SHORTLY before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, I was on the telephone with Muhammad Ali.
“Will you be going to the Olympics?” I asked.
“I can’t tell anyone,” Ali responded. “It’s a big secret.”
From this, I surmised that Muhammad was in fact going to Atlanta and that, most likely, he would be lighting the Olympic cauldron.
The lighting of the cauldron is the highlight of the opening ceremony at each Olympiad. A torch is lit in Olympia, Greece. The flame is transported in relay fashion to the host country for the upcoming games. The journey ends in the main stadium for the games where the cauldron is set ablaze and burns until the fire is extinguished during the closing ceremony.
Traditionally, someone from the host country ignites the cauldron. At the 1984 Olympics, decathlete Rafer Johnson (who had won a gold medal on behalf of the United States at the 1960 Rome Olympics) carried the torch up the steps in the Los Angeles Coliseum to rekindle the world’s most celebrated fire. In 1992 in Barcelona, a Spanish archer shot an arrow into the caldron, reawakening the flame.
Ali was the ideal choice to light the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta. At age eighteen, fighting under the name Cassius Clay, he’d won a gold medal in Rome. Thereafter, he reached glorious heights as a boxer and traversed the globe, spreading joy and so much more. Atlanta had special meaning for him. It was there, after three years of exile from boxing, that he returned to the ring to defeat Jerry Quarry. He embodied the Olympic spirit and was arguably the foremost citizen of the world.
But the Atlanta organising committee wanted Evander Holyfield (a lifelong Atlanta resident) to be the final torch bearer. It took NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol (whose network was televising the games) five months to convince local Olympic officials that the honor should go to Ali.
The identity of the final torch bearer was a closely guarded secret. The moment of reckoning came on July 19, 1996.
Discus thrower Al Oerter (a former United States gold medalist) carried a torch with the flame on the last leg of its journey to the stadium. He passed the flame to Holyfield, who carried his torch through a maze of tunnels onto the track where he was joined by former gold medal winner Voula Patoulidou of Greece. With Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” booming over the stadium loudspeaker system, Holyfield and Patoulidou circled the track and passed the flame to United States gold-medal swimmer Janet Evans.
Evans carried her torch up a ramp toward the cauldron. Ali, his own torch in hand, came into view.
Tens of thousands of people began to chant: “Ali! Ali!”
Evans reached out and lit Muhammad’s torch with her own.
Ali was in less than good health at that time in his life. The ignition device designed to ascend to the cauldron above was slow to light when Muhammad touched his torch to it. His body was shaking.
More than one billion people around the world watched as the flames from Ali’s torch licked at his hands and arms. But he wouldn’t submit. He refused to let go of his torch until the job was done. And he prevailed. The flame moved from his torch to the cauldron.
It was one of the most memorable Olympic moments ever. No one who bore witness to that night will forget it.
For many years, I’ve been asked what I think Ali’s legacy is apart from his greatness as a fighter. Each time, I point to his being an exemplar of black pride and his refusal to accept induction into the United States Army.
“He stood as a beacon of hope for oppressed people all over the world,” I explain. “The experience of being black changed for tens of millions of people because of Ali. Every time he looked in the mirror and said, ‘I’m so pretty,’ he was saying black is beautiful before it became fashionable. And when he refused induction into the United States Army, he stood up to armies all over the world in support of the proposition that, unless you have a very good reason for killing people, war is wrong.”
But I’ve also come to believe that there’s an equally important component of Ali’s legacy. He was the embodiment of love.
Lighting the cauldron at the 1996 Olympics was the last major building block for the Ali legend. Muhammad lived for another twenty years after that. But July 19, 1996, was the perfect benediction for a hero’s life.
The people who witnessed Ali’s struggle in Atlanta were united in love and caring for one man. Hundreds of millions of people around the globe, if only for a moment, had all the hate and prejudice removed from their hearts.
Thomas Hauser is the author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times and Muhammad Ali: A Tribute to The Greatest. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.