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Remembering Ali's Olympic surprise

Boxing legend stirred crowd by carrying torch at opening ceremony in 1996

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

He emerged into the Deep South night 20 years ago next month, wearing a white tracksuit, holding an unlit torch in his right hand, his body shaking gently 12 years after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

For one more glorious, unforgettable moment, Muhammad Ali was again larger than life, needing no introduction to anyone in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Stadium or to the huge television audience.
With Ali's death Friday, I vividly recalled two things about the incredible 1996 Olympic moment I witnessed that night from the stadium's press area:

The roar that engulfed the cavernous stadium, nearly reducing the place to concrete dust; and the tears I shed seeing Ali - The Greatest, The Louisville Lip - holding his by-now flaming torch aloft, then down, touching a mechanism that carried its fire up a wire to ignite the gigantic cauldron overhead.

The lighting of the cauldron is one of the great moments of the Olympic Games, a creative, stirring highlight of the opening ceremony. It comes at the end of a torch relay that can run for weeks, involving the famous and the common, finally bringing with great fanfare a flame that was lit in Greece.

Watch Ali light the torch on YouTube

The identity of the final torchbearer is a closely guarded secret, with great speculation always surrounding who will ignite the symbolic cauldron that burns over the main stadium for the duration of the competition.

Much about the Atlanta Olympics would be cloaked in controversy, from organizational bungling to rampant commercialism. A bombing in Centennial Olympic Park killed one person and wounded more than 100. 
Sadly, much of the bad overshadowed a great deal of brilliant athletic achievement. 

But the night of July 19, 1996 was the exclamation mark for Muhammad Ali, Olympic gold medalist and three-time world heavyweight boxing champion.

His Atlanta participation, in a time before the see-all prying eyes of social media, remained a secret until he came into view, his torch lit when touched by that of fellow torchbearer Janet Evans, a four-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer.

That no one knew Ali would play this role made it sweeter still. Indeed, his appearance was met with a gasp from most of the 83,000 in attendance, many of whom were weeping.

As Cassius Clay in 1960, four years before he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name, Ali won heavyweight boxing gold at the Rome Olympics. His medal was lost or he threw it into the Ohio River in a form of racial protest, depending on the story you believe. But during the Atlanta Games, at the championship basketball game between the United States and Yugoslavia, then-International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch hung a replacement gold medal around Ali's neck.

It was a dramatic moment, to be sure. But nothing during the 1996 Olympics could match the magic and the emotion of Ali stepping into the Atlanta night with a torch in his hand, burning as brightly as the cauldron he would light. 

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