In one of the last medal ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Muhammad Ali received a gold to replace the one that had been lost decades earlier.
Ali, then 54 and barely able to speak due to Parkinson’s, was given the medal by IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch at halftime of the men’s basketball final between the U.S. and Yugoslavia.
“Thank you very, very much for this,” Ali reportedly told Samaranch before posing for photos with each basketball team, whispering something to Charles Barkley.
At the 1960 Rome Games, Ali, then Cassius Clay, earned light heavyweight gold at age 18.
In his autobiography, “The Greatest,” first published in 1975, Ali wrote that he threw his gold medal over the Jefferson County Bridge in his native Louisville and into the Ohio River in disgust.
It happened minutes after Ali and a friend fought a man from a motorcycle gang who wanted to steal it. Before that, they had been refused service at a Louisville restaurant.
“And I felt no pain and no regret,” Ali wrote of the medal toss. “Only relief, and a new strength.”
That specific story came to be apocryphal, though Ali no doubt faced racism. By the Centennial Games, it was believed the medal had simply been lost. A tragedy, given how much it clearly meant to him.
“I can still see him strutting around the [Athletes’] Village with his gold medal on,” Wilma Rudolph, who swept the 100m, 200m and 4x100m sprints in Rome, said, according to Sports Illustrated in 1992. “He slept with it. He went to the cafeteria with it. He never took it off. No one else cherished it the way he did. His peers loved him. Everybody wanted to see him. Everybody wanted to be near him. Everybody wanted to talk to him. And he talked all the time. I always hung in the background, not knowing what he was going to say.”
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