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20 Swedish superstars in sports

Despite its modest population of 9.7 million, Sweden is a top-tenner in the all-time Olympic gold medal table. From boxing champ Ingemar Johansson to super striker Zlatan Ibrahimović, here are 20 of Sweden’s most successful athletes, in alphabetical order.

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Cross-country skier Charlotte Kalla is one of Sweden’s most popular athletes.
Photo: Nils Petter Nilsson/TT

#1 Björn Borg (tennis)

Sweden’s most succesful tennis player by far, Borg won five consecutive Wimbledon titles and six French Open titles between 1974 and 1981. His rock-solid two-handed backhand, calm demeanour and ability to handle pressure on the tennis court earned him the nickname ‘Ice Borg’. An early breakthrough at the age of 15 was offset by retirement at 26.

#2 Magdalena Forsberg (biathlon)

‘Magda’ boasts the record for most World Cup victories (42 races won) in women’s biathlon and in the process compiled six consecutive overall wins (1997-2002). Add to that six world championship golds! The Olympic gold eluded her, but she managed two bronze medals at Salt Lake City in 2002, the year she retired at the age of 35. Immensely popular in Sweden, she has on four occasions been awarded Jerringpriset, Swedish Radio’s prize for sports performance of the year, which is voted by the public. That’s more than any other athlete in Sweden.

#3 Peter Forsberg (ice hockey)

‘Foppa’ is one of the most celebrated hockey players in Sweden, some would say in the world. Remembered by many as the ultimate warrior on ice, he won four international championship golds with the Swedish national team: at the 1992 and 1998 World Championships and the 1994 and 2006 Olympics. With two Stanley Cups to his name – as a Colorado Avalanche player in 1996 and 2001 – he is the only Swede to have won the NHL, the world championships and the Olympics twice and thus become a double member of the ‘Triple Gold Club’. ‘Foppa’ was also the first Swede to win the Art Ross Trophy for most points scored during the regular season, in 2003. He retired from hockey in 2011.

Zlatan Ibrahimović’s nickname is ‘Ibracadabra’, due to his spectacular ways of scoring goals.

Zlatan Ibrahimović’s nickname is ‘Ibracadabra’, due to his spectacular ways of scoring goals.

#4 Zlatan Ibrahimović (football)

‘Ibra’ is by far Sweden’s most prominent footballer. He has been the top scorer and won club titles in leagues throughout Europe. Captain of the Swedish national team, Ibrahimović has also won several individual awards including the 2013 FIFA Puskás Award for Goal of the Year. His popularity is immense and his autobiography sold over 400,000 copies in one month. A role model for many kids, in 2007 he paid for a face-lift of his old youth court in a low-income suburb of Malmö in southern Sweden.

#5 Ingemar Johansson (boxing)

‘The Hammer of Thor’, a nickname for Johansson’s right fist, made him not only heavyweight champion of the world in 1959 but also earned him the Associated Press Athlete of the Year. When he retired in 1963, ‘Ingo’ had a record of 26 wins, 17 by KO, and only 2 losses.

#6 Stig H. Johansson (trotting)

68-year-old Johansson is widely considered the greatest Swedish trotting trainer and driver of all time. He won 6,221 races during his 42-year career. His wins include Elitloppet (six times), Gran Premio della Lotteria (four times), Nat Ray Trot (once) and Prix d’Amérique (once). He retired in 2005.

#7 Charlotte Kalla (cross-country skiing)

Swedes love their cross-country skiers, perhaps because they epitomise an epic relationship with nature. 26-year-old Kalla is one of the most popular and successful women skiers, having won World Championship and World Cup races, including the 2007-8 Tour de Ski competition, in addition to Olympic gold and silver medals at the 2010 Vancouver and 2014 Sochi games.

One of Sweden’s most loved athletes, Carolina Klüft was the undisputed queen of international heptahtlon from 2002 to 2008.
Photo: Annika af Klercker/TT

#8 Carolina Klüft (heptathlon)

Klüft brought home a gold medal in heptathlon from the 2004 Olympics. She won nine consecutive heptathlon and pentathlon gold medals at world and European championships between 2002 and 2007, and holds the European record for most heptathlon points. Klüft also competed in triple jump and long jump before ending her career in 2012.

#9 Lisa Nordén (triathlon)

Nordén is Sweden’s most successful triathlete, and was a mere 0.009 seconds from an Olympic gold medal in London 2012. She has two golds, one silver and one bronze at world championships. In 2012 the Swedish people voted her to receive Jerringpriset, the prize for best sports performance of the year.

#10 Ronnie Peterson (Formula 1)

Throughout most of the 1970s Peterson had the reputation of being the fastest driver in F1 in terms of raw speed but found himself too often next to the winner on the podium. He won ten races and was a two-time runner-up in the FIA Formula One World Drivers’ Championship before a fatal crash at Monza in 1978.

Top 10 all-time Olympic gold medal winners related to population*

  1. Liechtenstein
  2. Norway
  3. Finland
  4. Sweden
  5. Hungary
  6. Bahamas, The
  7. Switzerland
  8. Estonia
  9. Grenada
  10. New Zealand

(Even when not considering population size, Sweden is number seven in the all-time Olympic gold medals table.)

