Is it possible the most memorable moment in Olympic history had nothing to do with sports?
When Muhammad Ali emerged from behind a column to light the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Centennial Games, it symbolized a moment so powerful, so emotional, only the Greatest could have pulled it off on a scale so grand.
Muhammad Ali not only came full circle with his uneven relationship with the Games, he redefined the brand value of the Olympic torch by simply holding it. In 1996, several blue chip companies paid a combined $20 million to sponsor the Olympic torch relay on its way to Atlanta. Twenty years and an Ali moment later, sponsorship for the torch is valued at nearly $200 million, making it by far the most valuable single Olympic asset.
The Missing Medal
Muhammad Ali and the Olympics converged for more than half a century, with Ali present during the Games’ most seminal moments. Urban legend has it that Ali, a gold medalist in boxing in the light heavyweight division in Rome in 1960, tossed his medal off the 2nd Street bridge in his hometown of Louisville a year after winning it. Friends say Ali was incensed over racial segregation in the Jim Crow South and questioned this representation of a country which didn’t represent him. Ali would later claim he lost the gold medal, but whatever the case, Ali no longer had the ultimate prize in amateur sports. A replacement medal would later be presented to Ali at the 1996 games in Atlanta.
Ali’s Connection to Mexico City, 1968
Ali would again be connected to the 1968 Olympic games. In the iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Pride salute on the victory podium in Mexico City, the first demand in their six-point manifesto as outlined by the Olympic Project for Human Rights was the restoration of Muhammad Ali as the legitimate heavyweight champion of the world. A year earlier, Ali had been convicted of draft evasion for his refusal to fight in Vietnam, banned from boxing and stripped of the title he won from Sonny Liston in 1964. The Supreme Court would later overturn the conviction in 1971, but Smith and Carlos would subsequently credit Ali’s political activism as an inspiration for their decision to take a stand.
Ali defeated George Foreman in 1974 to regain heavyweight title (Getty Images)
In the 1970’s Ali’s Olympic connection included dispatching two previous gold medal winners in Championship fights. In their epic trilogy, Ali beat 1964 Olympic gold medalist Joe Frazier in two of their three fights, and in 1974, Ali knocked out 1968 Olympic gold medalist George Foreman to become only the second man to regain the world heavyweight championship after losing it.
Ali and the Cold War – 1980
By the 1980s, the Olympics had become the default platform for waging the Cold War, and once again, Ali would find himself in an untenable situation. When Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, President Jimmy Carter issued an ill-advised, one-month ultimatum for the Soviets to withdraw or risk an American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The Carter administration realized that for the boycott to be effective, it would need to recruit other nations, and Ali was tapped to lobby five influential African countries. Using a State Department plane, Ali would be flown to Tanzania, and then visit Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal. It was an unmitigated disaster.
In Dar es Salaam, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere refused to meet with Ali, sending lower level personnel instead. The rest of the trip wasn’t much better. The African nations felt Ali was being used as a tool by the administration. They were incredulous that the US would ask them to join an Olympic boycott when four years earlier, the Americans refused to support the 29-nation African boycott of the 1976 Montreal Games due to the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to ban New Zealand over its continued sporting contacts with Apartheid South Africa.
When he was asked why the African nations should come on board, Ali, who was poorly briefed by the Carter administration, had no answer. By the time Ali arrived in Nigeria, the Africans had managed to convince Ali the boycott was a bad idea. At a press conference in Nigeria, Ali remarked, “I’m not a traitor to black people. If you can show me something I don’t know, I want to be helped. You all have given me some questions which are good and are making me look at this thing different.” A State Department official said anonymously, “He’s giving us heartburn.” Ali was recalled, although it is worth noting that Liberia and Kenya did join the boycott effort.
Coming Home – The Greatest’s Olympic Moment
Ali lights Olympic torch in Atlanta (Getty Images)
When NBC Sports’ President Dick Ebersol approached Atlanta Organizing Committee Chairman Billy Payne with the idea of Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic cauldron, Payne resisted, remarking, “Where we’re from, he’s considered a draft dodger.” Ebersol and NBC would eventually prevail.
As a logistics coordinator during the 1996 Olympic torch relay team, speculation was rife among my peers on the identity of this so called “secret” final torch bearer. The even money along the torch relay route was on Atlanta native Evander Holyfield, already a two-time heavyweight champion and a 1984 Olympic bronze medalist. We were all wrong.
As Ali, hand quivering from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, steadied himself to light the Olympic cauldron, then President Bill Clinton would become “Weeper in Chief”, saying later, “I cried like a baby.”
A global audience of 3 billion people collectively willed Ali through the most poignant moment in sports history. A black man who came of age in the segregated South, a man who placed conviction and belief ahead of career and popularity, had returned home to the embrace of his most ardent adversaries.
Ali would later say, “My left hand was shaking because of Parkinson’s, my right hand was shaking from fear. Somehow between the the two of them, I got the thing lit.”
Ali had come full circle with an Olympic platform which launched his career during a decade of turmoil when his voice was needed most. Fifty years later, he returned to the Games to give them its finest moment, a moment made indelible through the quivering hands of the “The Greatest”.
Written by Idy Uyoe, M.A.
Idy Uyoe (www.idysports.com) is an Olympic scholar, commentator and sports marketing professional. He is an active member of the International Society of Olympic Historians and is the producer and host of the online series The Olympic Moment – with new episodes available on YouTube and Facebook. Follow him on Twitter @idysports.