Home The 80s Best Athletes of the 80s

Best Athletes of the 80s

Along with music, TV shows, and iconic movies, pop culture in the 1980s also gave us some legendary sports history. In fact, this might be the decade with some of the most memorable events and awe-inspiring moments. Some games were unexpectedly won, now-famous players got their start, and some performances (like Mary Lou Retton’s) were said to be out of this world. 

There’s little doubt that the 1980s were a great era for being a diehard sports fan. Even if you didn’t know the exact nuances of every sport, it was still fairly easy to get caught up in everyone else’s excitement. With the television now a firm fixture in most American homes, many children also grew up watching live sports events and having the iconic moments etched in their memories forever. 

Apart from the thrilling sports events during this decade, we should talk about the top athletes of that era. While not all of these might be remembered by everyone now, sports fans in the 80s would have heard most of the following names:

Joseph Clifford Montana Jr. (Joe Montana)

Best Athletes of the 80s

Montana was considered to be the best quarterback during the 80s, and was the best in all of BFL history until the coming of Tom Brady. Before Brady won that fifth Super Bowl, Joe Montana was revered by leading the San Francisco 49ers to no less than four Super Bowls during that decade. 

He was also known for directing a dangerous West Coast attack towards their opposing defenses. Montana earned a lot of nicknames while he was making it in the big leagues. A couple of these are ‘Cool Joe’ and ‘The Comeback Kid’. Eventually, he was given the title of Super Bowl MVP for three out of four years. 

While he retired more than two decades ago, this athlete is still talked about due to his investments. During 2015, Joe Montana teamed up with a former angel investor in order to make a seed investment company named Liquid 2 Ventures. Just one of his recent investments was worth around $75 million. The venture it supported was Caliva, a distributor and manufacturer of cannabis based in San Jose. Read up on some of the other top football players of the 80s now. 

Vladimir Valeryevich Salnikov (Vlad Salnikov) 

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He is a Soviet freestyle swimmer from Russia who won 12 world records in the 400, 800, and 1,500-meter races while competing for his country. He was known as the “Tsar of the Pool,” the “Monster of the Waves,” and the “Leningrad Express.” He was the first person to swim the 1500-meter freestyle in under fifteen minutes, as well as the 800-meter freestyle in under eight minutes. In 1979 and 1982, Swimming World awarded him the “Male World Swimmer of the Year”.

Early in the 1980s, Salnikov was the undisputed champion of the freestyle races. In 1982, he defended his world titles; and the following year, at the URS Winter Nationals, he set a new world record in the 1,500 m which stood until 1991.

Salnikov retired from competing after the 1988 Olympics and served as the Soviet swimming team’s head coach until 1990. He also served as the Soviet Swimming Federation’s Vice President from 1989 to 1991, and he was chosen as the Russian Swimming Federation’s President in 2009.

Christine Marie Evert (Chris Evert)

During the 1980s, Chris Evert was a formidable force in the world of tennis. She’s usually regarded as being among the topmost tennis players in the history of the sport. Evert is known for winning the 18 titles in the Grand Slam tournaments (for women). This placed her in the fifth position for this category. 

After retiring from tennis, this player still has a noticeable role in the game. She now owns a tennis academy named after herself and located in Boca Raton in Florida. Her other occupations include being a writer and publisher for the ‘Tennis’ magazine and being a color commentator for the ESPN channel during the Grand Slam coverage. A color commentator is an expert who fills the audience in on the game and the players alongside the play-by-play commentator. They usually speak the most when the game is not currently in session, providing background information and expert analysis like strategy, injury reports for the team, and statistics. Their contribution was sometimes an important part of the most iconic events and moments of the 80s.

Osborne Earl Smith (Ozzie Smith)

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Smith, nicknamed as the “Wizard of Oz“, was a shortstop in Major League Baseball for the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals. He won the National League Gold Glove Award for shortstop defense for 13 seasons straight. He was a 15-time All-Star, and he also won the 1987 National League Silver Slugger Award for best shortstop hitter.

Up until 1993, Smith kept making All-Star teams and winning Gold Glove awards. He underwent shoulder surgery in the 1995 season and missed nearly three months of action. Ozzie Smith retired at the end of the 1996 season due to issues with his new manager Tony La Russa, and the Cardinals later retired his uniform number (No. 1) in his honor. He finished his career with 2,460 hits, and 580 stolen bases.

Subsequent to his retirement, Smith hosted the television program This Week in Baseball (TWIB) in 1997. From 1997 to 1999, he also worked as a color commentator for KPLR-local TV’s telecast of Cardinals games. Smith moved on to work for CNN-SI starting in 1999 after his time on This Week in Baseball came to an end. He resumed his involvement with the Cardinals organization after La Russa stepped down as manager in 2011. He did so by serving as a special instructor during the team’s 2012 spring training camp.

William Roger Clemens (Roger Clemens)

The 1980s was when Roger Clemens was in his prime. At the time, he was among the greatest-eve pitchers to go out on the baseball mound. During his stint of 2 seasons, he won no less than 7 Cy Young awards and also saw victory in many championships while he was with the Yankees. 

He was the most award-winning pitcher in history, an 11-time All-Star and two-time World Series victor. Clemens was renowned for intimidating batters with his hard-throwing pitching technique and aggressive competitive spirit.

