ATLANTA -- It was the rarest of Olympic moments, a moment of infinite sadness, yet supreme majesty. You didn't know whether to cheer or to cry. All you could do was watch and root once more for Muhammad Ali.
He appeared like an apparition under the Olympic caldron, and just like that took the world back into his hands. Except this time, those once-mighty hands were shaking, with Parkinson's disease proving a more difficult opponent than Joe Frazier.
And now, Ali had to light the Olympic flame.
Another former heavyweight champion, Atlanta native Evander Holyfield, carried the torch into the stadium. He ran for a time with Greek sprinter Voula Patoulidou, then the two of them handed off to U.S. swimmer Janet Evans.
It was Evans who ascended the ramp to the foot of the caldron, exuding sheer joy while carefully measuring each step. The crowd of more than 80,000 buzzed in anticipation. Who would actually light the flame?
Rumors had been circulating all day. The most intriguing was a Larry Bird-Magic Johnson-Michael Jordan relay, with His Airness providing his usual finishing touch. Take that, Dream Team III!
Jordan is as prominent an athlete now as Ali was in his glory days, but his selection would have been all wrong. The last thing the Coca-Cola Olympics needed was for the torch-lighting ceremony to become just another Nike ad.
Ali, 54, carried none of Jordan's commercial overtones. Even now, as he fights an awful disease, he is his own man.
What attracted us to Ali was his style, his brashness, his ring savvy, his trademark cry of "I am the greatest!" But in an era filled with cheap imitations like Deion Sanders and Dennis Rodman, he is now celebrated for his substance.
"We were looking at who was the best-known American athlete around the world," said former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a principal organizer in these Games. "You might not agree with his religion, but he's serious about his religion. He took the heavyweight championship and turned it into a political campaign.
"He called people's attention to Zaire. He took people to Manila. For an isolationist nation like ours, he was a fitting symbol. We needed to recognize his greatness."
The choice of Ali worked on so many levels -- "As a boxer, as a man, as a black man, as a showman, he's a hero," French light heavyweight Jean-Louis Mandengue said yesterday, and no one dared argue.
Thirty years ago, who could have imagined a black man lighting the Olympic flame in the capital of the New South? Who could have imagined Ali being recognized as a visionary when once he was dismissed as a draft dodger?
He lost his title when he refused to enter the draft because of his Muslim beliefs. But his statement, "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong," voiced a sentiment that came to be shared by millions of Americans.
Ali didn't believe in a shoe company.
He believed in justice.
He wrote in his autobiography that he grew so frustrated by racism in his native Louisville, Ky., he tossed his gold medal from the 1960 Olympics into the Ohio River.
The validity of that story is in dispute, but not the depth of Ali's passion. He was not simply the best choice to light the flame, but also the only choice. And yet, his selection carried a sizable risk.
If you didn't know better, you might have thought Ali was getting ready to throw a left hook as Evans approached Friday night. But he wasn't cocking his arm at all, wasn't trying to break into one last Ali shuffle.
Once, he controlled his body like none other, dancing away from opponents, throwing punches faster than anyone. The saddest thing now is that he has seemingly no control at all.
His left arm shook and shook, his entire body trembled. Ali steadied himself to lift the torch high, then reached down to light a wire that would carry the flame to the gas burners of the caldron.
It was every bit a struggle.
The wire would not ignite, and for one horrifying moment, it appeared Ali might burn his arm. But finally the flame took, and Ali departed as suddenly as he appeared. The last we saw of him on NBC, he was staggering into a van.
Maybe you cheered.
Maybe you cried.
Maybe you did both.
"It's almost as if we owe him something," Olympic historian Bud Greenspan said. "He has done so much for sport and politics in the world and for standing up and enduring such a terrible handicap.
"It was on a line between marvelous and terrible. But I think it went over the line to marvelous. I guess they were just praying it [the torch] wouldn't fall."
Consider those prayers answered.
For one magic night, for one singular moment, Muhammad Ali was the greatest again.
Pub Date: 7/21/96