One of the most memorable Olympic moments came during the 1996 opening ceremony in Atlanta. Speculation grew leading up to the ceremony about who would light the torch. The identity of Muhammad Ali was kept a secret until he actually lit the torch.
It is a moment that almost did not happen for a variety of reasons. According to the Sports Business Journal, the committee had originally thought of boxer Evander Holyfield as the person to light the torch. Holyfield was from the Atlanta area and seemed like a natural fit.
NBC’s Dick Ebersol argued that Ali should be the person to light the torch. Ebersol explained his reasoning to the Sports Business Journal.
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,” Ebersol told the Sports Business Journal.
In addition to lighting the torch, Ali was given a new gold medal. He had lost the medal he won in 1960 after throwing it in a river after being refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant.
Ali could be seen shaking while holding the torch. It was a powerful moment showing Ali’s resolve despite having Parkinson’s disease.