20 Years Ago, Muhammad Ali Lit a Torch That Continues to Shine Brightly (Video)

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In 1996, Atlanta, Georgia, hosted the Summer Olympics, but it wasn’t just a once-in-every-four-years occurrence. Also known as the Centennial Olympic Games, it was historic for many reasons, including its being the first time the Olympics divided Summer and Winter games into different years. Kicking off on July 19, the Atlanta Games would also earn some infamous notoriety as a result of the tragic bombing of the city’s Olympic Park bombing on July 27, when one person was killed and over 100 were injured after a pimp bomb exploded. And yet, for many, the iconography of the 1996 games is embodied not in the tragic but in the triumphant, and his name was Muhammad Ali.

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Twenty years ago today (July 19, 1996), Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic torch, the symbolic act signaling the official start to the Games. The boxing champion, 1960 gold-medal winner, and Black American icon was 12 years removed from his Parkinson’s diagnosis, a syndrome which caused him to suffer from excessive trembling – something that would be noticeable if tasked with carrying something as meaningful and watched as the Olympic torch. But Ali was nothing if not brazen, and the footage of his appearance at the opening ceremony that year remains without a doubt one of the greatest in American history. With the 20th anniversary in mind, coupled with the passing of Ali on June 3, Rolling Stone has re-published a retrospective video package that Heads do not want to miss.

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As Jason Diamond reports, there was some initial hesitation when Ali’s name was mentioned as one of the possible torch-lighters. “[T]he head of the Atlanta committee for the games, Dick Payne, put up a fight, saying, “Where we’re from, he’s perceived as a draft dodger.” However, NBC executive Dick Ebersol was in Ali’s corner, arguing “he didn’t run away from the country. He didn’t go to Canada. He was willing to stand on his principles.”

The video package includes contributions from Olympian athletes and others in conjunction with archival footage to bring one of the most significant moments in sports history to life.

As Diamond writes in closing, “[a] reminder, once again, why Ali was, and always will be the Greatest of All Time.” Salute to the GOAT, the flame of whose legacy continues to burn.