They’ve lifted trophies, broken records, won awards, taken home medals and entertained millions. But who tops our annual list?
The impossible ranking
We compiled this entirely subjective list by using a mathematical formula we invented to try to answer the question: who is the Greatest Athlete In The World Right Now? We ranked a longlist of 100 active athletes out of 20 across five categories, which are explained below. This formula produced a total score out of 100 for each athlete, which informed our top 50 and its order.
This is about determining technical ability. Multi-discipline good, one trick bad.
Their 2016 ranked. Three gold Bolt gets the maximum, the injured JJ Watt suffers.
We scored this by their relative speed and power. Wayde van Nierkerk high, Chris Froome low.
Mo Farah is one of ten top trumps here. Swim sprint missile Adam Peaty scores poorly.
The most subjective category. Just four hugely showtime characters (e.g. Usain Bolt) top this.
Our list was subject to weeks of debate, and we were lucky to have a team of experts to make the case for each athlete’s inclusion. As a collective, we attended Superbowl 50, the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games, Euro 2016, the NBA finals and Grand Slam tennis events. Just as happily we saw Leyton Orient in the EFL Cup, the world u20 athletics champs in Bydgoszcz and Nordic combined skiing, live from Lillehammer in the youth winter games. Passionate advocacy, words and wisdom comes from: Nick Moore, Thomas Theodore, James Charlton, Matt McEvoy, Roxy Shah, Kevin McCreeth, Thomas Byrne, Colin Hubbuck, Gershon Portnoi, Matt Lizzimore and Michelle Sammet.
Let's do this...
50 – Ada Hegerberg
Norway’s Hegerberg, 21, is the present and the future of women’s football: Europe’s answer to Marta and Mia Hamm. The goal machine from Molde started her career at 15 with local side Kolbotn, and within a year had become the youngest player to grab a hat-trick in the Toppserien (the highest level in Norway). She’s since taken Lyon to consecutive Division 1 Feminine titles and the 2015/16 Champions League, scoring 88 in her first 67 games.
Quick, smart and a deadly finisher, the girl who stood alongside Cristiano Ronaldo to collect the female equivalent of the Ballon d’Or this summer has got the world at her feet.
49 – Cam Newton
Despite a record-breaking rookie season in 2011, Cam Newton was still saddled with the label of an amazing young quarterback who was yet to put it all together as he entered the 2015 season. Scratch that. Last season, the 6ft 6in prototypical modern quarterback was simply unstoppable. Newton dabbed his way to the NFL MVP award in 2015, winding up opponents with his drawn-out dance celebrations on the way.
He became the first player in history to throw at least 30 (35) touchdown passes and rush for 10 more in the same season, as he willed the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl 50.
48 – Jade Jones
She’s the hardest thing to come out of North Wales since slate, and is plated in gold. Read our in-depth take on Jade Jones. Read our in-depth take on Jade Jones.
47 - Dame Sarah Storey
OK, the likes of Laura Trott and Jason Kenny did pretty well in the Rio velodrome to secure their legacies, but Storey won gold medals number 12, 13 and 14 to make her GB’s most decorated Paralympian. What’s more, she did it across road and track, winning Individual Pursuit on the track as well as Time Trial and Race and the road. Storey is an incredible mix of power, endurance and adaptability – five of her previous golds came in swimming.
46 - Jan Frodeno
For some, triathlon just doesn’t cut it in terms of pain and endurance. German Frodeno took a shock gold at Beijing 2008, and finished sixth in London. He switched to Ironman (3.8km swim, 180km ride, followed by a marathon), and has since dominated. Last year, he took the Ironman 70.3 (half-Ironman) world title, and won the Ironman World Championship, the first man to do the Ironman- Olympic triathlon double. This year, he sliced a ridiculous five minutes off the world record on his way to a second Ironman world champs.
45 - Maro Itoje
England were battered and bruised after last year’s World Cup. Then along came Eddie Jones and Maro Itoje, and they never lost again. In 2015/16, Itoje won every game he started (25 matches), a Six Nations Grand Slam, the Premiership and the European Cup. Itoje looked immediately at home in a white shirt. Physical at the breakdown, invincible in the lineout, a natural leader; he’ll be made England captain soon enough. Still 22, it’s frightening to imagine how good he’ll eventually get.
44 - Laura Trott
The pocket rocket who flies round that velodrome. Check out our in-depth take on Laura Trott.
43 - Gennady Golovkin
It’s no secret that Gennady ‘Triple G’ Golovkin is one of the best fighters on the planet. 2016 was not exactly a dramatic year for the middleweight king, but his technical prowess and ferocious punching power was further exposed to a global audience.
A routine two-round blitz of unbeaten – and untested – Dominic Wade in April set him up for a somewhat bizzare September showdown with Sheffield’s IBF welterweight champion Kell Brook, who would challenge Golovkin for his WBA, IBF and IBO middleweight championships.
While there definitely was a whiff of ‘what if’ lingering around Brook’s chances, on three rounds deep it quickly became apparent he had no hope. Golovkin punched Brook so hard in the second that he broke the Brit’s eye socket. Brook’s corner had no choice but to throw in the towel in the fifth to save their man from further punishment. Business as usual for the king of Kazakhstan.
42 - Conor McGregor
When you have the whole world at your feet, why not kick it to bits and start all over again? Read why Conor Mcgregor makes our list
41 - Stan Wawrinka
Officially the best Swiss player on tour, Wawrinka has finally found his groove. Described by some as a late bloomer, the 31-year-old is more consistent now than during his early years. This is evidenced by his year – four ATP titles and a US Open victory (his third Slam). He has always possessed one of the most lethal backhands on the tour, but had to follow the likes of Djokovic and Murray in building up his mental strength to win Slams. Now his ability to remain calm in important matches often makes him favourite. You wouldn’t put it past Stanimal (currently world number three) to move even higher in 2017.
40 - Carl Frampton
It can’t be underestimated how much Carl Frampton has achieved in the past 12 months, yet he still largely flies under the radar. The Belfast lad confirmed his status as one of the UK’s best boxers by unifying the super bantamweight division with victory over Scott Quigg, before moving up to featherweight.
Cynics said this was to duck one of the most talented fighters in the sport’s smaller divisions, Guillermo Rigondeaux, but Frampton roundly confounded that view by taking on, and emphatically beating, highly-rated WBC featherweight champion Leo Santa Cruz in New York. How d’ya like them apples?
We'll reveal more athletes each day, so be sure to check back regularly.