Messi, Pele, Bolt, Federer: The top 30 most respected athletes of all time

  • Kobe Tong
Federer at Wimbledon

There are certain athletes in sport who, for one reason or another, ascend to an extra level of respect.

You know the type of competitor we mean: the well-mannered, perfect role model who never brings their sport into disrepute, almost certainly contributes to charity and generally just carries themselves with utter class.

Sportspeople are often put under seismic pressure to all be exactly that and really, it’s a silly expectation because each one of them is a unique individual who reacts to their extraordinary circumstances in their own way.

Respect in sport

Some of them thrive in their sporting environment as swaggering, cocky and arrogant showmen and women, whereas others prefer to keep themselves to themselves and treat the business of sport with pure professionalism.

And then there are those special, generational athletes to whom we refer that gain such a dizzying level of reverence that they are respected amongst the general public as well as sports both in and out of their field of play.

However, as with everything in the internet age of sport, there is always a hotbed for rankings and ratings with the topic of respected athletes proving no different at all.

The top 30 most respected athletes

Here at GIVEMESPORT, we’ve been enjoying the summer by looking at how fans view the sporting world that we love so much and have already assessed who they consider to be the most arrogant athletes in history.

Now we’re going to the opposite end of the spectrum by revisiting thetoptens.com and their interactive list titled: “Most Respected Athletes of All Time,” to see exactly which sportspeople are held in the highest esteem.

From ardent philanthropists to war heroes to generally nice people and everything in between, be sure to check out how the votes of sports fans have ordered the 30 most respected athletes in history down below:

30. Stephen Curry (basketball)

Curry holds the MVP trophy.
Jun 20, 2022; San Francisco, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry poses with the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award trophy during the Warriors championship parade in downtown San Francisco. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

29. Wilt Chamberlain (basketball)

28. Bill Russell (basketball)

27. Magic Johnson (basketball)

26. Michael Phelps (swimming)

25. Joe Ingles (basketball)

Ingles playing for the Utah Jazz.
Nov 26, 2021; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz guard Joe Ingles (2) drives past New Orleans Pelicans center Willy Hernangomez (9) and guard Kira Lewis Jr. (13) in the first quarter at Vivint Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

24. Walter Payton (American football)

23. Nene (basketball)

22. Larry Bird (basketball)

21. Shaquille O’Neal (basketball)

20. Usain Bolt (athletics)

Bolt holding Olympic gold.
2016 Rio Olympics – Athletics – Victory Ceremony – Men’s 4 x 100m Relay Victory Ceremony – Olympic Stadium – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 20/08/2016. Gold medalist Usain Bolt (JAM) of Jamaica reacts during the medal ceremony. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.

19. Manny Pacquiao (boxing)

18. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (basketball)

17. Tom Brady (American football)

16. Ted Williams (baseball)

15. Jerry Rice (American football)

Rice before Super Bowl LIV.
Feb 2, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; San Francisco 49ers former receiver Jerry Rice before Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

14. Kobe Bryant (basketball)

13. Jean BĂ©liveau (ice hockey)

12. Sachin Tendulkar (cricket)

11. Lionel Messi (football)

10. Peyton Manning (American football)

Manning holds the Super Bowl trophy.
SANTA CLARA, CA – FEBRUARY 07: Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. The Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers 24-10. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

9. Sir Donald Bradman (cricket)

8. Jackie Robinson (baseball)

7. Derek Jeter (baseball)

6. Wayne Gretzky (ice hockey)

5. Pele (football)

Pele representing Santos.
Pele – Santos Mandatory Credit:Action Images

4. Babe Ruth (baseball)

3. Muhammad Ali (boxing)

2. Michael Jordan (basketball)

  1. Roger Federer (tennis)
Federer celebrating.
Tennis – Australian Open – Fourth Round – Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia – January 26, 2020. Switzerland’s Roger Federer celebrates after his match against Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Federer takes the crown

Something just feels so right about Federer finishing first, doesn’t it? The timeless gentleman of tennis never seems to lose his cool and constantly oozes class whenever he’s on the court.

And while we can’t profess to know the reasons behind why so many basketball players happen to be so respected beyond the fact that clearly a lot of US fans were voting, it’s hard not to scroll past athletes like Tendulkar, Phelps and Messi without nodding in agreement.

Interestingly, though, there are a few athletes who clearly occupy a unique place in the minds of sports fans because the likes of Ali, Brady, Bolt and Bryant feature on both the most respected and most arrogant lists.

It perhaps goes to show that crystal-clear, undiluted class from the first second to the last isn’t the only route to a respected status with talent and passion beyond comprehension also leading some fans to gain an unconditional respect.

NFL legend Brady celebrating.
FILE PHOTO: Oct 3, 2021; Foxboro, MA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) yells to the crowd as he takes the field to face the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – 16887252/File Photo

No athlete is perfect, don’t get it twisted and no doubt plenty of the sportspeople on the list have done things in their lives that briefly betrayed that respect, but such is the nature of being human.

What matters most is that this fascinating vote highlights just some of the athletes who have gone the extra mile either in their field or outside of it to earn an extra level of respect from the fans that’s not easily earned. Fair play.

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