The most popular athletes are those whose names immediately resonate worldwide. While athleticism can be a lucrative venture, not all athletes achieve equal fame.
Many have excelled in their respective fields, but the truly popular ones have left an indelible mark, attaining both success and immense popularity.
While debates may rage about their supremacy in their sports, their undeniable impact over the years cannot be undisputed.
Famous athletes in the world include Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Tiger Woods, LeBron James, and Serena Williams.
In this article, we’ll delve into their stories and more.
The Most Famous Athletes in the World
20. Kylian Mbappe (Soccer)
When the young French soccer player participated in the 2018 Russian World Cup, unfamiliar viewers were amazed at his speed, dribbling skills, and tenacity.
Veteran fans already knew who the 19-year-old was. Kylian Mbappe set a record as the youngest French goalscorer in that tournament, received the FIFA World Cup Best Young Player Award, and also became the second teenager to score at a World Cup final after Pele.
Mbappe comes from a family of soccer players. His father is his agent, and his brothers are soccer players. The younger, Ethan, plays at the Paris Saint-Germain Academy.
Mbappe’s idols were Cristiano Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Messi, Neymar, and Ronaldinho.
He began his club career with AS Bondy. At age 11, he trained with Real Madrid, and at 14, he played with Chelsea’s youth team.
Then came his signing for Paris Saint-Germain from Monaco, where his excellence shone more.
After his incredible display in the past World Cup final against Argentina, Mbappe is a star still set to shine.
19. Michael Phelps (Swimming)
Michael Phelps is an Olympic sensation, regarded as the most decorated Olympian thanks to his 28 medals.
He also holds other records, such as the highest number of Olympic medals and the longest-standing swimming world records. Unsurprisingly, many consider him to be the greatest swimmer of all time.
Michael’s parents got divorced when he was young, and it left a significant scar on his upbringing and his relationship with his father.
His sisters influenced his decision to swim, and it provided a healthy outlet for the energetic kid. His mother also had a hand in his decision, as she wanted her children to know how to navigate the waters.
He began swimming at the age of 7, but his formal training began at age 11 under Bob Bowman, who trained him for years. He qualified for the Olympics in 2000 at the age of 15.
Phelps’ major recorded challenge in his career was his drinking, which led to his suspension at one point. He retired twice, first in 2012 and later in 2016. Besides swimming, Phelps engages in philanthropy through his foundation.
18. Dwyane Wade (Basketball)
Dwyane Wade played for the Miami Heat for most of his career, gaining fame thanks to his skills and records.
Lauded as a top shooting guard, Wade has been an NBA star 13 times in his career and has won three NBA championships.
He is also recognized for leading the US team to win the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics, and he has been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Dwyane Wade grew up in Chicago and had a trying childhood due to his parent’s divorce and his mom’s struggle with drugs.
Football and basketball became his escape, and he was a huge fan of Michael Jordan. He played both sports in high school, but by college, his focus had become basketball.
He got into the NBA during his senior year and began his professional career with the Miami Heat, where he spent 16 seasons. Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh were known as the Big Three from 2010 to 2014. 1
Dwyane Wade retired in 2019, earlier than expected.
17. Tom Brady (American Football)
The American quarterback Tom Brady is considered the greatest quarterback ever with his record of holding titles, including seven Super Bowl victories and five MVP titles.
He also has several quarterback titles, such as having the most quarterback passes. He has retired twice in his career, the second being in 2023 at the age of 45.
His stay on the field was a long one, granting him another record of being the only quarterback to win the Super Bowl in three decades.
Brady grew up a big fan of quarterback Joe Montana and learned football at a camp he attended as a kid. Besides football, he also played basketball and baseball.
He joined the Padres junior team in high school for football while also playing baseball, but ended up choosing the former.
He enrolled at the University of Michigan and played for their team. His college career had its difficulties, but he graduated with prospects. He began his professional career with the New England Patriots.
Besides football, Brady has attempted modeling, starred in television programs, and even voice-acted his character on The Simpsons.
16. Naomi Osaka (Long Tennis)
The Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka rose to fame after defeating Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open, a game filled with tension. 2
Osaka is also known for her achievements, including being the first Asian player to reach world number one in singles.
She is currently considered a top marketable athlete, and for 3 years she was featured on Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World (2019, 2020, 2021).
She’s also the first tennis player to light up the Olympic cauldron. 3
Naomi grew up in a mixed family, with her father being Haitian and her mom being Japanese. She was born in Japan but grew up in the United States after her family moved there.
Naomi began playing tennis at a young age thanks to her father, who got inspired after watching the Williams sisters play.
