WE REMEMBER HIS COURAGE. The year was 1967, the height of the Vietnam war, and it was not popular to be against the slaughter in Indochina. But Muhammad Ali refused induction as a conscientious objector on religious grounds and was quoted as saying, "Them Viet Cong haven't done nothing to me," Only a last-minute Supreme Court ruling saved Ali from a jail sentence for draft evasion.
Last week in Tanzania, on a presidential Olympic boycott campaign to Africa, Ali was practically pleading by the time he ended a press conference in which African reporters had bombarded him with hostile questions about U.S. policies on Africa.
"I am the number one black man in America, as far as standing up for Africa, for standing against the war in Vietnam . . . I am still the same Muhammad Ali."
But the word around the neighborhoods in Washington last week was mostly gruff, with the people wondering if it is same Ali, wondering why the retired world heavyweight champion let the State Department and the White House send him, poorly briefed, on a delicate political mission for which he lacked the diplomatic tools. It was stupid, even cynical of the administration to send him; it was naive of Ali to go.
That's why the campaign to Africa has found Ali losing his balance in a way a great boxer should know how to avoid. He's been a defensive: "President Carter sent me to Africa to be America's whipping boy," he grumbled in Tanzania. Even euphoric: "We have straighted the whole thing out. President Carter did not put me on the spot," he said in Kenya.
The problem lies in the relationship between sports and politics. It is right and proper to send a famous athlete on a sports-related mission. But the mission here is clearly political -- to gain support for Carter's campaign to force the transfer of the Olympic out of Moscow unless the Soviets withdraw their troops from Afghanistan by Feb. 20. Thus it is an act of cynicism on the part of the president and the State Department to send a popular athlete whose chief political credential is that he's the same color as the leaders he is trying to influence. It's a gesture designed to play upon the emotions of the Africans, not upon their intellects.
The position of villainy in which it places a man like Ali is clear. The Africans are forced to reject someone they'd like to feel good about, for Ali's personal popularity is high. President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania is required by the circumstances to do what he might have abhorred -- to tell "The Greatest" to go fly a kite.
At one point in the reporter's questioning in Tanzania, Ali acknowledged he lacks the necessary credentials:
"I am no a politican," he said. "I got my fame in boxing. If there are any American diplomats here who know these problems, they can answer these questions. I can't answer the question of what America did and didn't do or what Africa did because I don't know. But I can box. I can tell you about boxing."
The reporters pressed him. "Do you believe that sports and politics go together? If so, then are playing a political role?"
He answered, "Sports and politics go together when some people want them to go together."
Later, Ali blamed "people who came from Washington" to handle his mission for not fully briefing him on U.S. policy toward South Africa. "This got me in a position where I had to defend myself," he said. He was partly right. But the painful fact is, the champ as envoy in a complex international drama can touch only upon the emotional link. And that will sway neither the Africans nor black Americans at home.
Ali was ill-advised to go, and those of us who respect him hope he lands on his feet. For it's not just Muhammad's ring exploits that give him a special place in our hearts. It is his courage and his cunning. That's way there was a sense of vindication when his crown was restored and, then, during the Bicentennial, Ali was invited to the White House to officially greet the Queen of England.
But now some folks are beginning to worry. "Is this the beginning of the decline of Ali?" asked one Southeast Washington man. "Black athletes and entertainers have to be more responsible about issues, and have the courage to say 'no' when the situation demands it." To his credit, Ali seemed willing to transform his mission into a "fact-finding" trip, a far cry from what Carter had in mind. But it's not the Ali that so many of us know and love who has to plead: "I am not an Uncle Tom. . . I am not a puppet . . . I am not a traitor to black people. . ."