TSN Archives: Muhammad Ali will always be the greatest
Suddenly, wonderfully, Muhammad Ali rose into sight above the rim of the stadium. An appearance so surprising, it took your breath away.
After a month of secrecy, clandestine travel and midnight rehearsal, the great man would light the flame opening the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Swimmer Janet Evans carried the flame up a long ramp to the stadium rim, there touching her torch to Ali’s, and then the 1960 Olympic gold medalist raised high the flame in his right hand.
If Ali fought too hard too long and now pays a dear physical price, he is at peace with the damage because he sees it as Allah’s will. Fire in his hand, standing tall in the night’s bright lights, Muhammad Ali was beautiful.
To say Ali is an original is to understate the truth. He is a universe of one. He is the first, the last and the only.
He fought too hard too long. Now, 54, he needs to take prescribed medicine. He needs to work out. But only sometimes does he do either.
So the man who danced for us now moves slowly. The man who declaimed for us speaks in whispers. Which changes nothing.
What he did, he did. Only he could have done it, and only he could have meant so much to so many. “A total man,” the baseball hero Hank Aaron said of Ali. “When no other black athletes dared say anything, he said it for us.”
We first knew his as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., an 18-year-old wonder out of Louisville, KY, who won the light heavyweight gold medal in the Rome Olympics. We knew what he told the Russian journalist who asked how he felt about winning a gold medal for a country that had restaurants where a black man couldn’t be served.
Clay said to the Russian, “Tell your readers we got qualified people working on that problem, and I’m not worried about the outcome. To me, the USA is the best country in the world, including yours.”
Yet, according to his autobiography, Clay in fact was denied service at a Louisville restaurant that very summer, an incident that led him to throw his gold medal into the Ohio River.
“Threw it into the river,” Ali said last week.
“Threw me out of a restaurant.”
But even Ali’s friends don’t believe it. They say the story is fiction served up by Ali’s collaborator on the autobiography. “Pure balderdash,” said Thomas Hauser, an Ali biographer. “Never happened.”
By winning the heavyweight championship in 1964, Muhammad Ali began a story that moved from sports into race into religion into politics. A radical in all things, he became a loved/hated symbol of this nation’s psychic meltdown in the late 1960s.
That was then, this is now. To see Ali today is to know a man celebrated at every turn, now asked to light a pesky torch to open these Olympics.
Only one problem. Atlanta’s high-tech engineers had devised a thing that, once lit by Ali, would slide up a wide to the caldron and there light the Olympic flame. But when Ali touched his torch to it, nothing happened. “It wouldn’t catch.” Ali says, and here he rises on his hotel bed, eager to demonstrate his anxiety.
“I looked around.” He looked at the high-tech folks for an answer as to why this bird’s nest resisted fire.
“Then I puffed on it.” He pantomimed exhaling intended to fan the flame. “The whole world is watching,” he says, now laughing, his eyes the eyes of the scamp we love. “Three billion people, and I look like a fool.”
What he looked like was a great man about to burn himself trying to light the family grill. As he extended his torch towards the thingamajig, the torch flame licked back toward Ali’s hand. “It felt funny for a minute,” he says, but he was not burned. Finally, the thing caught fire and moved slowly up the wire toward the caldron — another glitch because it was supposed to zip up that wire in a flash, or as Ali put it, “Whoosh.”
Five weeks ago, Atlanta Olympics committee boss Billy Payne and his ceremony director, Don Mischer, met with Ali’s colleague of 30 years, the photographer Howard Bingham. “They wanted to know if Ali could physically do it,” Bingham says. “I told them Ali can do anything he wants to do.”
Ali’s biographer, Thomas Hauser: “Initially, Muhammad had reservations about doing it because he doesn’t like the image he projects on television, and he realized that billions of people around the world would see him. But then, he also realized this was a way to help deliver his message of tolerance and understanding.”
As to how long it took him to say yes, Ali has a short answer: “This.” He snapped his fingers.
The identity of the flame lighter is always a secret. Ali and Bingham signed confidentiality agreements. “They said this thing is always mysterious,” Bingham says. “And they told us they had other people in the wings.”
A week before the ceremony, Ali and Bingham left their hotel at 1:30 in the morning for a rehearsal at the Olympic Stadium. No fire was involved, but the wire went whoosh.
The day of the ceremony, Ali flew from his home in Michigan to Atlanta in a private plane that landed at a private airport where a black van with blacked-out windows took him to a friend’s apartment.
And then, after midnight, on the stadium rim, there stood a man once the best athlete anyone ever saw. Now this man who once refused induction to the U.S. Army — “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he said — has lit the Olympic flame.
“An honor,” Ali says. “Mankind coming together. Martin Luther King’s home. Muslims seeing me with the torch.”
Before Ali left the stadium, president Bill Clinton asked to see him. The president stood directly in front of Ali and put his hands on Ali’s shoulders. And he said, “They didn’t tell me who would light the flame, but when I saw it was you, I cried.”
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