Several tennis academies later, she developed her tennis skills.
Her parents decided that she should represent Japan rather than the United States, and she became a professional player around the age of 16.
Mental health struggles made Naomi Osaka take a hiatus in 2021 and became a significant challenge in her career.
2023 saw her expecting a child with rapper Cordae, but she confirmed that we will still see her in action in 2024.
Besides tennis, Naomi is an activist, primarily for better treatment of blacks and ending police brutality.
15. Alex Rodriguez (Baseball)
Alex Rodriguez no longer plays professional baseball, but his legacy lives on as one of the best baseball players of all time.
His MLB record is unbeatable, with over 600 home runs, 2,000 runs scored, and 3,000 hits, among others. His awards include 10 Silver Slugger Awards, two Gold Glove Awards, and 14 All-Star Awards.
Alex’s nickname is “A-Rod”, which also became his company’s name: A-Rod Corp. Rodriguez’s father introduced him to the sport, having been a baseball player himself.
In high school, Rodriguez continued to play and even tried out for the national team while still in high school.
He would have played college baseball for the University of Miami but instead opted for the Seattle Mariners, where he began his professional career. He retired in 2016 so he could have more time with his kids.
Alex Rodriguez had a successful career, but not without challenges.
He once got suspended after he admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs, an act that cost him both money and a spot at the Hall of Fame which he might have gotten if he had remained clean.
He also suffered criticism at some point in his career.4
14. Alex Morgan (Soccer)
Alex Morgan has gained fame as the striker for the United States women’s national soccer team.
She is classified as the highest-paid woman soccer player in the United States and has even been featured on Time’s 100 Most Influential People twice (in 2019 and 2022).
She has also been awarded the U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year and was among the first women to appear on the 2015 FIFA game cover.
She once bore the nickname “baby horse” thanks to her speed and agility.
Morgan grew up in California and played soccer quite early. She also flourished in some other sports, like gymnastics.
Her father coached her in soccer as she developed her skills. At 14, she played her first organized soccer with Cypress Elite and recorded success.
She kept on playing in high school, where her incredible abilities shone, including speed.
Compared to many other players, Morgan entered club soccer late, but she coped thanks to playing for the Olympic Development Program’s regional and state teams.
At age 17, she joined the U-20 United States women’s national team, though an injury hindered her progress.
She played for the California Golden Bears at the university and began her club career with the Western New York Flash after graduation.
A notable tournament for Morgan was the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, where she participated as the youngest member of the US team.
Her performance was outstanding, and she became the first player to have both a goal and an assist in a World Cup final. Besides soccer, she wrote a series for middle schoolers named The Kicks.
13. Roger Federer (Long Tennis)
Roger Federer has accomplished a lot as a tennis player, but what often endears people to him is his composure when he plays, which is different from his younger days.
He ended his career with substantial wealth and was considered one of the highest-paid athletes in any sport.
Some of his achievements include winning the third most Grand Slam tournament finals, earning Olympic medals, and even some other awards slightly unrelated to tennis, like the BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year.
He is considered the greatest tennis player and a legend.
Federer played a lot of sports as a child, including badminton and basketball. Sports seemed to be where his strength lies, as he was deemed “unsuitable” for compulsory military service in the Swiss Armed Forces and did not last long in the civil protection force.
As a ball boy, he got exposed to long tennis at a young age and debuted in junior-level tennis at the age of 14. He recorded high success in the level, ranking number 1 in singles and number 7 in doubles.
He launched his professional career in 1998 with a loss but regained his standing the same year.
Federer retired in 2022, having made an impact on tennis as a whole.
He is credited with renewing the public’s interest in the sport, and many viewed his retirement as the end of the “golden era”.
12. Mike Trout (Baseball)
Mike Trout is often classified among the top baseball players, with some sources regarding him as the best in the sport. His athletic skills have garnered numerous positive comments, and his achievements speak to his success.
Besides being an MLB All-Star eleven times in a row, he also won the Silver Slugger Award nine times, among others. His nickname is “Kiiiiid”.
Similar to some already listed athletes, Trout’s father played the same sport he later ventured into. The dad was a baseball player before an injury ended his career, and Trout followed in his footsteps.
At a young age, Trout started in a Babe Ruth League division known as the Cal Ripken. In high school, he played both baseball and basketball, but at university, he focused on baseball.
He began his professional career in 2009 with the Arizona Angels and has since grown. In 2022, he announced that he would be the captain of the United States national baseball team in the 2023 World Baseball Classic.
