Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta Games is one of the more indelible moments in sports history.

And according to former NBC executive Dick Ebersol, it almost didn’t happen. He tells Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand that Billy Payne, who headed Atlanta’s Olympic organizing committee, wanted hometown hero Evander Holyfield to light the torch:

As Ebersol recalls it, the conversation went something like this:
Ebersol: “I’m not sure of my math, but I think Evander Holyfield has at least five illegitimate kids. Yes, he did win an Olympic [bronze] medal, but he’s not the pre-eminent Olympic figure in the United States alive today.”
Payne: “Who would you have light the cauldron?”
Ebersol: “I don’t think there’s any question about it. It should be Muhammad Ali. 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.”
Payne: “Where we’re from, he’s perceived as a draft dodger.”
Ebersol: “But he wasn’t a draft dodger. He was willing to go through the legal process. He was found guilty, and he was on his way to prison, but the federal court of appeals in the state of New York threw it out and the Supreme Court refused to intervene three years later. He lost three big-money-earning years. But he didn’t run away from the country. He didn’t go to Canada. He was willing to stand on his principles.”

According to Ourand, Ebersol then spent the next four months not only lobbying for Ali, but making sure Ali could physically light the torch as he battled Parkinson’s disease.

In the end, Ebersol won out and Ali was picked to light the torch. But things almost went awry on the night of the Opening Ceremonies, as the torch itself almost didn’t light because they had filled it with too much propellant, leaving no oxygen:

“Ali may have known this intuitively. But he didn’t know it intellectually. He keeps holding the thing there, hoping that it will get lit. You can see flames licking back against his forearms. He didn’t exhibit any pain, but I kept waiting for him to drop his torch because it just looked like it was impossible with the flames licking back the way they were.
“Finally, just enough propellant burns off and the little rocket starts to go in little bits.
“Most people don’t remember it, because after that, all you saw was an edited version of this that I would show during the rest of the Olympics. Finally, after about 15 seconds of starts and stops, it took off and went up and lit the cauldron.