Inspirational Olympic Story: Muhammad Ali Lights The 1996 Atlanta Olympic Torch

by Sriram Ilango,

The world didn’t breathe at that moment. When Muhammad Ali, probably the greatest sportsman of all time came out of nowhere and received the Olympic Torch in Atlanta, shaking due to his Parkinson’s disease, even the bravest of hearts were brought down to tears.

Ali lights the Olympic Torch in 1996 Atlanta

Muhammad Ali didn’t fight against odds, he crushed them.

“Athlete of the Century”, said GQ Magazine, Sports Illustrated claimed his as the “Sportsman of the Century”, and various other organizations, magazines, and others claimed him to be the greatest sports person to have graced this planet.

Muhammad Ali changed a sport forever, he brought undeniable passion to a sport which was usually claimed brutal. He dominated great boxers like Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston and George Foreman, but the most important moment of his life came when he lit that torch in Atlanta.

The year was 1954. It was in Louisville, Kentucky when a 12 year old Cassius Clay went straight to a cop, Joe Martin, and said that he would “whup” the person who stole his bike. The cop was amazed by the spirit of this young kid. He said that Clay should better learn to box. In just a month, Clay fought his first bout. He made that ring his home for the next 27 years.

As a kid, Clay outworked everyone. He had more than 100 wins, and only five losses in his amateur career. In 1960, Clay was selected to represent the United States of America in the Rome Olympics. But, he decided to skip the games due to his fear of flying on planes. But, after a meeting with that policeman, Joe Martin, he changed his mind.

Martin remembering the incidents said “We had a rough flight going to California for the trials, and so when it came to go to Rome he said he wasn’t gonna fly, and that he wouldn’t go. I said: ‘Well, you’ll lose the opportunity of being a great fighter,’ and he said: ‘Well, I’m not gonna go.’ He wanted to take a boat or something.”

The articles claimed that Clay was USA’s best chance of a medal in boxing. But, even they wouldn’t have dared to think about what was going to happen in the future. It was the inhuman training, trash talking and stuff that made people notice Clay.

Ali wins gold in 1960, Rome.

In the Olympic Village, Clay was walking around, shaking everyone’s hand, and having a good time. The other occupants of the village nicknamed him “the mayor of the Olympic Village”. Clay did manage to win the Olympic Gold in Rome, and, as he claimed, he didn’t take his medal off for two days.

Clay went home, and he was still discriminated against. An “all-white” restaurant refused to serve him, and in anger, he threw his Olympic medal into the Ohio River.

In 1964, Cassius Clay was transformed to Muhammad Ali. Under the guidance of Elijah Muhammad, Clay took the decision to convert to Islam. In 1967, he was inducted to the US Military, where he refused to respond when his name was called, which led to the stripping of his boxing license and titles. In 1970, he was allowed to box again. Then came the fight of the century, then came the Rumble in the Jungle, and then came the Thrilla in Manila. These legendary fights made Ali the champion he today is.

In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The events before the 1996 games were kept a secret. Nobody knew who was going to light the flame before Janet Evans handed the torch to Ali. With his hands shaking, and our hearts trembling, Ali lit the torch with his trademark smile.

Muhammad Ali gave his body, spirit, and soul for a country which judged him negatively for the color of his skin, and his character at first. Ali might be the greatest athlete to have ever graced our planet. But, despite what you might think, it was not those bouts which we remember him for, it is that moment when he shook off a disease, stood trembling in the center of the world media. and lit a torch that symbolizes spirit and passion.


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