Top 10: Most Iconic Athletes of the 21st Century

My Wednesday night was spent watching NBA TV’s special on the most iconic individual team of all time, the 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team, which you probably know better as “The Dream Team.” The pure circus it caused throughout the U.S. and at the Olympics in Barcelona is unparalleled, but that team’s impact still rings throughout the NBA today. Without the team showcasing its abilities to the international community, the NBA may have never known superstars like Dirk Nowitzki, Pau & Marc Gasol, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. It got me thinking about what athletes in the past decade or so have come to transcend their sport like Michael Jordan and the Dream Team. Check out my list of the ten most iconic athletes (by sport) of this century.

10) Albert Pujols (Baseball)

The toughest part of this list was picking someone from Major League Baseball. So I decided to go with one of the most popular players who has been the best in the league since the turn of the century. The simple way to put it is baseball lacks a positive transcendent player. The early 2000s have been plagued by the whiplash of the steroid era of baseball (a.k.a. the 1990s). Part of me wanted to give baseball’s spot on this list to Barry Bonds for becoming the face of anabolic steroids, but since I’m in a positive mood watching Matt Cain throw a perfect game I’ll give the spot to “The Machine” due to a lack of acceptable candidates*.

*As a Nationals fan though I do have to say watch out for Bryce and Strasburg.

9) Alex Ovechkin/Sidney Crosby (Hockey)

Just two years ago, the argument between these two young stars in the league would be fun. The childlike excitement and passion that the “Great 8 “shows every day on the ice makes him likeable, but Ovechkin’s unbelievable offensive talent makes him must see TV. His polar opposite, Sidney Crosby, is the perfect image for any person who has an old school view of hockey: quiet, collected, a leader, and a winner. These two reinvigorated a sport, which desperately needed fresh faces after the NHL’s lockout in 2004-05. However, with Crosby’s injuries and Ovi’s recent decline, I decided neither deserved this spot on their own. Much like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved the NBA in the 1980s, 20 years down the road we will be crediting these guys with saving the NHL.

8) Jimmie Johnson (NASCAR)

He’s been a fixture of NASCAR since 2002 (only 1 finish outside the top 5) and has been one of the most dominant athletes in any sport, as he was the king from 2006 to 2010. Plus if you need a NASCAR driver to endorse a product, he’s your go to guy.

7) Roger Federer (Tennis)

If this list were based solely on achievement, Roger would be far higher on this list (probably number 3). Not only has he won the most grand slams (16), but also he won them in the span of 27 grand slam events (that’s like 3 out of every 5).  Of course if you have turned on TV in the last 5 years, you have seen him endorsing Nike, Mercedes-Benz, and, of course, Gillette with similar icons Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods. He definitely has been the most popular tennis player this century, as he embodies winning, but has never really transcended the sport.

6) Tim Tebow (Football)

Want to talk about being in the spotlight. Tim Tebow is arguably the greatest college football play of all time and was the face of NCAA football while at Florida collecting national titles and a Heisman. People, including yours truly, highly doubted his ability to make an impact at the next level. Instead, all he does is win with incredibly pedestrian numbers, which makes him the most talked about person on ESPN. Of course there have been better players, especially at his position of quarterback (maybe the two greatest ever in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady), but I have never seen the country take to an athlete (either positive or negative) in such an aggressive manner. There were times during the playoffs where Tim Tebow was bigger than the rest of football.

5) LeBron James (Basketball)

Yeah, we get it, he’s no Michael Jordan. But no player in the history of the NBA has faced the kind of pressure throughout a career that King James has. Despite the lack of jewelry on his fingers, he is hands down the most popular basketball player and is one of the key reasons that the NBA is back to another golden era after a lull in the mid 2000s (No one wants to watch the Pistons and Spurs). The 3-time MVP is one of the most visible athletes in endorsement deals and his “decision” was as big an event as any NBA Finals. If that’s not iconic, I don’t know what is.

4) Michael Phelps (Swimming/Olympics)

I decided to give only one spot to an Olympic athlete, which brought it down to Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. Without a doubt it was Michael Phelps who set the Olympic record with 8 gold medals in 2008. He was part of some of the most memorable races and after the Olympics was named the ESPY best male athlete (2009). Obviously he is bigger than everyone else combined in swimming, but if you had to describe the Beijing Olympics, there is no way you don’t mention Michael Phelps. Excelling at any international event puts pride of country on your side and accomplishing what he did makes him an arguable number one on the list, unfortunately he doesn’t have the number of opportunities to excel.

3) David Beckham (Soccer)

This is probably the strangest selection of mine on the list, especially with how phenomenal Lionel Messi has been the last few years. The difference between the two (other the skill obviously) is public image. Bend It Like Beckham…. Need I say more?

2) Lance Armstrong (Cycling)

This could all be for not with the recent allegations by the USDA that Lance was doping, but he makes a strong case for being one of the most iconic athletes of all time. The seven time Tour de France winner and four time ESPY male athlete of the year is known world wide for his victorious battle over cancer. Regardless of how big of a sports fan people are, they know who Lance Armstrong is. Live Strong.

1) Tiger Woods (Golf)

Despite how great everyone on this list is (except Tebow), this was hands down the easiest spot to fill. Simple fact: when Tiger’s in the hunt, people watch. Not just casual golf fans. EVERYONE. He’s one of the best golfers ever but his true legacy is his ability to draw a crowd. Don’t believe me? Just see this weekend, if he’s contending at Olympic for the U.S. Open, you and all your friends will be watching. To describe Tiger in one word would be: spectacle.

Honorable Mentions: Serena and Venus Williams (Women’s Tennis), Annika Sörenstam (LPGA), Chuck Liddell (MMA), Manny Pacquiao (Boxing)

Thanks for reading and please let me know what you think.

Also follow me on Twitter @Alex_Rosenbaum

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3 thoughts on “Top 10: Most Iconic Athletes of the 21st Century

  1. I’m probably pretty biased here, but I think Chuck Liddell probs deserves a spot here. MMA and the UFC in specific have spread like wildfire, and characters like Liddell, Matt Hughes, BJ Penn, and Randy Couture are a huge reason as to why. They were all incredibly dominant, they had highlight reel finishes, and were interesting characters inside and outside of the cage. Since MMA and UFC have gotten huge, I think they should have gotten a slot (any would have worked, but Liddell is a fine choice because he occupied the marquee Light-Heavyweight division).

    • There’s a reason I put him as an honorable mention, since he was for a long time the face of UFC. However 2 things hurt Chuck. 1) I only started getting into UFC in the past 3 or so years. 2) The lack of longevity makes it difficult to have that type of impact. I understand the argument and was considering giving him that number 10 spot over Pujols.

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