Britain has been graced with exceptionally talented athletes over the years, but who has the right to be called the best British athlete ever?
Deciding on Britain’s best ever athlete has long been a fiercely discussed topic of conversation and we’re here to settle the debate once and for all.
Britain is blessed with a plethora of sporting talent, both past and present. Indeed, over the years British athletes have excelled in pretty much every major sport – we’ve been lucky enough to watch Olympic gold medallists, boxing world champions and Formula 1 stars in action.
With so many exceptional athletes to choose from, we thought the best way to decide Britain’s greatest ever sportsperson was to rank them using a trusty TierMaker.
How will it work?
We’ve taken who we believe to be the best 30 British athletes of all time and separated them into five categories.
The rankings are predominantly based on these athletes’ achievements in their respective sports, though some consideration has been paid to overall influence and legacy.
Both male and female athletes have been factored into this list as we want to honour all of Britain’s best sportspeople as equally as we can.
It’s also worth noting that this is a purely subjective exercise. You may well have your own opinions based on who you idolised growing up, but try and give our list a chance.
Given the abundance of exceptional British footballers, it would be too hard to narrow down your Steven Gerrards from your Frank Lampards, or your Bobby Moores from your Bobby Charltons. Instead, why don’t you check out our list of England’s best ever strikers.
Anyway, now that’s all clear, take a gander at our list below:
Adam Peaty, Nick Faldo, Paula Radcliffe, Charlotte Edwards, Michael Bisping, Anthony Joshua, Rebecca Adlington
Though we’ve been forced to put some athletes in this bottom tier, it’s worth clarifying that everyone on this list is a memorable British athlete in their own right. It’s just that, in this case, we believe there are others who eclipse them.
Starting with swimming. Peaty is the world-record holder in the 50 and 100 breast-stroke and is the first British swimmer ever to retain an Olympic title. The 27-year-old is likely to compete at Paris 2024 and could yet add to his impressive medal tally.
Adlington is also one of Britain’s greatest ever swimmers and famously won gold in the 400 and 800-metre freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Meanwhile, Faldo is another who was fiercely dedicated to his craft. The former golfer won 41 professional tournaments, including six majors, across his illustrious career.
Radcliffe is a three-time winner of the London Marathon and was previously the fastest female marathon runner of all time.
Like Radcliffe, Edwards has also broken numerous records and was granted an MBE in 2009 for her services to English cricket. The all-rounder led England to three Ashes series wins and won both the T20 and ODI World Cup.
Away from cricket, Britain is also renowned for producing combat sports stars. Bisping was the first British fighter ever to win a UFC Championship, while Joshua is a two-time unified world heavyweight boxing champion.
Jessica Ennis-Hill, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Jonny Wilkinson, James Anderson, Seb Coe, Kelly Holmes, Bradley Wiggins
Winning an Olympic gold medal is something only a handful of athletes will ever achieve, and those who do manage to do so deserve the ultimate recognition.
Ennis-Hill won the Heptathlon on “Super Saturday” at London 2012, on a night which is widely considered the best in Britain’s Olympic history.
Coe was the man who headed London’s successful bid to host the 2012 Games and won four Olympic medals of his own, including gold in the 1500m in 1980 and 1984.
Holmes also enjoyed Olympic success –– winning the 800 and 1500m events at Athens in 2004.
It’s important to remember Britain’s Paralympic success as well. Grey-Thompson won a total of 16 Paralympic medals across her wheelchair racing career, including 11 golds.
Some athletes, like former cyclist Wiggins, achieved success at both the Olympics and away from the Games. The 42-year-old is the only rider to have won Olympic gold on both the track and the road as well as winning the Tour de France. Not a bad résumé.
Rugby Union and cricket are two other sports that British athletes have flourished in over the years. Wilkinson inspired England to Rugby World Cup glory in 2003 and Anderson has taken more England wickets than any other player. The latter is still playing now, even at the age of 39, as he closes in on his 650th Test wicket.
Chris Hoy, Steve Redgrave, Andy Murray, Lennox Lewis, Joe Calzaghe, AP McCoy, Nicola Adams, Ian Botham
If you thought those athletes were successful, wait till you see who’s still to come. We’re only just getting into the higher tiers.
Like Wiggins, Hoy was a renowned track cyclist. He is an 11-time world champion and six-time Olympic gold medallist.
Hoy competed at four Olympics –– one less than Redgrave, who won gold medals in rowing at five Games in a row between 1984 and 2000.
Tennis star Murray also won back-to-back gold medals at London 2012 and Rio 2016, but it’s not just his Olympic success that has made the Scot a British legend. Murray was also the first Brit to win a Grand Slam singles title since 1977 and has won Wimbledon on two occasions.
Calzaghe, Lewis and Adams are all names that can be added to the list of iconic British boxing stars.
Lewis is a three-time world heavyweight champion and the last heavyweight to hold the undisputed championship.
Equally legendary is Calzaghe, who ended his career unbeaten and remains the longest–serving super middleweight world champion in history.
Adams was one of the pioneers of women’s boxing and is a two-time Olympic gold medallist, having won in London and in Rio four years later. The 39-year-old also enjoyed a successful professional career and retired with an unbeaten record in 2019.
Botham may not have taken as many wickets as Anderson, but he is regarded as one of the greatest all-rounders in cricket history.
There is no debate, however, over McCoy, who is the greatest jockey ever to grace horse racing. He’s been named Champion Jockey a record 20 consecutive times.
Almost the greatest
Laura Kenny, Jason Kenny, Mo Farah, Tyson Fury, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Phil Taylor, Sarah Storey
Multiple Olympians have already been featured in this list, but there are several individuals who stand out from the rest. Farah is a four-time Olympic gold medallist and is the only man in history to defend both the 5,000 and 10,000m at the Games and the World Championships –– a feat described as the ‘quadruple-double.’
Joining Farah in being in a league of their own are Laura and Jason Kenny. The cycling duo, who married in 2016, are Britain’s most successful female and male Olympians respectively. Laura has won six medals, including five golds, while Jason has claimed nine medals –– seven of which have been gold.
The Kennys may have 15 Olympics medals between them, but Paralympian Storey has won a whopping 28 medals at the Para Games, across two different sports. The 44-year-old claimed 16 medals in swimming, before switching to cycling, where she’s won a further 12.
Fury solidified his status as Britain’s greatest ever heavyweight boxer with a devastating knockout against Dillian Whyte last month. The Gypsy King is a two-time world heavyweight champion and remains undefeated in his career so far.
Similarly, O’Sullivan recently cemented himself as the greatest snooker player of all time, after sealing a seventh World Championship title at the crucible. The Rocket also holds the record for most ranking titles, with 39.
O’Sullivan has spent almost 30 years at the top of the game, in much the same way as Taylor, who dominated professional darts for more than two decades. The Power won a record 85 major titles and 16 World Championships, including eight consecutive Championships from 1995 to 2002.
Despite some people’s preconceptions that Formula 1 is all about the car, Hamilton’s extraordinary record in the sport should not be downplayed.
The British racing driver has won a joint-record seven World Championship titles and holds the record for most race wins, pole positions and podium finishes.
Hamilton’s success on the track has now surpassed even the great Michael Schumacher and the Brit has been credited with furthering the global reach of Formula 1.
Equally, his environmental and social activism has made him one of the most influential people on the planet and he was recently knighted in the 2021 New Year Honours.
He may have lost out to Verstappen in Abu Dhabi last year, but that’s done nothing to harm his overall legacy.