20 of the Greatest British Athletes of All-Time

20 of the Greatest British Athletes of All-Time

Sports have played a vital role in the history and culture of Great Britain, but have you ever wondered who the greatest British athletes of all-time might be? Believe it or not, it’s not an easy question to answer – especially considering the number of British athletes that have impressed us through the years.

If you largely focus on American sports, you’ll be surprised to learn that some of the most popular sports in the US aren’t as popular in Great Britain. For example, baseball and basketball are considered minor sports in Great Britain and, while ice hockey and American football are growing, they’re still fairly minor. 

With that said, some of the most popular sports among British fans include football (soccer), cricket, rugby, field hockey, tennis, track and field (known as ‘athletics’), snooker, boxing, and motor racing. This is important to keep in mind when trying to figure out who the greatest British athletes of all-time are. 

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Who Are the Greatest British Athletes of All-Time?

20 of the Greatest British Athletes of All-Time
via Shutterstock (Wandering views)

The greatest British athletes of all-time are often treated like royalty in Great Britain – both figuratively and literally. While many fans place them on a pedestal, much like American athletes in the United States, some of the more revered British athletes actually receive British honours from the active King or Queen.

With so much history to cover, it’s nearly impossible to narrow a list of greatest British athletes of all-time down to just 20. Not only that, but everyone is going to have their own opinions about who they think deserves to be on that list. With that said, it’s natural to leave a few worthy names off your top-20 all-time.

For example, there are a few names off the top of my head that won’t be featured on this list, but certainly deserve to be considered – such as Laura Kenny, Jason Kenny, Phil Taylor, Sarah Storey, Nicola Adams, Jonny Wilkinson, James Anderson, Kelly Holmes, Bradley Wiggins, and Adam Peaty

Without further ado, let’s take a look at 20 of the greatest British athletes of all-time – in no particular order. 

20. Sir Nick Faldo

Sir Nick Faldo is a retired golfer who made his professional debut in 1976 and played in his final tournament in 2015 – he didn’t play much between 2005 and 2015. He retired with 43 wins under his belt, including 30 on the European Tour and nine on the PGA Tour – six of which were major championships.

Faldo won the Masters Tournament three times – 1989, 1990, and 1996 – and The Open Championship three times – 1987, 1990, and 1992 – in his career. He was the No. 1 golfer in the world for a total of 97 weeks and is one of just three golfers to remain No. 1 in the world for an entire calendar year (1993). 

19. Lord Sebastian Coe

Lord Sebastian Coe is a retired track and field athlete who specialized in middle-distance running. He represented Great Britain in the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games, where he won a combined four medals – two gold medals (800m, 1500m) and two silver medals (800m, 1500m). He was also a politician. 

Commonly referred to as Seb Coe, he set multiple outdoor and indoor records during his athletics career. In 1979, he set three world records in the span of just over one month. He also set a world record for the 800m in 1981, which ended up standing until 1997. He also won a gold medal at the 1981 World Cup.

18. Daley Thompson, CBE

Daley Thompson, CBE is a retired decathlete. The decathlon is a track and field event where each athlete competes in 10 different events – the 100m, 400m, 1500m, 110m hurdles, long jump, high jump, pole vault, discus throw, javelin throw, and shotput. He represented Great Britain for more than 10 years.

Thompson competed in four consecutive Olympic Games between 1976 and 1988, winning a gold medal in the decathlon in 1980 and 1984 – he placed 18th in 1976 and 4th in 1988. His personal best was 8,847 points, which is just 279 points off the world record. He also won a gold at the World Championships. 

17. Fred Perry

Fred Perry is a retired tennis player and table tennis player. He turned professional in 1936 and retired in 1959. During that time, he had a 695-281 singles record with 62 career singles titles and eight Grand Slam singles titles. He also won two Grand Slam doubles titles and five Grand Slam mixed doubles titles.

In Grand Slam singles tournaments, he won the Australian Open in 1934 and the French Open in 1935. He was also a three-time Wimbledon champion – 1934, 1935, 1936 – and three-time US Open champion – 1933, 1934, 1936. Not only that, but he won the US Pro in 1938 and 1941 – a two-time Pro Slam champion. 

16. Sir Chris Hoy MBE

Sir Chris Hoy MBE is a retired track cyclist who represented Great Britain – he was born in Scotland – in four consecutive Olympic games. He secured his first Olympic medal in 2000, winning a silver medal in the Team Sprint event, but would go on to win at least one gold medal in each of the next three Olympics. 

