Keeping Score

Good Sports: Six Athletes Named To The TIME 100

This year's honorees define the meaning of influence

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Every year, the editors are writers of TIME have a spirited debate: should athletes be included in the TIME 100, our annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world?  Are athletes really “influential?” After all, they are not crafting policy that shapes our economic future, or making scientific discoveries that improve our lives. Unless you’re an executive of a pro sports team – or a heavy gambler – does the success or failure of millionaire athletes really impact your day-to-day existence? Athletes are entertaining, and a welcome distraction from life’s drudgeries. But are they influential?

Every year, a group of us make the same case: if an athlete makes you cheer, he or she is influencing your life. If an athlete offers an escape, that escape is indeed influential in your life. If an athletes inspires – well, that’s the definition of influence, right? World-class athletes, by nature, are influential, especially in today’s media-saturated world. They are objects of our intrigue, on a 24-7 basis.

This year, we named six athletes – Novak Djokovic, Jeremy Lin, Lionel Messi, Oscar Pistorious, Tim Tebow, and Yani Tseng – to the TIME 100. (The TIME 100 issue is available on newsstands starting this Thursday, April 19). This group is global, stretches across a wide range of sports, and influences fans in a myriad of ways.

(MORETIME 100 Poll Results: Who Did The Web Vote for as The World’s Most Influential?)

No athlete fed America’s sports obsession more than Tebow. We drafted to Lin to write about his new New York neighbor: Lin says the Jets quarterback “is unashamed of his convictions and faith – and he lives a life that consistently reflects his values, day in and day out.”

Lin, who writes as well as he plays, is also a man of faith. He also burst into our global consciousness, almost overnight. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, like Lin a former Harvard hoops player, gives Lin credit for “dispelling the idea that Asian-American guards somehow couldn’t hack it in the NBA – and that being a world-class athlete on the court is somehow at odds with being an excellent student off the court.” Duncan says Lin is debunking the kind of prejudice “that unfairly holds children back.”

What’s more influential than that?

Soccer great Mia Hamm reminds us that Messi, who is making his second straight appearance on the list, “has the potential to be the greatest player of all time.” Annika Sorenstam, winner of 72 LPGA titles, notes that Tseng, the Taiwanese women’s golf phenom, has an “infectious smile and genuine enthusiasm for golf” that  “create an aura that grabs the attention of galleries and living rooms, captivating even casual sports fans.”

The world’s top tennis player, Djokovic, makes his first TIME 100 appearance. TIME sports editor Bill Saporito explains how Djokovic’s singular dedication helped him finally leap over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the rankings; Djokovic, Saporito says, will “enjoy every minute” of his time on top. South African amputee sprinter Pistorious, who is seeking to compete in this summer’s London Olympics against able-bodied athletes, was also part of the 2008 TIME 100. In the magazine, I call Pistorious “the definition of global inspiration.”

Do you agree with our decisions? Disagree? (We are well aware that we named a backup quarterback and an injured point guard, who is out for the rest of the NBA season, to a list of the 100 most influential people in the world). Who did we miss? Debate away in the comments: we want to know what you think.