordan, Beckham/Ronaldo, Bolt, Tendukar, Pacquiao.

  13. Matt S says:

    I wonder what this list would look like if the question were the top female athletes in the world. Is there anyone even close to Serena Williams?

  14. brhalbleib says:

    I know the knee jerk Eurocentric (as opposed to USCentric) view is that soccer/futbol is the world’s most popular sport, but a glance at the Top 10 countries in population gives me pause at that thought. I am pretty sure the most popular sport in #2, #6 and #8 is cricket. #3 is American football. #10 is baseball. #4 may be badminton. #9 may be ice hockey. #5 is clearly soccer/futbol. I don’t know about #1, I suspect it may be soccer/futbol, but I also bet basketball is closing rapidly. I would guess #7 is soccer/futbol.

    Pretty telling too is that although soccer/futbol is supposedly so popular worldwide, only 1 of the 10 countries above have won a World Cup (the same country where it is clearly the most popular sport)

    • mckingford says:

      I think the mistake you are making here is isolating any one sport. The thing soccer has going for it is that although it may not be the #1 sport in many given countries, it is almost surely #2 almost everywhere but North America. It’s not as if South Asians follow cricket to the exclusion of all else.

      By way of comparison, hockey is obviously Canada’s #1 sport. But Lebron James and Tom Brady are almost surely just as famous here as Sydney Crosby.

      • Rahul Rossi says:

        Absolutely in India we watch Cricket with exception of everything else.Very less numbers for other sports.2nd most popular sport is Hockey.

  15. mckingford says:

    Seeing Tiger Woods leading this poll tells me a (depressing) lot about the travel habits of the voters here. No, just, no.

    For anyone who has done any traveling in Asia, the answer is pretty easy. Deserved (or, most likely, not), it’s Beckham. That dude is everywhere. It’s at the point where it transcends his appeal as an athlete, really (especially since he’s not really an elite player anymore). He’s more of a celebrity who got his debut in sport.

    I don’t think Americans fully grasp the universal and widespread reach of soccer. You can be in some dusty village in Laos where nobody in the village’s single restaurant speaks any English but they’ve still got an EPL game playing on the television. It’s quite remarkable, actually.

  16. I don’t think he is the answer, but given that the U.S. is the 3rd most populous country and Japan is 10th, I imagine an awful lot of people know Ichiro. Of course, not all Americans follow baseball, but when he arrived, there was quite a bit of ballyhoo, and he has made headlines since. Plus, although they may reserve their most ardent emotions for local baseball, I guess that many Latin Americans are aware of major league baseball as well given how many players hail from that region.

    Now together, the U.S. and Japan do not even come to half the populations of India or China, but as I have no idea who is well-known there, I can’t comment on cricket players or even Yao Ming or on sports that might be popular there.

  17. gwowen says:

    Almost everyone in India knows Sachin Tendulkar. At the IPL game on his 40th birthday last week, someone in the crowd had a banner saying “Happy Birthday from One Billion Fans”. That’s an exaggeration, but not by much.

    So anyone who’s beating him out would have to be equally massive in either India or China. Beckham has penetrated both those markets, plus the US, but I can’t see anyone else being close to those two.

  18. Just because everyone in India knows Tendulkar doesn’t meant they’d rank him as the most famous athlete. The NBA and Soccer are huuuggggggeeeee there and Indian sports fans have a worldwide view as well. He might make top 5 or top 10. Plus China is also huge into the NBA and soccer.

    My votes went to Messi, CR7, Kobe, Lebron and Bolt.

  19. It should also be noted that Tendulkar is on the downside of his career, which would affect his ranking on a current scale. On an all-time scale, he’d do better.

  20. ChuckkJay says:

    LOL at all the Beckham comments.

    Are we taking this poll in 2008, or 2013?

    • Jay says:

      That’s what I was thinking, too. Anyone under 25 know who he is? Messi’s the best-known soccer player.

    • macomeau says:

      Most of the world is over 25. And at least any soccer fan under 25 probably has a clue who he is. They may not like him, rate him, or even particularly get why he’s famous at this point, but they know who he is.