11. Neymar (Soccer)
The Brazilian soccer player needs no introduction. Neymar definitely features among the best players of all time, and in Brazil, he is highly regarded.
A notable achievement of his was scoring at least 100 goals while playing for three different clubs. In Brazil, he reached the level of the legendary Pele in terms of goal-scoring.
Other achievements include the FIFA Puskas Award, an Olympic medal in 2016, and a mention from Time on the list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Neymar’s father was a former soccer player, and the man played a major role in the development of Neymar’s talent.
Neymar played both street football and futsal as he grew up, both of which helped shape his skills. At age 15, he had already earned enough to improve his family’s lifestyle, and he began his professional career with Santos FC. 5
His professional debut was on March 7, 2009, and a year later he was awarded the best player in the Brazilian Cup. At that point, viewers and observers began comparing him to other Brazilian stars, like Pele.
Neymar has had a successful career since then, but not without its challenges. Besides multiple injuries, he also faced some opposition early in his career because of his attitude.
He was also accused of rape in 2019, but the charges were dropped. Neymar currently plays with the Saudi Arabian club Al Hilal as well as the Brazil national team. 6
10. Simone Biles (Gymnastics)
Simone Biles is certainly the most decorated gymnast, with 25 World Championship medals to her name. She is also considered by many to be the greatest gymnast ever.
Biles ranks first alongside Shannon Miller for the most Olympic medals an American gymnast has won.
Other awards include the Team USA Female Olympic Athlete of the Year and the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom from Joe Biden. In her twenties, Biles has already charted a good path.
Biles began life in foster care alongside her siblings due to her mom’s inability to provide care. Biles and her siblings were later adopted by their grandfather, his second wife, and their aunt.
Her first gymnastic attempt was at the age of 6, and her career took off at age 14 in 2011. Two years later, she won her first U.S. and world all-around titles, and the success continued from there.
She once faced drug accusations when her medical records leaked, leading her to open up about her ADHD struggles. Other challenges faced include injuries, a kidney stone issue, and a sexual assault by Larry Nassar, a gymnastics physician.
Shannon Biles is nowhere near retirement, but she once took a hiatus in 2017 before returning to the sport. We will hopefully see more of her incredible skills in the future.
9. Kobe Bryant (Basketball)
Kobe Bryant’s death in the helicopter crash alongside his daughter Gianna shocked the world, and the numerous tributes testified to the player’s fame and impact.
A formidable shooting guard, Bryant was regarded as one of the top basketball players, much like LeBron and Michael Jordan.
Even after his death, he was posthumously inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. His achievements during his lifetime included five NBA championships and two Olympic gold medals. Needless to say, the world lost a basketball star in the crash.
Kobe Bryant was the child of ex-NBA player Joe Bryant, giving him an early introduction to the game. He began playing basketball at the age of 3, but only took it seriously after his family moved to Italy.
With the support of his grandfather, Kobe Bryant developed the skill. He got exposed to professional basketball while working as a ball and mop boy in the games his father played.
He played on his high school’s varsity basketball team and earned the titles of Pennsylvania Player of the Year, Naismith High School Player of the Year, and the Gatorade Men’s National Basketball Player of the Year, among others.
Though he was smart enough to further a college education, Bryant decided to venture directly into the NBA.
Before his tragic crash, Kobe had announced his retirement in 2015 with a poem titled “Dear Basketball” that later became a short film.
One of the major road bumps in his lifetime was a sexual assault charge against a 19-year-old, which he denied, though he confessed to having an affair with the lady in question.
8. Tiger Woods (Golf)
Tiger Woods is regarded as one of the most popular athletes, and in golf, few measure up to him in popularity and achievements.
He remained the world’s top golfer for a long time, ranking first alongside Sam Snead on the list of PGA Wins.
His name features in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and he also achieved the Career Grand Slam—winning four professional championships.
Tiger Woods’ official name is Eldrick Tont Woods, but he got the nickname “Tiger” as an honor to his father’s friend.
His father was a golf enthusiast, and at the tender age of two, Tiger Woods was acquainted with the sport.
He could already play at age 3, and at age 10 he won the youngest category of the Junior World Golf Championships, a feat repeated six times. At age 11, he played and won against his father.
His professional career began in 1996 at the age of 20, and in the space of a year, he ranked number one in the Official World Golf Ranking after winning three PGA Tour events and one major.
His career had some setbacks, though, notably after his multiple infidelities and an accident. His 2019 Masters victory, after numerous surgeries and a back injury, is considered one of the greatest comebacks.
Woods retired from professional golfing in 2021, though he never fully stopped.