His first gold medal came in 2004 in the 1,000m Time Trial event – he also placed fifth in the Team Sprint. In 2008, he won three gold medals in the Sprint, Team Sprint, and Keirin events. He followed that up with two more gold medals in 2012 in the Keirin and Team Sprint events – totaling six career gold medals. 

15. Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill

Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill is a retired track and field athlete who competed in a number of events during her career – including the heptathlon, pentathlon, and 100m hurdles. She represented Great Britain in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, winning a gold medal and silver medal in the heptathlon in her career. 

She has quite the heptathlon resume, which includes three gold medals at the World Championships (2009, 2011, and 2015) and one gold medal at the European Championships (2010). She used to hold the British record in the heptathlon, as well as the 100m hurdles and high jump. She really could do it all.

14. Tanni Grey-Thompson

The Right Honourable Tanni Grey-Thompson is a retired wheelchair racer who represented Great Britain – she was born in Wales – in five consecutive Paralympic Games between 1988 and 2004. During her time in the Paralympics, she won one bronze medal, four silver medals, and 11 gold medals. 

She was as versatile as it gets, winning gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 400m, and 800m during her career – including a gold medal in all four events in 1992 and 2000. Grey-Thompson had been in a wheelchair since she was 7 due to spina bifida. She also played wheelchair basketball in her earlier years. 

13. Joe Calzaghe CBE 

Joe Calzaghe CBE is a retired boxer who was born in Britain, but raised in Wales. He made his pro boxing debut on November 10, 1993 and fought his final bout on November 8, 2008. During his 15-year career, Calzaghe had a perfect 46-0-0 record with 32 of those wins coming via knockout. 

Calzaghe was a two-division champion in the super-middleweight and light-heavyweight classes. He had most of his success in the super-middleweight division, where he was a unified and lineal champion. He’s the longest-reigning super-middleweight champion of all-time – he was WBO champion for a decade. 

12. AP McCoy OBE

Sir Anthony Peter McCoy OBE is a retired horse racing jockey and one of the most dominant horse racing jockeys of all-time. He rode a record 4,358 winners during his career with his first win coming in 1992 (at just 17 years old) and his final win coming in 2015 (at 39 years old). He never stopped winning. 

He was also a Champion Jockey 20 years in a row, beginning in 1995-96 and continuing all the way up until his retirement. If there was a big race to be won, he was going to win it – and he did. In fact, he was so good that he won BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2010 – becoming the first jockey to ever win it.

11. Ronnie O’Sullivan

Ronnie O’Sullivan is a professional snooker player and one of the greatest snooker players of all-time. He turned professional in 1992 at the age of 16 and continues to terrorize opponents to this day – not only is he the current world champion, but he’s currently the No. 1 player in the world. He’s a joy to watch!

When it comes to snooker, there are three major tournaments – known as the Triple Crown – a player can win. O’Sullivan has won each of those tournaments seven times for a total of 21 Triple Crown titles, which is unheard of in the sport. He has won the World Championship in 2001, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2020, and 2022. 

10. Sir Andy Murray OBE

Sir Andy Murray OBE is a professional tennis player who turned professional in 2005 and continues to play at a semi-high level at 35 years old. He has won a total of $63,535,777 during his pro career, which currently ranks 4th all-time among players – behind Roger Federer, Roger Nadal, and Novak Djokovic.

Murray has a career 725-236 singles record with 46 career singles titles – which currently ranks 15th all-time. He’s a two-time Olympic gold medalist (2012, 2016), two-time Wimbledon champion (2013, 2016), and won the US Open in 2012. He first achieved No. 1 player in the world on November 7, 2016.

9. Sir Mo Farah CBE OLY

Sir Mo Farah CBE OLY is a legendary long distance runner in three consecutive Olympic Games – where he won four gold medals. He won two gold medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m events in 2012 and followed that up with two more gold medals in the same events in 2016 – the second runner to defend both in consecutive years. 

Farah also won six gold medals at the World Championships between 2011 and 2017 – as well as two silver medals – and five gold medals at the European Championships between 2010 and 2014. He’s easily the most successful and dominant long distance runner in the history of the sport. 

8. Lennox Lewis CM CBE

Lennox Lewis CM CBE is a retired boxer who made his professional debut on July 21, 1989 and fought his final bout on June 21, 2003. During his 14-year career, he had a 41-2-1 record with 32 of those wins coming by way of knockout. He’s easily one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all-time. 

One of the most feared heavyweights of his generation, Lewis was a three-time champion that held the lineal championship twice and was the most recent heavyweight to be named the unified champion of the world. He also won a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul as a super-heavyweight. 