*Based on figures up to and including the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Top 10 all-time Olympic gold medal winners related to population*

  1. Liechtenstein
  2. Norway
  3. Finland
  4. Sweden
  5. Hungary
  6. Bahamas, The
  7. Switzerland
  8. Estonia
  9. Grenada
  10. New Zealand

(Even when not considering population size, Sweden is number seven in the all-time Olympic gold medals table.)

*Based on figures up to and including the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

#11 Anja Pärson (alpine skiing)

Pärson, one of the most successful Swedish alpine skiers, has won a combined total of 19 world championship and Olympic medals, eight of them gold. Pärson was a crowd pleaser, admired and loved for her emotional presence and outspokenness. She has won a total of 42 World Cup races. Upon retirement in 2012 she announced her partner’s pregnancy.

#12 Börje Salming (ice hockey)

Sweden’s first true NHL hockey star, Salming was one of the first European players to make an impact in the NHL. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996. After 26 seasons in North America and Sweden, he is admired for his persistence to play despite pains and woes of injuries and stitches.

#13 Lotta Schelin (football)

Schelin is one of Sweden’s absolute best footballers. With her team Lyon, she has played four Champions League finals in a row (2010-2013) and left a victor in 2011 and 2012. She has earned several individual awards such as FIFA Women’s World Cup All Star Team (2011) and top scorer in the French League (2013).

#14 Patrik Sjöberg (high jump)

Sjöberg is the only high jumper in the world with medals from three different Olympic Games: silver in 1984 and 1992 and bronze in 1988. A previous world record holder, his 2.42 metres still holds as European record. A controversial and outspoken character that continued his career in television, Sjöberg helped inspire a successful generation of Swedish high jumpers.

Ingemar Stenmark is a Swedish ‘vinnarskalle’  – a person with a mindset to win. And so he did, more than anyone else in alpine skiing.
Photo: Jan Collsiöö/TT

#15 Ingemar Stenmark (alpine skiing)

Regarded as the greatest slalom and giant slalom specialist of all time, Stenmark won 86 individual World Cup races between 1975 and 1989, far more than any other alpine skier in history. His dominance ushered in a change in rules for alpine skiing. Stenmark won a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympics and two gold medals in 1980. He was prevented from racing at the 1984 Olympics due to his status as a professional skier. Stenmark is also known as a man of few words, which make most interviews with him…short and special.

#16 Henrik Stenson (golf)

Sweden’s best male golfer has spent over 100 weeks ranked in the top ten. In 2013, Stenson became the first golfer to win both a PGA Tour Cup and a European Tour Cup the same year, which took him to his a career-high ranking of third in the world. He has been a professional golfer since 1998, and by awarding him with the 2013 Jerringpriset, the Swedish public signalled their appreciation.

#17 Gunde Svan (cross-country skiing)

Known for his stealth determination and obsessive training, cross-country skier Svan compiled six Olympic medals during his the course of his career – four golds, one silver and one bronze at the 1984 and 1988 Winter Olympics. He also won six world championship golds and the overall World Cup five times. His stubbornness is legendary – in 50 kilometre race in 1989, Svan fractured his arm early on but worked through the intense pain and completed the race. He didn’t finish last.

Annika Sörenstam is the only golfer to shoot 59 at an LPGA Tour event.
Photo: Hunter Martin/Getty Images/AFP

#18 Annika Sörenstam (golf)

Sweden’s greatest golfer of all time. From 1995 through 2008, Sörenstam won 90 international tournaments – more than any other female golfer. She won 72 official LPGA tournaments, including ten majors, and 18 other tournaments. The only female golfer to shoot a 59 in an official competition, Sörenstam also became the first woman to play in a mens’ competition on the PGA Tour since 1945 when see teed off at The Colonial in Fort Worth in 2003.

Jan-Ove Waldner is called ‘The Eternal Tree’ by the Chinese, for his talent and resiliance in top-level table tennis. Photo: Jack Mikrut/TT

#19 Jan-Ove Waldner (table tennis)

Popularly regarded as the best table tennis player to ever live, Waldner became a top level player at the age of 16. As one of four male players in the history of table tennis he has achieved a career grand slam (Olympic, World Champion and World Cup winner in singles), the other three being Chinese. With one gold and one silver medal, he holds the Olympic medal record for table tennis (table tennis was introduced in 1988).

#20 Thomas Wassberg (cross-country skiing)

Cross country skier Wassberg won four gold medals during three Olympic Games 1980-1988. He also brought home seven world championship medals, including three golds. He refused to accept a major national athletic award for 33 years, arguing that a fellow skier should’ve been handed the prize in a ceremony two years earlier.

Last updated: 31 March 2014

Magnus Sjöholm

Magnus Sjöholm

Magnus Sjöholm has worked as a culture and sports writer since 1990. Working for some of Sweden's largest media outlets, he has covered several Olympic Games and larger competitions in Europe. He's the author of Listboken (’The Book of Lists’) where he ranks athletes in popular and odd numbers. He is also the captain of the Swedish National Football Team of Writers.