7. Muhammad Ali (Boxing)
Muhammad Ali, known as “the Greatest” in heavyweight boxing, is an icon whose legacy transcends sports. He is deemed a legend both in heavyweight boxing and sports.
The foundation of his fame was his victory over Sonny Liston in 1964, recorded as a major upset in boxing history.
He also set history as the first boxer to win the world heavyweight championship three times, a title he defended up to 19 times.
Muhammad Ali’s original name was Cassius Clay, but he changed it both because of his conversion to Islam and his reservations about the name as a social activist.
The first Cassius Marcellus Clay was a slave owner who still kept slaves even after canvassing for their abolition.
Ali grew up in a humble family. His father was a billboard painter who also bore the name Cassius Clay, while his mother was a domestic helper.
The racial segregation he faced as a kid likely laid the foundation for his social activism.
He was outspoken about his views on race and even fostered a friendship with Malcolm X. 7
Muhammad Ali was unorthodox in his time because of his loud style, spoken-word poetry, and in-your-face boasting. However, he left an impression and gained many fans over the years.
Besides boxing, Ali acted, wrote an autobiography, and ventured into spoken word poetry, having an influence on African-American Art.
He once faced a major hurdle after refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War due to his religious beliefs, but he overcame it.
6. Usain Bolt (Track and Field)
Usain Bolt is synonymous with speed, aptly nicknamed “Lightning Bolt” due to his incredible sprinting skills.
He is widely regarded as the greatest sprinter of all time, holding world records in the 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4 x 100 meters relay.
Bolt also boasts eleven World Championship titles in his entire career, making him the most successful male athlete in World Championship history.
Other achievements include being the IAAF World Athlete of the Year, the Track & Field Athlete of the Year, and the BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year three times.
Bolt was born in Sherwood Content, Jamaica, and had two siblings. His love for sports began at an early age when he played cricket and soccer with his brother.
His sprinting talent soon became evident, and at 12 years of age, he was his school’s fastest runner. Various individuals influenced his venture into track and field racing, the first of which was his old cricket coach.
Bolt soon rose to prominence at the 2002 World Junior Championships, where he won the 200-meter race, becoming the youngest world junior gold medalist.
The streak of success continued till his retirement in 2017, though, like many other athletes, he experienced some difficult seasons, primarily due to injuries.
In-person, Bolt is described as being laidback, extroverted and a lover of both music and dancing. After his retirement in 2017, he attempted other fields, including soccer and music.
5. Michael Jordan (Basketball)
Even those unfamiliar with basketball have likely heard of Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.
MJ, as he’s affectionately known, is an icon and played a pivotal role in elevating basketball’s fame. He was nicknamed Air Jordan due to his incredible leaps and slam dunks.
The first Nike Air Jordan sneakers were made for Michael Jordan when he played for the Chicago Bulls, stemming from the nickname.
Over the years, Michael Jordan amassed numerous accolades, including five MVP awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by Barack Obama.
He has also been inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Jordan’s older brother, Larry, is also a professional basketball player, and he has another elder brother and two sisters.
MJ’s journey as an athlete began in high school, where he excelled in basketball, baseball, and soccer. He played for his school’s junior varsity team and continued in his senior year.
His basketball prowess secured him a scholarship at the University of North Carolina, where he continued to play.
In the 1982 NCAA Division I championship, Jordan scored the winning jump shot that earned his university victory over Georgetown.
He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in geography and embarked on his professional career with the Chicago Bulls.
Michael Jordan retired three times in his career and made two comebacks. The first retirement was triggered by the murder of his father and his own growing misgivings about basketball.
In a surprising move, he signed into a Baseball team in 1994, although that was short-lived, as he returned to the NBA in 1995.
The second retirement happened in 1999, but he returned a year later with the Washington Wizards before finally retiring in 2003.
4. Lionel Messi (Soccer)
Often regarded as Christiano Ronaldo’s rival, Lionel Messi, the Argentine forward boasts a dedicated following of loyal fans, garnering attention during his long stay at Barcelona FC.
His most recent achievement was leading the Argentinian team to victory in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, following a captivating final match against France, where Messi was also awarded the Golden Ball.
Other awards include seven Ballon d’Ors and six European Golden Shoes, both record-breaking achievements.
Similar to the aforementioned athletes, Messi’s passion for football ignited at a young age, with him joining a club at the tender age of four.
He was coached by his father and supported by his grandmother, whom he still pays homage to whenever he scores a goal.
Messi’s talent shone brightly at age six, but his dream was threatened by a growth hormone deficiency, which he overcame with the help of Barcelona FC.
