Discussion Threads:
Muhammed Ali

Date: Thu, 15 Aug 1996
From: Richard C. Crepeau
Subject: Muhammed Ali

I have been involved in a discussion on another list about the choice of Muhammed Ali to light the torch at the Olympic games. Someone raised the point that in light of the great fuss made over the Black Power salute at Mexico City, then the tossing of his gold medal in the river, and his controversial profile in the sixties, did the choice of Ali represent some sort of acceptance of the so-called radicalism of the decade? In addition I would like to know the views of those on this list as to 1) the choice itself and 2) what you may think about the reasons for the choice.

I also noticed the objections of Joe Frazier to the choice of Ali, as Frazier claimed he not Ali should have been the choice to light the choice, because he was a patriot and had never bad-mouthed America as Ali had done.

Any reactions to these points would be of interest.

Dick Crepeau

Date: Fri, 16 Aug 1996
From: Donald R. Johnson

I don't think the choice of Ali had anything to do with a change in attitude toward the sixties. The people in charge wanted to get the largest media impact and went for Ali. To say it had anything to do with any kind of official policy decision gives those in charge too much credit for remembering that far back.

Don Johnson

Date: Thu, 15 Aug 1996
From: Michael Oriard

Re. Dick Crepeau's questions about Ali.

What the events involving Ali at Atlanta meant to the audience depended on the views of Ali within the audience. I would read the official narrative not as accepting the radicalism of the 1960s but as embracing Ali as a "safe" hero now whose indiscretions in the 1960s can be forgotten (and maybe forgiven). NBC reported the story of Ali's throwing his medal in the river as "apocryphal." I heard it both ways from different commentators on NPR the morning after his medal was restored. Ali was always motivated by religious values rather than political ones; in the 1960s his religious values were political in ways they are not today, with the consequence that he is not a disruptive figure today. Also, although in no way pitiable today, Ali undoubtedly elicits considerable pity. Pitying him makes him weaker than he is, safe to be canonized. Finally, honoring Ali was as much self-aggrandizement as a tribute to Ali. The Olympic committee, Atlanta, NBC were just so pleased with themselves for doing this. We are great in our magnanimity, was implied, and in our vision to see that Ali is worthy of this recognition. (This is undoubtedly unfair to many individuals within corporate Olympics, Atlanta, NBC, etc--whose own views might not endorse the corporate line.) All of this notwithstanding, I was moved by Ali on both occasions in Atlanta, as I always am moved by Ali, and was delighted by the events honoring him. Like everyone else, I can read the events as I choose--as a proper tribute to one of the great figures of the twentieth century--whatever the intentions of those who produce them. That's the way our culture operates.

Michael Oriard

Date: Thu, 15 Aug 1996
From: Ron Roizen

Good questions, Dick. I mused some about the Ali choice myself. I think the symbol being put forward had more to do with Ali's Parkinson's Disease than might at first be suspected. His disability created the heroic and tragic symbol of the fallen king, the very length of the fall contribuing to the drama he brings to public display. To the extent that his illness was actually caused by boxing, too, the Olympic committee and the Olympic tradition and sport in general may feel a certain distal sense of responsibility for his present unfortunate circumstances. That, also, may contribute a sort of dimension of symbolic compensation to his selection. It is almost unimaginable to me that a healthy Ali would have been placed in the same symbolic position--though I've been wrong and misread such matters before. The generally affectionate and even patriotic disposition toward the American flag and the national anthem expressed by African-American athletes in the '96 games was one of the most moving aspects of this past Olympics for me, especially as a person old enough to remember the anger, disdain, and alienation expressed at the '72 Olympics. The positive feeling generated this time is especially interesting and meaningful in light of the growing income gap between rich and poor in this nation. I'd be interested in comments on that aspect of the games. Maybe Ali's selection, and its implied message of rapproachment with the discordant spirit of the Vietnam era, offered a counterpoint or, on the other hand, simply another aspect of the positive spirit communicated by African-American athletes generally at the '96 Olympics?

Ron Roizen

Date: Thu, 15 Aug 96
From: Kevin Lewis

I figured Ali was chosen to light the flame because (1) Atlanta, in the South is a city with large proportion of African-American residents--as was our Olympic team made up of a great number of African-Americans--and the Olympic committee wished to honor the race of Ali, those local residents, and team members; (2) He has been so globally famous that the whole world would recognize him instantly and maybe that recognition and admiration might rub off on Atlanta; (3) to celebrate the draft-avoiding, medal-tossing dramatically afflicted Ali was to be perceived as an appropriate gesture of forgiveness and embrace (and refusal to hold a grudge).

Kevin Lewis

Date: Thu, 15 Aug 1996
From: Dave Kathka

I suspect that Ali was selected because he is the most venerated Olympic athlete alive today. He is admired throughout the world by more people than any other athlete and most of his critics are Americans who are on the right. Since this is a world event - despite the attempts of American media to make it simply a display of American patriotism - it was appropritate to have a world renowned figure light the torch.

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