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The iconic moment Muhammad Ali lit Olympic flame in Atlanta almost didn’t happen

The many reasons Muhammad Ali was the most famous man in the world. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

In one of the most indelible and stirring of Olympic images, Muhammad Ali, suffering then from Parkinson’s Disease, lit the flame during the Opening Ceremonies for the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

The poignant moment featuring Ali, a boxing gold medalist in the 1960 Games in Rome, almost didn’t happen, though. Dick Ebersol, a former NBC executive, told Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand that there was pressure from Billy Payne, the head of Atlanta’s Olympic organizing committee, to go with Evander Holyfield instead.

Ebersol firmly believed that the only choice was 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 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.”

To Ebersol, Ali was a conscientious objector. Payne pointed out that in the South, he was “perceived as a draft dodger.”

Ebersol recalled that he replied: “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.”

“He keeps holding the thing there,” Ebersol said, “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.”

For Janet Evans, the American Olympic gold-medal winning swimmer handed the torch to Ali, the moment was defining.

“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 …” she said in 2015. “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.”

The life of ‘The Greatest,’ Muhammad Ali

FOR USE WITH OBIT ONLY. MANDATORY CREDIT. Boxing: World Heavyweight Title: Muhammad Ali in action after first round knockout of Sonny Liston at St. Dominic's Arena. Cover. Lewiston, ME 5/25/1965 CREDIT: Neil Leifer (Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X10792 )

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