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Flashback: Muhammad Ali Lights the Olympic Torch in 1996

The Greatest reminded us why we call him that once again on a hot Atlanta night

By 1996, Muhammad Ali didn’t really need to supply us with more reasons to cheer for him. Ali, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, had long proven himself to be one of the most iconic athletes in the world, and even if Ali didn’t end up lighting the torch on July 19th, 1996, we’d still have plenty of moments to treasure both in and out of the ring. 

But as it happens, it was Ali who took the torch from Janet Evans, hands shaking, but proud as ever. The man who fought in some of the greatest fights in boxing history, was the subject of some of the most iconic images of the 20th century, and who changed this country in ways we’re still feeling to this very day, had one more moment of greatness for the world to witness. 

But as former NBC executive Dick Ebersol told Sports Business Journal last year, the head of the Atlanta committee for the games, Dick Payne, put up a fight, saying, “Where we’re from, he’s perceived as a draft dodger.” Hometown hero Evander Holyfield was the local pick to do the honor, but Ebersol countered that Ali didn’t dodge the draft: “He lost three big-money-earning years. But he didn’t run away from the country. He didn’t go to Canada. He was willing to stand on his principles.”

It took four months to convince Payne and the committee that Ali was the right person for the job, four months for them to agree that a person who Ebersol figured, “outside of perhaps the pope” was “the most beloved figure in the world.” 

Of course, eventually the committee agreed, and what happened when the champ and 1960 gold medal winner was handed the torch was truly a moment that is so perfect that it defies any sports cliche you could toss at it. A reminder, once again, why Ali was, and always will be the Greatest of All Time.

In This Article: Muhammad Ali, Olympics

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