Friday, August 15, 2008

I'll take Atlanta 1996

The Olympic Games are underway and receiving a lot of attention from news reporters, sports fans and the general public alike, but don't expect to hear me talking about it. That's because the games are taking place in China this year.

The country of China is run by a totalitarian regime. Many things can be found in abundance there, but liberty remains painfully scarce. You can count me out of supporting nations that ban or severely limit freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

So instead of talking about the 2008 games, I'd like to blog about the 1996 games. Instead of joining the chorus of "Oooos" and "Ahhhhs" over the recent opening ceremony from the police state of China, I'd rather talk about the night Atlanta hosted the Olympic opening ceremony and the man who was the final link in the long torch relay to deliver the flame to the games.

In my book, that was the greatest opening ceremony in Olympic history. And it featured the man who coined himself "The Greatest," and most people agreed with him.

The last torch bearers that night were themselves acclaimed Olympic athletes. They carried the flame into the stadium and around the track and up a high ramp to hand it off to the final man in the relay from around the world.

That man stepped slowly, deliberately from the shadows. It was obvious he probably could not have run even if he had wanted to. Holding an unlit torch in his right hand, his left arm shook uncontrollably with the unmistakable jerks brought on by Parkinson's syndrome.

Muhammad Ali, a gold medal athlete from the 1960 games, didn't look all that different than he had when he was known as Cassius Clay. His face remained focused and serious as he touched his torch to the runner's torch to receive the flame. And then, even as his left arm continued to wobble in muscular dysfunction, Ali turned toward the gathering of athletes and dignitaries who filled the stadium and lifted the torch up into the air.

The crowd roared.

Ali did not smile; perhaps it was not possible for him to do so. The man who was in many ways the loudest, boldest symbol of black power, the man who refused military service in a controversial conflict and suffered the loss of his boxing title as a result, the man who defied the conventional model of humble African-American athletes who came before him, the man who was for many years the essence of strength, endurance, and confidence, stood before his peers and the world, barely able to walk and hold a torch.

But no one could doubt in that moment who he was.

He was The Greatest.

And he remains The Greatest, now and always.

Keep China 2008. I’ll take Atlanta 1996.


Mark Folse said...

Ali! Ali! Ali!

It's not just that he was an icon of my childhood. At 51, I was a bitt too young to remember his Olympic trip but old enough to have seen film of it later. His refusal to serve broke through my sports page kid conciousness in a profound way that the nightly news footage from Vietnam did not. And finally his illness, the same that runs in my family, kept he connected to him later in life.

I have no symptoms or signs of what killed my father (and almost certainly my paternal grandfather, although he had other issues that masked his own illness), but if I ever find myself in that boat, I want to remember Ali carrying that torch.

Cold Spaghetti said...

Not to be a grump, nor to take away any of the man's athletic achievements, but Ali wasn't exactly a nice guy in his hey-day. He was (is?) an incredible sexist, ridiculously unfaithful to his wives and children, verbally abusive to his challengers (hardly a good sport), called for lynching of interracial couples, and sought out friendship with some of the worst leaders of the modern world (Qaddafi, Mobutu, Marcos, and more). Of course it is a tragedy to see a man once so strong and outspoken struck by a difficult illness, one that seems to have humbled this once grandiose performer... but at the same time, I don't think who is now should completely overshadow who he was during the time of his greatest influence and success.