Ali in Atlanta: the Perfect Choice
Joe Posnanski has a nice piece on how Muhammad Ali came to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, with a key exchange coming between the Atlanta Olympic Committee, who wanted Atlanta's own Edwin Moses, and NBC's Dick Ebersol, who suggested the 1960 Olympic gold medalist in heavyweight boxing:
“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.
Ebersol, and Poz, go on to explain why Ali wasn't a draft dodger—he didn't dodge anything, he stood firm and upright—and how Ebersol convinced the Atlantans that Ali was the man. Poz then writes how the reporters gathered that night tried to figure out who that final torcher bearer would be. Mark Spitz? Carl Lewis? Janet Evans?
“There were undoubtedly some people who suspected that Ali might light the cauldron,” Poz writes, “but I didn't know any of those people.”
I was in Seattle, watching it on TV, back when we all watched the same thing at the same time, and, like everybody else, I too was ticking off the candidates. I think we saw each of the above run with the torch and hand it off to someone else. Didn't we? Anyway, as the possibilities ticked away, I searched back and asked myself this: Who is the most famous American athlete who is also an Olympic gold medalist? Who is the best representative of American athletic prowess? That's when I thought of Ali. And not only did I suspect it would be him, I would be angry if it wasn't him. He was the perfect choice. I just didn't know how much work went into making others realize it.