by Aaron Garcia
The moments that render us truly speechless are rare, and the opening ceremonies of an Olympic Games are hardly fertile soil. Dripping with over-baked pomp and circumstance, the events’ interpretive-dance-like quality is generally must-miss television – at least for me. Wake me when the games begin.
The 1996 Games’ opening in Atlanta might’ve had that same feel. I’m not sure. If so, it’s been overshadowed by how the Opening Ceremonies closed, with a scene I’ll never forget: Muhammad Ali, dressed in all white, holding the Olympic torch high as an entire world stood and cheered.
Ali was the boisterous, braggadocios sports star before the American primetime was ready for one. He ruffled the public’s feathers with antagonistic poetry and guarantees and, perhaps more remarkable, backed them up as well as anyone ever had. The practice endeared him to many and alienated even more, making him the preeminent lightning rod of American sports for decades.
When I was born in 1980, those days were over. There was a failed comeback attempt in 1981, but my memories were formed by grainy, old footage and my dad’s stories of watching Ali fight, which were enough to convince me that he had earned his mantle of “The Greatest.”
You couldn’t learn about Ali in those days, however, without hearing about his trials out of the ring. Ali’s history with the nation he represented at the 1960 Rome Olympics had been a rocky one – after winning heavyweight gold at the games, legend has it that Ali threw his medal into the Ohio River after a restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., denied him service because of his skin color. In 1967, while in his prime, Ali was stripped of his titles and boxing license after he refused to join the U.S. Army in fighting the Vietnam War, forcing his career on a three-year hiatus. Ali would go on to give sports fans some of the greatest fights in history throughout the 1970s but did so with a constant cloud of criticism hanging over his head.
In a way, Ali’s presence at the 1996 games was perhaps perfectly timed, if for all the wrong reasons. The age of the megastar athlete was hitting its stride as multi-million-dollar endorsements and contracts were becoming less and less stunning. Ali had always personified this possible outcome of the American sports landscape, but he did it in a pure way, if that’s even possible. Ali had what so many modern athletes lack: his dollars were earned not just in the pre-fight spectacle that was an Ali training camp but in the ring itself as he seemed hellbent on living up to his own hype. Love him or hate him, more times than not, he did exactly what he said he was going to do: win, and in spectacular fashion.
By 1996, however, the effects of his Parkinson’s diagnosis were evident. He was visibly slowed and uncharacteristically stiff and his left hand shook uncontrollably. It didn’t matter, though. As Ali stood at the top of the ramp lighting the Olympic cauldron, the whole world cheered. While his unforgiving, unrelenting brashness had been dulled by his ailment, Ali stood tall as he was recognized for being what he had always been: The Greatest. For once, Ali’s stature didn’t come with a footnote. Rather, his presence reminded us all of what true greatness looked like.
Ali’s appearance gave us one last awe-inspiring victory by an athlete we all thought was out of them. And, as always, he lived up to the hype by raising the torch high and, despite the Parkinson’s, perfectly still.
And I was speechless.