The Tokyo Olympics may still be a year away, but it’s never a bad time to talk sports.
Rankings are hard enough as it is, but comparing across disciplines is a different ball game altogether — which is why we totally had to give it a go. Here’s our list of the top 10 Asian athletes ever, be it on the court, pitch, pool and everything in between.
In selecting these athletes, we considered not only their skill and accolades, but also their cultural significance, level of renown and the popularity of their respective sports. Let us know in the comments if you agree, or if there’s anyone you think we left out!
10. Jeremy Lin
Linsanity caught the world by storm in 2012. The story probably doesn’t need reiterating, but I’ll do it anyway: undrafted, no-name Asian American point guard comes off the end of the bench to become a household name in the span of a week, dropping 38 on Kobe and leading the ailing Knicks to a late-season winning turnaround. It’s the stuff of legends.
Lin hasn’t been able to maintain the same level of production since — in large part due to injuries — but he’s developed into a solid veteran point guard. It’s his cultural impact, however, that lands him a spot on this list.
9. Sachin Tendulkar
Cricket is thought to have over 2.5 billion fans across the world (the second-most after soccer), thanks mainly to its massive popularity in India and other Commonwealth countries.
Tendulkar, widely regarded as the greatest batsman of all time, is revered at the level of Pele and Michael Jordan in the cricket world. Having led India to a Cricket World Cup in 2011, a common saying amongst his rabid fanbase goes as follows: “Cricket is my Religion and Tendulkar is my God.”
8. Cha Bum-kun
Country: South Korea
What with their appearance in the World Cup semi-finals in 2002 and their recent gold at the 2018 Asian Games, South Korea stands heads and shoulders above the rest of Asia as the best soccer nation on the continent.
But before the likes of Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung or Tottenham Hotspur star Song Heung-min came to represent the country, there was Cha Bum-kun. A trailblazer for Asians playing in the European leagues, Cha aimed to bring back knowledge and skills from the German Bundesliga to enrich Korean soccer. Nicknamed “Cha Boom” for his incredible striking ability, he remains Korea’s all-time leading goal scorer.
7. Sun Yang
Swimming is one of those quintessentially Olympic sports, one that people only really care about every four years. Nevertheless, it’s managed to produce one of the most recognizable names in all of sports: Michael Phelps.
He’s retired now, though, and we think China’s Sun Yang is right up there to take up that mantle of best swimmer in the world. The 6-foot-7 freestyle specialist is a three-time Olympic gold medallist and nine-time world champion, leaving him trailing only Phelps and American Ryan Lochte for most world titles. He also holds the world record for the 1500m freestyle, and has been described by NBC Sports as “arguably the greatest freestyle swimmer of all time.”
6. Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro is a legend. The longtime Mariner made his scintillating MLB debut at the age of 27 after killing it for nine years in Japan’s major leagues, promptly winning both AL Rookie of the Year and AL MVP in his rookie season.
On top of being a fantastic player, the pioneering outfielder is credited for opening the doors for more of his countrymen to enter the MLB, which currently sees five active Japanese players, including rookie sensation Shohei Ohtani.
5. Li Na
While Naomi Osaka was nothing short of a revelation in 2018, the Japanese phenom still has a bit of work to do before she officially upends Li Na as Asia’s biggest tennis star.
The retired 36-year-old from China is a two-time Grand Slam champion, having won the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open. In 2014, she achieved her career-high ranking of No. 2 in the world.
In a list full of trailblazers, Li finds herself right at home as the first Chinese tennis player to… well, to have done a lot of things never done before. In fact, she’s such an influential figure in East Asian tennis that a biopic about her career is already in the works.
4. Liu Xiang
Sport: Track and Field (110m hurdles)
Liu Xiang’s gold medal-winning performance in the 110m hurdles at the 2004 Athen Olympics is still — and perhaps always will be — the single greatest moment in Chinese sporting history. In just a whisker under 13 seconds, he delivered the emphatic message to the entire world that, yes, Asians can do it in track too.
The Winter Olympics don’t get nearly as much love as its Summer equivalent and, when watching figure skaters do their thing, you really can’t help but wonder why.
Michelle Kwan perfectly exemplifies the artistry, grace and skill that goes into this under-appreciated sport. The five-time world champion and nine-time national champion is not only the most well-decorated American figure skater of all time, but was also one of the nation’s most popular female athletes, period, during her career.
Despite never quite securing a gold medal (she won a silver in 1998 and a bronze in 2002), Kwan will go down in history as one of the greatest figure skaters of all time.
2. Manny Pacquiao
The Pacman is perhaps the first on this list to check every criteria for inclusion: on top of being super well-known and very influential, he’s also an all-time great in one of the world’s most popular sports. In fact, BoxRec has him ranked as the fourth best pound-for-pound boxer ever.
With his devastating punching, soft-spoken nature and humble beginnings, the Filipino southpaw has won over millions of fans across the globe over his illustrious career. Now 40 years old, Pacquiao shows no signs of slowing down as he prepares to take on Adrien Broner on Jan. 19.
1. Yao Ming
The man, the myth, the legend (not to mention the meme); one of the greatest centers of his generation, yet also one of the biggest what-ifs. At 7-foot-6, he was as tall as he was influential, and as dominant in the post as he was humble and loveable.
There will never be another Yao Ming. We will never again see such a combination of size, strength and agility, never mind the jump shot. We will never again witness one man impact an entire country the way Yao did, single-handedly creating the largest basketball market in the world. And we’ll be hard-pressed to find someone of such fame and status tirelessly dedicating as much of their post-retirement time to humanitarian efforts the way Yao has. The NBA — and the world — has a lot to owe to Yao Ming.
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