As Olympic champion and cauldron lighter, Ali was the greatest

Philip Hersh
Chicago Tribune

It was and may always be the most indelible moment in U.S. Summer Olympic history, and it had nothing to do with competition.

It was so much bigger than that, befitting the image of the man at its center.

It was about the transformation of this country's attitude toward an Olympic champion and global icon, whose willingness to speak his mind had made him a pariah rather than a prophet in many precincts of his own land. It was a confession of and atonement for our past sins.

It was, as I described it in the Chicago Tribune, the moment at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Centennial Olympics in Atlanta when Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron:

"He appeared out of the night, out of the past he shared with both the event and the region. When the light caught his dark face, caught it full, the reflection was brighter than the flame Janet Evans handed to him. It was a reflection of the possibilities the Olympics promise and rarely deliver, the possibilities for men and women to be judged by who they are and not how they look.

"Muhammad Ali, the final torch bearer at the opening ceremony, up there on what seemed a mountaintop, the celestial mountaintop of equality that Atlanta native Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had preached about climbing. The boxer who had won Olympic gold in 1960, then threw his medal in the Ohio River after being refused service in an all-white restaurant. The man who represented the racial and social polarization of the 1960s and early 1970s when he took a Muslim name and said he didn't have anything against 'them Viet Cong.'

"Ali, the world's best-known sports figure of the last 50 years. Ali, showing 3 billion telespectators worldwide that his nation, his native South, can rise above itself in the heat of a steamy Georgia summer night. Ali, 54, his face smooth and young and his arm wobbling from a disease of age, summing up the Olympic Century. It was the greatest."

It had taken nearly two generations after his Olympic triumph before the United States fully realized that Ali — who died Friday at 74 — was a national treasure.

"Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen," U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive Scott Blackmun said. "He distinguished himself both inside the ring and out. He inspired Americans in so many ways, from his gold medal in 1960 in Rome to lighting the torch in Atlanta to making an appearance at the London Games. He will continue to inspire Americans for generations to come. We are grateful for his contribution to the U.S. Olympic movement."

Ali, the man who playfully proclaimed himself "The Greatest," was an Olympic champion bigger than the world's biggest sporting event because of who he became after winning the light heavyweight title as an 18-year-old from Louisville, Ky., named Cassius Clay.

"His Olympic victory contributed to his legend, but really, in 1960, there were a lot of U.S. Olympic boxers who went on to pro careers," Olympic historian Bill Mallon said. "It was hard to know in 1960 that Cassius Clay would later become 'Muhammad Ali.'

"His personality made him very popular in 1960, but I would not classify him among the greatest Olympic athletes, based only on Olympic careers. However, my feeling is that he was the greatest, and perhaps most important, American athlete of the 20th century. His 1996 flame-lighting ceremony was a wonderful moment, both for him and to honor his accomplishments as an athlete and his work in civil rights in America."

That Evans shared the moment at Atlanta's Olympic Stadium means more to her than the four Olympic gold medals she won as the greatest women's distance swimmer in history.

"You know I would give up every Olympic medal for that again," she told me.

The idea of having Ali light the Olympic flame came from Dick Ebersol, the longtime head of NBC's Olympic coverage. That it remained a secret to all but a handful of people made its impact infinitely greater.

Evans, then 24 and about to swim in her final Olympics, was among the few who knew what would happen.

As the penultimate torch bearer, she had been instructed to help Ali if the shakes from his Parkinson's disease made it impossible for him to complete the lighting ceremony on his own. She stood a few feet away, grateful there was no need to step in, forever grateful that the only thing she would share was seeing the excitement in Ali's eyes.

In 1960, when there was no live TV coverage in the United States of the Rome Olympics, Ali not only won gold over far more experienced fighters from Soviet Bloc countries, but also won over even the most conservative elements back home with his criticism of communism.

"This was an era when the communist countries were allowed to enter their best boxers, but the United States and other non-communist countries had to enter true amateurs," said David Wallechinsky, author of "The Complete Book of the Olympics."

Clay, winner of the Chicago Golden Gloves in 1959 and 1960 but an underdog in the Olympics, would beat the favorites in his second and fourth bouts.

First came the Soviet Union's Gennady Shatkov, who had won the gold medal in the middleweight division at the 1956 Olympics. In the final, Clay defeated Poland's Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, who had 231 fights under his belt at the time, including three straight European titles.

In his opening bout, Clay needed just two of the three rounds to overwhelm a Belgian opponent so thoroughly the referee stopped the flght. He won the other three bouts by unanimous decision.

But the biggest impression Clay made back home came at the medalists' news conference.

"He defended the United States against a question from a Soviet journalist about mistreatment of Negroes in the U.S. Thus he became a 'white man's black man,' " Wallechinsky said.

That feeling did not last long. Clay became a Black Muslim, changed his name and became a voice of 1960s U.S. counterculture and those protesting the Vietnam War by refusing to serve in the military as a conscientious objector. By then, he was the world's heavyweight champion.

"When he converted to Islam and denounced the Vietnam War, he became a hero around the world that went beyond his athletic achievements," Wallechinsky said.

His own country eventually would see Ali the same way, and the Olympic movement increasingly paid homage to him in the final decade of his life.

New York enlisted him as an ambassador for its unsuccessful 2012 Olympic bid, flying him to Singapore in hopes his aura would win some International Olympic Committee votes. That it apparently did not reflected the low esteem in which the Olympic world held the USOC. Ali got a rousing ovation when he stood during New York's final presentation to the IOC.

A bit ironically, Ali would have a special role when those Summer Games opened in London.

As the Olympic flag was carried into the stadium, a frail Ali, supported by his wife, Lonnie, met the other seven flag bearers before they walked up toward the pole where it was raised. This is how his presence was announced to a crowd that would rise to roar and applaud when it learned Ali was among them:

"The discipline of a great athlete demands respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, generosity and spiritual strength. These virtues are represented here for us tonight by Mr. Muhammad Ali."

There had been a similar moment five years earlier in Chicago when Ali was secreted into the balcony of the Chicago Theatre for the opening ceremony of the World Boxing Championships.

Upon being informed Ali was in attendance, every one of the 700 boxers stood and began a jubilant chant of "Ali! Ali! Ali!" Mayor Richard M. Daley called him "a great Chicagoan and a great human being." Ali waved his hands above the shouting crowd of admirers.

To a generation that never had seen him as an athlete, professional or Olympic, it was further proof that no matter the venue, Ali was always the greatest.

Philip Hersh is a former Chicago Tribune reporter.

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