7. Ian Botham OBE

The Right Honourable Ian Botham OBE is a retired cricketer who’s widely considered to be one of the greatest all-round cricketers of all-time. He made his debut for England in 1976 and competed nationally for 16 years until his retirement in 1992. He was effective in both Test and One-Day International formats.

In Test formats, he recorded 5,200 runs, 33.54 average, 14 100s and 22 50s in 102 matches as a batsman, and also bowled 21,815 balls and 383 wickets in 168 innings. He also had 2,113 runs, 23.21 average, and 9 50s in 116 matches, and bowled 6,271 balls and 145 wickets in 115 innings. 

6. Sir Steven Redgrave CBE DL

Sir Steven Redgrave CBE DL is a retired rower who represented Great Britain in five consecutive Olympic Games between 1984 and 2000. With five Olympic gold medals and one Olympic bronze medal, Redgrave is the most successful rower in Olympic history – he won a gold medal in each Olympics he appeared in. 

In addition to his Olympic success, Redgrave won nine gold medals, two silver medals, and one bronze medal at the World Championships between 1986 and 1999 – as well as three gold medals representing England at the Commonwealth Games. He won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year – Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. 

5. Paula Radcliffe MBE

Paula Radcliffe MBE is a retired track and field athlete who specialized in long distance running. While she never won a medal in the Olympics, she did win a gold medal at the 2005 World Championships, a gold medal at the 2002 European Championships, and a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. 

If there was a marathon to be won, Radcliffe was going to win it. She won the London Marathon three times in a four-year span, the New York Marathon three times in a five-year span, and the Chicago Marathon in 2002. She held the world record for fastest marathon time by a female for 16 years. 

4. Sir Bobby Charlton CBE

Sir Bobby Charlton is a retired footballer who is widely considered one of the greatest to ever play the game. He spent a few years with Manchester United during his youth career before moving on up to their senior team – where he spent the next 17 years and appeared in more than 600 matches for the team. 

He also played in over 100 matches for England and scored 49 career international goals. With England, he won the 1966 FIFA World Cup – the same year he won the Ballon d’Or. He would go on to be named Ballon d’Or runner-up in the next two seasons. He also won the UEFA Champions League in 1968. 

3. Bobby Moore OBE

Bobby Moore OBE is a retired footballer who captained the England squad that won the 1966 FIFA World Cup – he was teammates with Sir Bobby Charlton. Moore spent a few years with West Ham United during his youth career before moving on up to their senior team, where he spent the next 16 years. 

Moore is widely considered to be one of the greatest defenders in football history. He played in more than 600 matches for West Ham United and more than 100 matches for Team England. He was named BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1966 and was later inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

2. Tyson Fury

Tyson Fury is an active boxer who made his professional debut on January 17, 2009 and fought his most recent bout on December 3, 2022. He has a 33-0-1 record in 34 professional bouts during his 13-year career, with his only draw coming against Deontay Wilder on December 1, 2018 in a split-decision call. 

Fury was once the unified heavyweight champion in 2015 and has been the current WBC heavyweight champion since 2020 – he has successfully defended that championship three times against Deontay Wilder, Dillian Whyte, and Derek Chisora. He also won a gold medal at the English National Championships.

1. Sir Lewis Hamilton MBE HonFREng 

Lewis Hamilton is an active professional racing driver who has been competing in Formula 1 since 2007. Not only is he considered one of the greatest F1 drivers of all-time, but he’s considered one of, if not the greatest British athlete of all-time. In 312 Formula 1 starts, he has won a total of 103 races in his career. 

Hamilton holds several all-time records in Formula 1 – including wins (103), pole positions (103), and podium finishes (191). One of his most impressive records is his seven World Drivers’ Championship titles, which is tied with Michael Schumacher. He will look to add to that total in the near future. 

Who Are Your Favorite British Athletes of All-Time?

Our list of the greatest British athletes of all-time wasn’t easy to create. There were a lot of names that we didn’t get to honor, despite being deserving of the distinction. To be honest, we could’ve had this list made up exclusively of football (soccer) athletes if we wanted to – that’s how many quality players there are. 

Nonetheless, we tried our best to include as many different sports as possible to ensure the entirety of British sports history was represented. Of course, we also understand that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and everyone has their personal favorites that they’ve enjoyed watching or learning about. 

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Some of the others that didn’t quite make our list include CharlotteEdwards, MichaelBisping, AnthonyJoshua, RebeccaAdlington, BobbyMoore, WayneRooney, AudleyHarrison, LucyShuker, and more. With that said, the real question is who your personal favorite British athletes of all-time are.

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