      And while Messi is certainly the better soccer player, it’s not hard to argue that Beckham is more famous. Beckham is a) famous among everyone in soccer circles, even if his skills have declined and b) famous beyond soccer.

      Heck, he’s the face of Adidas’ current commercials for running shoes. It’s just an ad of him jogging. There’s no hint at soccer in it anywhere.

  21. Ficta says:

    @ChuckkJay I thought the question was “most famous” not “current greatest” or “most admired” or “most popular”, in that case it probably is some cricketer I’ve never heard of. Who on that list is known by more people than Beckham?

  22. Jay says:

    A quick Google search tells me 1.8 billion watched the 2011 cricket WC final, 2 billion the 2012 men’s 100m final, and 3.2 billion the 2010 FIFA WC final.

    To me, that makes Bolt the most famous, because most of the 2b tuned in to watch him. Has any other athlete — even Muhammad Ali — drawn that many viewers?

  23. The problem with Beckham is that he is barely popular at all in the U.S. He would struggle to be in the top 100 most famous here. Just like you have to think about the rest of the world, you do have to think about the U.S. Most Americans probably wouldn’t even be able to recognize a game of cricket if it was being played right in front of them.

    It’s really like there are two worlds when it comes to sports: the U.S. and everyone else. There are only a few “crossover” people who are even recognizable to the other side, let alone famous. I hadn’t heard of Beckham until I went to England in 2003,and that was at the peak of his career. I’ve vaguely heard of a couple of the soccer players getting votes, but don’t recognize most any of the other names. Likewise, in 2003, kids at the English high school we visited didn’t know Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Brett Favre, or anyone but the most famous NBA stars (like Michael Jordan, maybe Kobe Bryant). They knew Tiger Woods.

    Admittedly, I’m someone who is slowly narrowing down from “sports fan” to “baseball fan”, so I don’t have the pulse of the world here, but that’s sort of the point. Sports fans in general overestimate how famous sports stars are to people who don’t watch sports. I think it’s the same with sports you don’t follow. Someone has to sort of “invade your world” to even be recognized, no matter how famous they are in their own “world.”

  24. Zach says:

    Michael Jordan. The only other possibility would be Tiger Woods, who is basically the Jordan of golf.

    Beckham is famous, but let’s be honest: the man could walk down Madison Avenue at noon without being recognized. And has there ever been a time when he was considered bigger than his sport?

    Athletes in my lifetime who have been bigger than their sport:
    1) Michael Jordan (bigger than any sport)
    2) Muhammad Ali (not active, but still bigger than boxing)
    3) Tiger Woods (biggest athlete today, but nobody knows anything about him except for golf)
    4) Andre Agassi (arguable, but I knew who he was despite not following tennis)
    5) Joe Montana (hard to say any football player is bigger than the sport, but Joe came as close as possible)

  25. 543 says:

    I think is obvious it’s a soccer player (if we think in number of nations, and not number of people). The question is: Messi or Beckham?

  26. omar moore says:

    what are you saying now i will talk about my self i am arabian and arabs ara about 1.9 billon and you should know that we dont watch basketball or baseball or any sport just football or as you call it soccer and most of the world is the same except just america so the most popular is ronaldo

  27. Rahul Rossi says:

    Hmmm guys if you are talking about most famous then Sachin may be arguable,but if u are talking about larger than a life player,nobody comes close to him.Whole of India had tears when he retired yesterday.24 years guys get a life.

  28. Thomas says:

    this guy Tendulkr is unreal man, he is one of his kind species on earth. larger than the game? he is probably larger than the nation

  29. Saggy says:

    Guys sachin Ramesh Tendulkar is the famous athlete in the world. No one gonna beat him…. He has more than 1.6 billion fan following in the world. even michael owen, fedrer, bolt are the fan of sachin…… he is nt only famous in the india but also in austrailiya, england, pakistan, bangladesh, newzealand, and in sharjha, dubai , many more countries…

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