I sat in the stadium in Atlanta that night 20 years ago engaged in the parlor game that is part of every Olympics: trying to figure out who would receive the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron. Giving life to the roaring flame that stands watch over the Games is an iconic moment of every Olympics, and I remember it like it was yesterday.
There at the opening of the 1996 Summer Games, the great discus thrower Al Oerter passed the torch to boxer Evander Holyfield, who handed it to swimming champion Janet Evans. Evans circled the stadium, then headed up a long ramp at one end. And when she reached the top, out of the shadows stepped Muhammad Ali.
It was electrifying. And it remains the most charged moment in sports I have experienced, and that includes 18 years as a sports reporter who covered four Olympics, 10 Final Fours and a thousand other contests.
Because, in the end, of course it had to be Ali.
He was for many years the best-known athlete in the world. He was recognized — and swarmed by crowds — in every country on every continent. And this was in the pre-internet era.
Ali was the template for the marriage of style and substance in sports, a product and shaper of the tumultuous 1960s. He became one of the most beloved people on the planet. But it’s important to remember that back then he was reviled by at least as many as revered him.
He was a great champion, yes, who in his long career won the heavyweight title three times. His championship bouts with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, among others, were riveting dramas.
But Ali earned the enmity of millions when in 1967 he said the Vietnam War was deplorable and unjust, and he refused to be drafted.
With the civil rights movement in full bloom, Ali infuriated people by rejecting racial integration. He gave up what he came to call his “slave” name, Cassius Clay, and converted to Islam, joining the despised and feared Nation of Islam and introducing millions of Americans to that religion. He was the first athlete to take such stands, and he became instantly polarizing, vilified by the conservative establishment and lionized by liberals. Many sportswriters even refused to use his new name, continuing to refer to him as Cassius Clay.
Ali sacrificed a lot for his convictions. He was stripped of his title, and lost more than three years of the prime of his career and millions of dollars in endorsements. Nowadays, it’s routine for athletes to exhibit a social conscience. But Ali was the first.
And it was that very history that almost stopped Ali from lighting that Olympic flame.
Billy Payne, head of Atlanta’s organizing committee, wanted the honor to go to hometown hero Holyfield, and said Ali was perceived as a draft dodger. Which ignored the fact that the Supreme Court, four years after Ali had shunned the war, granted him conscientious-objector status. He had stood on his principles, and won.
The next time I saw Ali in person was 11 years later. He was receiving an honorary degree from Princeton University, at my daughter’s graduation ceremony. In Atlanta, he already was trembling from Parkinson’s but the disease had really ravaged him by 2007. He had to be carefully guided to and from his seat and though his mind was still active it was hopelessly trapped. He didn’t say a word but his presence again sent a jolt through the crowd.
That was Ali — impossible to ignore. First for his achievements in the boxing ring, later for his stands outside it.
He called himself "The Greatest." In a life filled with spectacular and outrageous moments, flights of linguistic fancy and colorful grandiosity, the nickname he gave himself was not hyperbole.
Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.