Perhaps a bit of a rogue choice, but van der Sar was the player I looked up to the most growing up. Van der Sar was part of one of Manchester United’s most successful teams and was one of the best goalkeepers that the Netherlands have ever produced. The Dutch shot stopper stood at a lofty 6,5”, and his ability to command his players and pull off incredible saves was magnificent to watch. He may not be like modern sweeper keepers and fancy with his feet, but van der Sar got the job done and actively went for crosses and came off his line more often. An utter joy to watch, van der Sar gets the nod from me. If that wasn’t convincing enough, I wrote him a letter asking for goalkeeping tips as a child and got a letter back with a United magazine and a signed photo of himself. What a keeper.
Absolute no brainer for me. When I first moved to the U.K. as a kid I didn’t know the first thing about football. “Which team do you support?”, I’d get asked with no definite reply. That’s until a young Cristiano Ronaldo started tearing up the wing at Old Trafford. Until the age of nine Ronaldo made me a Manchester United fan and I remember religiously getting up early every Sunday morning to watch his Match of the Day highlights before going to play matches myself. The Ronaldo vs Messi debate is a tough one and I have so much respect for both, but the determination and dedication that CR7 has shown to get to the top is inspiring, so he is the one for me.
I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t chosen Freddie at least partly due to the fact that he’s from Preston and he managed to drink fairly heavily throughout his career. But aside from that he was also an amazing cricketer. He has great stats with both bat and ball, but his career was even better than those stats suggest. He was the definition of a big game player and always stepped up at important moments to take crucial wickets and score important runs. With hostile bowling and aggressive batting he was a key part of the England test side from his first game to his last, and created countless memorable moments for fans of English cricket. Most importantly he was the type of player that turned sport into theatre, which is what it's all about, and his larger than life persona is one of the things that got me into cricket as a kid.
Jesse Owens is perhaps the most inspirational athlete of all time. Not only setting records on the track, he fought against adversity in both America and Nazi Germany during his years of track and field, specialising in the sprints and long-jump. He represented all black athletes who had been ignored due to their race, and challenged these stereotypes by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, much to Hitler's dismay. Speaking on the event, Owens stated that "I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I also wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either". There's a fantastic movie called 'Race' which I'd highly recommend, which explores the challenges which Owen's faced during his life.
Basketball has been my favourite sport since I was 12 and in that time the NBA has seen its fair share of superstars. However, no athlete in any sport made an impression on me quite like Michael Jordan. On the court Jordan won it all- 6 championship rings, 6 Finals MVPs and 5 MVPs- but it's not just that. The story of Jordan is akin to a great work of literature. Moments like the flu game and the last shot seem almost impossible to comprehend. Air Jordan was simply breathtaking and there was and will never be anyone quite like him.
It's fitting that The Last Dance is airing now on Netflix every week just as I write this piece but Michael Jordan to me is the greatest athlete of all-time. It's hard to compare people across sports but the impact he has had on basketball and outside of it to me makes him an automatic candidate. He had the scoring, the passing, the attitude and the aggression all in the right amount to make him a six-time champion. He also had the uncanny ability to levitate in the air for periods longer than humanly possible - earning him the nickname 'Air Jordan'. He became the face of a sport and turned it into a global attraction. Michael Jordan is the greatest athlete of all-time not just for his exploits on the court - which have been well documented but also for his contribution to the sport outside of it.
Ronaldinho. The man who brought beauty to the beautiful game. The Brazilian, who played for elite European clubs, such as Barcelona, AC Milan and PSG, was a serial winner. Some of his outstanding achievements are winning the Ballon D’Or, Champions League and World Cup. For me though, it was not what he won but how he did it. Ronaldinho did it all with a smile on his face and with the classic Brazilian samba spirit. He could produce magic unlike many players have ever done before or since. When Ronaldinho played he just looked like he was having fun.