- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

A crescent moon hung over Olympic Stadium, where 11,000 athletes had marched in behind their national flags and midnight had passed, when four-time gold medalist Janet Evans started up the steep incline that led to the caldron looming in semidarkness.

After the slender swimmer handed the well-traveled Olympic torch to a man wearing an all-white shirt and sweatpants, gasps and tears surged forth from the crowd of 83,000 and a worldwide television audience.

“Look who it is - The Greatest!” NBC anchorman Bob Costas exclaims as Ali steps forward. “What a moment!”

The date was July 19, 1996, and the man was former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, then 54 and 12 years into a lonely battle with Parkinson’s disease that rendered him unable to move or speak without great effort.

The moment is visible on YouTube and other Web sites. Ali holds the torch aloft at the end of its 15,000-mile journey, his left hand shaking uncontrollably, then reaches out and lights a wick attached to a long cable. Slowly, the flame licks its way upward, and as the caldron blazes forth to officially open the Atlanta Games, untold millions around the globe know they have seen one of the most dramatic moments in sports history.

Today, at 67 and in virtual seclusion, Ali arguably remains the planet’s most famous and beloved athletic icon, notwithstanding the emergence of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

For nearly half a century, since he collected gold as the light heavyweight boxing champion in the 1960 Rome Games, Ali has stood above the multitudes as one of the world’s most cocksure, most controversial and ultimately most beloved figures. From his hometown of Louisville, Ky., to Africa’s most remote corners, he is revered as a person who marched to no one’s beat except his own and apologized for it to no one at all.

Surely, you remember.

• His poetic braggadocio early on that “I’m so pretty” and could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

• His stunning upset of supposedly invincible heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964 and even more shocking revelation the next day that he was becoming a member of the Nation of Islam and abandoning his birth name of Cassius Clay.

• His refusal to accept induction into the armed forces in 1967 because “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” subsequent conviction as a draft evader, 3 1/2-year exile from the ring and ultimate victory when the conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

• His three epic battles with archrival Joe Frazier and upset of the young George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” aka Zaire, in 1974.

• Finally, sadly, his slow decline in the ring, a painful late-career embarrassment by Larry Holmes and the onset of Parkinson’s, possibly caused by thousands of blows to the head and body.

For more than 20 years, he appeared in public as the sort of greatly diminished figure it would be easy to pity. Instead he is still admired and even idolized by untold millions - many of whom would not know a left hook from a right cross. Ali long since has transcended his increasingly disreputable and depressing sport. What people remember now is not his victories and defeats in the ring but rather his courage in and out of it.

On that late memorable night and early morning in Atlanta, fellow heavyweight Evander Holyfield was among those who toted the torch, joining with Greek hurdler Voula Patoulidou to pass it to Evans. Despite his long and distinguished boxing career, Holyfield was and is no Ali - which he would be the first to tell you.

Ali was not always a good role model during his fighting days. He taunted Frazier and Floyd Patterson for continuing to call him “Clay” and deliberately refrained from knocking out Patterson so he could punish him further. Eventually, his self-promotion became tiresome, and many were rooting for the soft-spoken Frazier during their three fistic confrontations.

Since his illness and the Atlanta Games, however, honor upon honor have descended upon Ali. In 1997, he received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. In 1999, he was named Kentucky’s athlete of the century, presumably beating out a bunch of racehorses. In 2002, he visited Afghanistan as a “messenger of peace” for the United Nations. And in 2005, President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Yet for most admirers, the definitive moment of Muhammad Ali’s post-fight career came 13 years ago in Atlanta. At that moment, as with so many others, he was unquestionably “The Greatest.”

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