Muhammad Ali authored one of the most memorable Olympic moments, 36 years after he won his gold medal.
On July 19, 1996, Ali emerged as the final torch bearer at the Atlanta Olympic Opening Ceremony, lighting the cauldron for the Centennial Games. It’s one of the many indelible images of the great Ali, who died Friday at age 74.
In Atlanta, Ali received the Olympic flame from swimmer Janet Evans and, slowed by Parkinson’s and shaking, bent down to light a small rocket that eventually carried the flame to the red cauldron.
Evans tells people that she would give up all five of her Olympic medals to live that moment just one more time.
“I never cried after any of my Olympic medals, but I wanted to cry,” Evans said last year. “And my moment with him was brief; you saw how quickly he lit that flame. But that moment for me, standing there, watching this man, with his courage and his determination, and being brought into the Olympic fold once again, 36 years after his gold medal in 1960. And to stand there in front of the world and inspire even more young people like myself, to be and do and accomplish anything we want to do, it was an epiphany for me. It was a defining moment in my Olympic career.”
Another one of the final torch bearers, boxer Evander Holyfield, reflected on that night in a Players Tribune piece last year.
“As Janet Evans lit Ali’s torch, a video played on the big screen displaying all Ali had done as an athlete and a humanitarian,” Holyfield wrote. “It showed what he stood for and that he used his fame to bring attention to the greater causes that could help mankind. … I wanted to be the one to light the Olympic cauldron, but when I saw Ali emerge on stage — arms shaking and fighting the Parkinson’s that was taking over his body — all I could think was, They chose the right man. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Holyfield was the original choice to light the cauldron, longtime NBC Sports and Olympics executive Dick Ebersol said last year, according to the Sports Business Journal. Ebersol learned this in December 1995 and immediately argued for Ali instead.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it. It should be Muhammad Ali,” Ebersol said then, according to SBJ. “Muhammad Ali may be, outside of perhaps the pope, the most beloved figure in the world. In the third world, he’s a hero. In the Muslim world, he’s a hero and a fellow traveler. To anybody young — just about — in the United States, he’s a man of great moral principle who was willing to go to prison.”
Ali returned for one final Olympic appearance at the 2012 Opening Ceremony in London, where he was one of eight people chosen to carry the Olympic Flag.