After his retirement, Roger Clemens started working with the Order Clemens Foundation. The latter was a program he and his wife started in 1992. By partnering with other charities based in Texas, this foundation is committed to help out any child who is at risk.  

Walter Jerry Payton (Walter Payton)

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He is widely considered as one of the best football players of all time and goes by the nickname “Sweetness“. Payton – a nine-time Pro Bowl selection – is recognized as a powerful rusher who previously set records in a wide range of categories, including career rushing yards, carries, touchdowns, all-purpose yards, and yards from scrimmage. He spent 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears playing in the National Football League (NFL).

“Never Die Easy” was Payton’s motto and also the title of his publicly released autobiography. Bob Hill, Payton’s coach, is credited with this catchphrase. In actual play, this meant that Payton always dealt and delivered some type of penalty to his defensive players before being ejected from the field or knocked down. He also refused to purposefully run out of bounds.

After retiring, Payton pursued numerous business endeavors and investments, including joining Dale Coyne Racing in the CART IndyCar World Series as a co-owner. He passed away on November 1, 1999, after battling an uncommon liver condition for several months.

Wayne Douglas Gretzky (Wayne Gretzky)

One of the most renowned hockey players in the history of sports, Wayne Gretzky was simply nicknamed ‘The Great One’ in lieu of all his achievements. This is the athlete who’s known for turning the whale league on its head when he played among the Edmonton Oilers during the 80s. He was at 2,857 points when he finished up his career.

In NHL history, Gretzky has scored more goals, produced more assists, and accrued more points than any other player combined. He also has the most career assists.

After his retirement, Gretzky spent some time being the NHL head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. He is also very much interested in supporting and coaching minor-league hockey teams for junior players. Gretzky became the most recent player to be exempt from the waiting period when he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame right after his retirement in 1999. He was one of only three athletes in the history of professional sports to have his number 99’s jersey retired, and he was the only hockey player to do so.

Frederick Carlton Lewis (Carl Lewis)

He took home ten medals in the World Championships, and he also won numerous Olympic medals for track and field. He is one of just six Olympic athletes to have earned gold in the same individual competition at four consecutive Olympic Games. From 1981 to the beginning of the 1990s, Lewis – a renowned long jumper and sprinter, frequently placed first in the world in the 100-, 200-, and long jump competitions. He continued to establish world records since the start of his career.

He has received numerous honors in recognition of his achievements, including selection as the: “World Athlete of the Century” by the International Association of Athletics Federations, “Olympian of the Century” by Sports Illustrated, “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee, and “Athlete of the Year” by Track & Field News in 1982, 1983, and 1984.

Lewis turned to acting after ending his sporting career and has since made several cinematic appearances. He tried to run as a Democrat for a position in the New Jersey Senate in 2011, but the state’s residency rule disqualified him. Lewis has a business called C.L.E.G. that specializes in marketing and branding goods and services.

Magic Johnson

Ask any 80s sports fan to name the five best players in the history of the NBA, and there’s a high chance that Magic Johnson will definitely be on the list. This athlete has played some infamous matches with the Boston Celtics. In his point guard position, he also assisted in leading his team (the Los Angeles Lagers) to no less than 5 NBA championships during the 1980s as well as the following decade. 

Other than his obvious talent, Magic Johnson is also known for his memorable charisma. He could light up any camera, give the best interviews, and even make his fortune through several businesses that were based outside of Los Angeles. 

On a tragic note, Magic Johnson was only able to play the game for around 13 years. After his success in the 80s, he was soon brought down by an HIV diagnosis in 1991. While he did come back to play the All Stars games and was part of the men’s Olympic basketball team in 1992, he never -played pro basketball after the diagnosis. 

After retiring, Magic Johnson has continued his success in another being. He invested in several places, including a movie theater chain and types of real estate. He’s also currently a minority stake holder for the team ‘Los Angeles Dodgers’. Johnson also had a stint as the President of Basketball Operations for the Lakers, helping out his fellow super athlete LeBron Hames. While he did quit this job after the 2018-2019 season was over, he still provides help for the team in an unofficial consulting position. 

Larry Bird

Larry Bird was easily one of the top basketball players ever. Michael Jordan did overshadow him somewhat, but Bird’s achievements are nothing to sneeze at. He was an NBA All-Star no less than 12 times, and was able to hold his own on the court. 

While Bird was among the men’s Olympic basketball team in 1992, he retired earlier that year as a player of the game. 

After he played for the Celtics for most of his whole career, Larry Bird then went to join the Pacers a short time afterward. At present, he has both worked with and coached this team. He also remains the only NBA player who has received the Coach of the Year, Most Valuable Players, and the Executive of the Year Awards.

If you want to discover more athletes and events in the 80s, you may read our article about The Key Sports Figures and the Defining Sports Events of the 1980s.


The pop culture of the 80s might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but no one can deny this decade’s valuable contribution to the world of sports. Many legendary athletes came to the fore during the 80s, with quite a few of them still being very much relevant to this day. The absolute best pro athletes of these ten years might be open to debate, so take the discussion above as a starting point. If any of the athletes above pique your interest, start exploring and see what other sports legends there were in the 1980s. While you’re at it, check out these iconic sporting moments of the 80s

The 80s showcased some of the most iconic athletes whose dedication and talent set new standards in sports. What Does It Take to Become a Professional Athlete? explores the rigorous path and unwavering commitment required to achieve excellence in the competitive world of professional sports, echoing the journeys of the decade’s sporting legends.

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