That might explain his long-term career with the club until his transition to PSG in 2021 due to contractual complications.
Messi is known for his speed, agility, amazing assists and his dribbling skills. He confirmed his retirement from the World Cup, having led the Argentinian team to their record-breaking win.
Messi currently plays in the MLS for Inter Miami, thanks to a mouthwatering deal that makes him the highest-paid soccer player in the league.
3. Serena Williams (Long Tennis)
Serena Williams, an iconic tennis player, is another popular athlete deserving of recognition. Although she has stepped back from professional tennis, her legacy as one of the greatest tennis players endures.
Her achievements include 23 Grand Slam women’s singles titles (the second highest ever), a career Golden Slam in both singles and doubles (a unique achievement), and a total of 39 titles.
Alongside her sister Venus, she left her mark both in tennis and women’s sport as a whole.
The Williams sisters owe their tennis prowess to their parents, who coached them from an early age. Serena began playing tennis at age 4 and was homeschooled.
Her professional debut came at the age of 14, a few years earlier than her parents had preferred. After a rocky few years, she gained recognition, even winning a Grand slam title before her sister.
Her career journey had its share of challenges, including some notable losses and injuries.
In 2022, Serena Williams took a step back from tennis, referring to it as an “evolution” rather than a retirement. 8
2. LeBron James (Basketball)
LeBron James, an icon in the world of Basketball, stands as one of the most popular and successful athletes globally. Nicknamed “King James”, he remains the highest goal scorer In NBA history, paralleling Ronaldo’s achievement in soccer.
Other achievements include four Most Valuable Player (MVP), two Olympic gold medals and 20 ESPY awards.
The debate over who holds the title of the greatest basketball player of all time often revolves around LeBron and Michael Jordan.
He is undoubtedly one of the greatest athletes in the annals of sports history.
LeBron grew up in Ohio with a struggling mother and an absent father with a criminal record.
Determined to provide a better life for her, his mother allowed him to live with Frank Walker, a soccer coach who introduced LeBron to basketball.
By the age of nine, the NBA star had taken to the court. He continued playing in high school, impressing people with his height and skills. At the age of 17, he had already gotten a level of fame, a status he struggled with.
After the Cleveland Cavaliers—his hometown team—selected him for the 2003 NBA draft, LeBron’s professional career began.
He soon rose to stardom, ultimately making history as the first NBA player to earn $1 billion while actively playing.
Besides basketball, he expanded his popularity with roles in documentaries, books, and movies. An example is the movie Space Jam: A New Legacy.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Soccer)
Cristiano Ronaldo is widely regarded as one of the greatest soccer players of all time, a name synonymous with fame and excellence.
With over 800 official career goals, he holds the title of the highest goalscorer of all time, an incredible feat. 9
He boasts a treasure trove of awards, including five Ballon d’Or, four European Golden Shoes, and over 30 trophies.
His Facebook page has accumulated more than 100 million likes, and his Twitter followers number around 42 million, further underscoring his fame.
Born into a poor Roman Catholic family in Portugal, Ronaldo began playing in childhood.
At 14, he was convinced of his career path, despite early setbacks like a childhood diagnosis of tachycardia, which necessitated surgery. 10
His career kicked off at Sporting CP, but he became popular during his time with Manchester United, winning the FA Cup in the first season. By the age of 23, Ronaldo had received his first Ballon d’Or.
Ronaldo is renowned for his speed, exceptional dribbling skills, and ability to score seemingly impossible goals. He currently plays with Al Nassr.
Numerous athletes have left the world amazed with their skills, creativity, and achievements, so our list of the most famous athletes is not exhaustive.
However, every athlete featured has a track record of excellence, sometimes despite challenges and a grim background.
References & Notes
- Dwyane Wade Says “Big Three” With LeBron James, Chris Bosh Wasn’t The First. Si
- Naomi Osaka beats Serena Williams at the US Open. New York Times
- Tokyo 2020: Osaka becomes the first tennis player to light the Olympic Cauldron. WTA Tennis
- Why Alex Rodriguez is Underappreciated. Bleacher Report
- What is Futsal. A Beginner’s Guide. UEFA
- Woman Charged With Fraud in Neymar Rape Case. BBC
- Muhammad Ali And Malcolm X: A Broken Friendship, An Enduring Legacy. NPR
- Serena Williams Announces Her Retirement From Tennis. Vogue
- Ronaldo, Messi, Romario – who are the top goalscorers in football history? Goal
- Ronaldo had heart surgery at the age of 15 to save his career, his mother reveals. Mail Online