History in the making

How do you get Muhammad Ali to light the Olympic cauldron?

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Two weeks before Christmas 1995, Dick Ebersol decided to take his shot. He had been thinking about something big, thinking about it for years. Ebersol was Chairman of NBC Sports. He had spent his life in television making big deals, some of them winners and some losers, and he knew how difficult it was to make any of them come together. This one, he felt, could be as memorable as anything he had ever done. But it would not be easy.

“So,” he began as he spoke to Billy Payne and a couple of other people on the board of the Atlanta Olympic Committee. It was seven months before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. “Who are you thinking about having light the cauldron?”

He already knew their answer: They wanted to choose Evander Holyfield. It was a sensible choice. Holyfield grew up in Atlanta. He had won a controversial bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics — he was disqualified for hitting after the break — and had handled the storm with such dignity that he won the respect of the sporting world. He then went on to an inspiring pro career and had, against all odds, become heavyweight champion of the world. Yes, he was the obvious one to light the torch in Atlanta.

“I think I have a better choice,” Ebersol said. The Atlanta people leaned in.

“Muhammad Ali,” he said.

The three men looked at each other. Finally, one of them spoke up.

“Wasn’t he a draft dodger?” he said.

* * *


In the immediate aftermath of Muhammad Ali’s death, there has been an open battle for his legacy. Was he the irrepressibly funny and bewitching heavyweight champion of the world who told everyone how great and pretty he was? Was he the ferocious civil rights warrior who spoke angrily about white people being the enemy? Was he the boxing warrior who withstood the angriest punches that executioners like Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sonny Liston could throw? Was he the dancer who made hearts jump with his feints and bluffs and shuffles?

Was he the showman who, through sheer force of personality, turned boxing matches into worldwide events? Was he a peaceful man who spoke often of love and would do magic tricks for children? Was he a cruel man who spat “What’s my name?” with menace as he battered Ernie Terrell, who mocked Frazier so savagely that Smokin’ Joe held on to that pain for the remainder of his life?

It’s difficult for many to accept that Muhammad Ali was all these conflicting things and many more. He lived that big a life.

The most contentious move of his life was refusing induction to the army in 1967. Ebersol was a Yale dropout at the time, a young man in search of his mission, and he remembers the awe he felt for the young champion.

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“Ali was not a draft dodger,” Ebersol says. “He didn’t run away. He didn’t dodge anything. He was more than willing to accept whatever came with him standing up for his convictions. He was not trying to get out of anything — the army had offered him a lush deal where he would not be anywhere near the fighting. But he was going to stand by his principles, and that meant he would not serve. He was willing to go to jail, if necessary. He gave up three years, his prime three years, as a fighter. He was ready to pay the price to stand for what he believed.”

Ali, as you no doubt know, was convicted of draft evasion, but that conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court.

“I remember talking about it with President (Bill) Clinton,” Ebersol says. “I asked him why, among the citizenry, so many people looked at him as a draft dodger. … He started talking about growing up in Arkansas and he said, ‘That’s just how our papers reported it. That’s how it was told on the local television station.’ It was only later — much later in many cases — that we began to understand the extraordinary depth of his conviction.”

* * *

Ebersol asked the Atlanta Olympic Committee to think about Ali. In the meantime, he would have a few short films made to show just why Ali was the best person to light the cauldron. And then Ebersol went to work. He called Don Hewitt, creator of “60 Minutes,” and asked for some footage from Ali interviews. He put a couple of his best producers on the case. He had films made that showed the many contours of Ali’s life.

“I wanted Billy to see how Ali crossed all generations,” Ebersol says. “He won a gold medal at 18 years old. He stood for principle when few did. He was an athlete of color who, like Jim Brown and Bill Russell, spoke out against injustice. And he was the inspirational figure, someone who could speak to young fans and old, sports fans, college kids, anyone.”

In May, after he had sent the last film, Payne called Ebersol.

“Dick,” he said. “I get it. It has to be Ali. Do you think he’d like to do it?”

Ebersol, the dealmaker, laughs a little as he tells that part of the story. “I told him, ‘Billy, do you really think I would have walked this path if I didn’t know that he would do it?’”

* * *

A few hours before the 1996 Olympic Opening Ceremony began, a group of sportswriters sat around at lunch and argued about who would light the cauldron that night. Some thought it would be Holyfield. Some thought it would be Janet Evans, who had won four gold medals at the previous two Olympics. Mark Spitz was mentioned. Carl Lewis was mentioned. One of the writers in the group was Tom Archdeacon from Dayton, and we taunted him by saying that the cauldron-lighter would likely be Dayton’s own Edwin Moses, a brilliant hurdler. This would leave poor Archdeacon writing until 3 a.m.

The person taunting and laughing the hardest in the group was Pat Forde, who was then a columnist in Louisville. He would get his.

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Point is, nobody mentioned Ali. He just wasn’t on our mind. In the 20 years since, Ali has moved to the forefront of such thoughts. He has won countless awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But in 1996, though he was still extraordinarily famous, Ali was becoming something of an afterthought. It was 16 years since he had retired as a fighter, and people younger than 20 would have no memory at all of his epic fights with Frazier and Foreman. Parkinson’s had all but silenced him — in the “60 Minutes” feature, he could not speak. There was still a large group of people who remembered him bitterly. There were undoubtedly some people who suspected that Ali might light the cauldron, but I didn’t know any of those people.

And then the moment came, and Janet Evans handed the torch to Ali …

“It’s the loudest gasp I’ve ever heard,” Ebersol says. “I was in the truck, but I could still hear it. It was audible. Everybody just gasped, and it was so powerful. Nobody really thought anything like that would happen.

“Then, you might not remember this, but the thing won’t light. It just won’t light. And there was this small breeze, so the flame was blowing back on Ali’s hand. I remember asking Ali later if it burned him. He said, ‘I was so into it, I couldn’t feel a thing.’”

* * *

A few days after the Olympics ended, Ebersol got a call from Lonnie Ali, Muhammad’s wife. She said: “Listen to this.” And, over the phone, Ebersol heard cheering, screaming, people chanting “Ali! Ali! Ali!” They were at the PGA Championship in Louisville. Ali was being honored there.

“You changed his life,” Lonnie said. She said that before the Olympics, Ali had started to withdraw. He was embarrassed by his condition. He didn’t want people to see him shaking and suffering.

“But,” Lonnie said, “the love that was bestowed on him in Atlanta brought him back. It swept him up. It brought us all back.”

“I was just a facilitator,” Ebersol says. “It was Billy Payne and the Atlanta Committee that made the decision. I give them a lot of credit. They kept an open mind. They allowed me to overwhelm them with the evidence that Ali was the only choice. We live in a time now where people can be so inflexible. People make a decision and that’s it, they will stay with it no matter how much evidence to the contrary is presented.

“But Billy and the committee listened. And they made the right decision. It’s unforgettable, right?”