Fifty-four years ago, in announcing the inaugural award, SI wrote that the annual honoree would be one who "gave to the quality of unprecedented performance the sense of unrepeatable performance." That description fits perfectly the latest recipient, Michael Phelps, who now keeps company with this distinguished elite.
This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2008 issue
SI's first Sportsman was a 25-year-old from England—and history's first sub-four-minute miler.
The Brooklyn southpaw's superb Series against the Yankees culminated with a Game 7 masterpiece.
At the Melbourne Olympics he was the first U.S. man in 20 years to win gold in both the 100 and 200 meters.
Mr. Cardinal was 37 when he led the National League with a .351 average to win his seventh batting title.
He broke the world decathlon record in Moscow, winning over the crowd even as the cold war raged.
The Hammer of Thor became the heavyweight champ after flattening Floyd Patterson at Yankee Stadium.
The Palmer era began with Arnie's banner year: eight wins, including the Masters and the U.S. Open.
Ohio State's junior center led the Buckeyes to their second of three straight NCAA-final appearances.
A Heisman Trophy winner, the Oregon State quarterback doubled as the Beavers' point guard.
The 37-year-old commissioner restored the NFL's integrity by responding decisively to a betting scandal.
A brilliant final two rounds in the U.S. Open gave the comeback kid his first tournament win in four years.
The Dodger was an ace—2.04 ERA, a perfect game, two Series shutouts—despite an arthritic left elbow.
Just one year after graduating from Wichita High East, he ran the mile in 3:51.3 to shatter the world record.
The leftfielder's Triple Crown summer propelled the Red Sox to their first pennant in two decades.
As player-coach he broke racial barriers and guided the Celtics to their ninth title in 10 years.
In a Terrific year he earned his first Cy Young Award and helped the Mets to their miracle championship.
The Beantown hero, whose "flying goal" clinched the Stanley Cup, redefined the role of defenseman.
In winning the U.S., British and Canadian Opens, the Merry Mex broadened the appeal of his sport.
John Wooden & Billie Jean King
The Wizard of Westwood led UCLA to a sixth straight NCAA title; the first Sportswoman won three majors.
After winning his third World Driving Championships and popularizing Formula One racing, he retired at his peak.
The Greatest pummeled Joe Frazier in the Garden and took back his title from George Foreman in the jungle.
The heart of the Big Red Machine, Charlie Hustle sparked an unforgettable World Series win over Boston.
At 21 America's Sweetheart had already claimed two Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens and two French Opens.
He won 487 races and set a one-year earnings record of $6 million—all at the age of 17.
In winning the British Open and the Players Championship at 38, he ended all talk of his decline.
Willie Stargell & Terry Bradshaw
The slugger and the slinger, MVPs of the World Series and the Super Bowl, were the toast of Steel Town.
U.S. Olympic Hockey Team
Herb Brooks's miracle men shocked the world at Lake Placid with their upset of the Soviet Union.
Sugar Ray Leonard
With a knockout of Tommy Hearns in Las Vegas, the welterweight champ became the new king of boxing.
The Great One had his greatest year, shattering the NHL's single-season records for goals and assists.
The distance queen had broken seven world records before her famous fall at the Los Angeles Olympics.
Mary Lou Retton & Edwin Moses
Stars of the L.A. Games, Retton landed a perfect 10 while Moses ran his hurdling winning streak to 109 races.
With his signature skyhook, he lifted the Lakers to the NBA title and earned a second Finals MVP award.
JoePa led the Lions to a national title and a perfect record off the field too: Every senior graduated on time.
Athletes Who Care
Eight athletes from different sports were honored for their exemplary humanitarian work.
A magical season for the Dodgers' righty: 59 straight scoreless innings, a Cy Young and a World Series MVP.
Just two years after a near-fatal hunting accident, he rallied in the final stage to win his second Tour de France.
With cool, Joe quarterbacked the 49ers to a fourth Super Bowl win in his final full season by the Bay.
Already the NBA's leading scorer and a global icon, MJ won his first ring by beating the Lakers in five games.
A three-time Grand Slam winner and untiring social activist, the tennis star died in 1993 from AIDS.
In 30 years (23 with Miami) he had just two losing seasons—and more wins than any other NFL coach.
Bonnie Blair & Johann Olav Koss
The speedskating stars of the Lillehammer Games were golden on the ice and in their communities.
Cal Ripken Jr.
After the Strike crippled the national pastime, the Streak by the Orioles' Iron Man brought fans back.
As a PGA rookie, he won two events and electrified the golf world, attracting a new generation of fans.
North Carolina's widely respected coach retired after setting the NCAA record for victories (879).
Mark McGwire & Sammy Sosa
Before their fall from grace, the sluggers captivated the baseball world with their epic home run chase.
U.S. Women's Soccer Team
Mia Hamm (9) and the rest of the World Cup champs gave America a summer to remember.
A mind-bending year—10 Tour wins, including three majors—turned Tiger into our first two-time Sportsman.
Curt Schilling & Randy Johnson
Thanks to the fireballing co-MVPs, Arizona defeated a Yankees juggernaut in a seven-game Series.
The Texas Tornado blew past the field for a fourth straight time at the Tour de France.
Tim Duncan & David Robinson
The Alamo City's Twin Towers stood tall after taking the Spurs to a second NBA championship in five years.
Boston Red Sox
A curse and the 86-year suffering of a city came to an end as the Red Sox achieved an improbable title.
A third Super Bowl ring in four years proved that the Patriots' QB belonged among the alltime greats.
The fourth-year guard led the Heat to a championship with an otherworldly performance in the playoffs.
In the final act of his Packers career, the Lambeau legend, at 38, set the record for touchdown passes.
There has never been an Olympic haul like it: eight events, eight gold medals in Beijing.
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