Gold. A discarded medal. Or perhaps lost? A river. An enthusiastic, bright, and energetic teenager in the ring. A sick and frail fifty-something in an arena. A burning flame. A second medal. Two eras. Two continents. Two Games. Two names. One man. One story.
If he achieved legendary status in his sport through bouts against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton or George Foreman, Muhammad Ali will also always remain indelibly linked to the great history of the Olympic Games, which he marked on two occasions and in two entirely different contexts, almost half a century apart. It was not the Olympics which made Ali “The Greatest”, but his breakthrough role gave the boxer a unique place in Games folklore.
Cassius Clay’s journey to becoming Muhammed Ali was peppered with glory and controversy. It was as Ali that Clay became one of the most recognisable human beings of all time, but his second incarnation was already largely present in the first. Brave, loud mouthed, charming, irresistible, unbearable, a mythical megalomaniac convinced of his own greatness – Clay was already Ali.
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His whole life has been subject to legends right from the moment he was born. No sooner had he emerged from his mother than Clay, they say, already had a big head. It never got any smaller.
He was 12 when he entered a gym for the first time – the Colombia Gym, run in Louisville by Joe Martin, his trainer and mentor. “I will be the greatest, I will become world heavyweight champion!” he bellowed at anyone who would listen (and everyone who wouldn’t). This attitude did not exactly endear him to his fellow athletes, who quickly grew tired of his trash talking.
But Martin was convinced of the teenager’s abilities from the outset. Already, Napoleon was stirring inside Bonaparte. The teenage boxer Clay clearly carried inside him the attributes of a future champion.

Fear of flying

In his autobiography, The Greatest – My Own Story, published in 1975, Ali downplayed the role played by Joe Martin in his rise to fame. However, it is generally accepted that Martin was responsible for much of what made him so successful. He deserves praise for teaching him how to box, for polishing his edges, and, not least, for convincing him to get on a plane.
Six years after putting on a pair of gloves for the first time, Cassius Clay had started to terrorise any ring he entered. Winner of the Golden Gloves, the benchmark for amateur tournaments in the United States, in the light heavyweight division in 1959 and then with the heavyweights in 1960, the young Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was logically selected to represent the USA at the Olympic Games in Rome.
But the pugilist prodigy had a phobia of flying. He may have made the A Team for the U.S. but he refused to make the journey because of his refusal to board a plane. When he enquired whether he could reach Italy by boat or train instead, it was politely explained to him that the first solution was not reasonable and the second impossible. “Too bad – I won’t go to the Games, then,” Clay said.
His fear of flying actually stemmed from something he had experienced. A few months earlier, during a trip to California for the Olympic qualifiers, the turbulent flight had left him with some chilling memories. So much so that he was willing to sacrifice his Olympic ambition. “If you do that, you’ll lose the opportunity to be Olympic champion, because the medal has your name on it,” Martin told his charge. Clay was having nothing of it but, thankfully, his coach was as stubborn as he was.
As Martin explains in an HBO documentary about Ali, he eventually brought Clay round: “I finally took him out to Central Park here in Louisville and we had a long talk for a couple of hours, and I calmed him down and convinced him if he wanted to be heavyweight champion of the world, then he had to go to Rome and win the Olympics.”

Rome, the birth of a legend

The jewel of the American team was finally on board, but he was still not completely reassured. Clay even tried to get hold of statistics from the U.S. Air Force regarding the occurrences of crashes on flights between the USA and Rome. And when he arrived at the Louisville airport which, ironically enough, would eventually be renamed after his future Muslim surname in 2019, two and a half years following Ali’s death, Clay took a parachute with him. His friends tried to explain to him that, in the event of a crash, this would not be of any help, but their words fell on deaf ears.
As with many episodes of his existence, there are different accounts surrounding his behaviour during that flight. All of them evoke a restless and stressful passenger. Some say that he spent the flight screaming and praying. Others claim that he wandered the cabin, speaking to all the Olympians on board and predicting which ones would bring home a gold medal. (It goes without saying that he included himself on this select list.) The truth is probably somewhere in between. But it doesn’t really matter. With Clay as with Ali, the legend is sometimes more beautiful than the reality. And everyone will accept it as the truth, in any case.
The kid from Louisville would have made a massive blunder not going to Rome – one that he could have rued. For in the ring, his technique and speed worked wonders. He was on fire from the outset. First of all, the American outclassed the Belgian Yann Becaus, then the 1956 Olympic middleweight champion, Gennady Shatkov, and, also on points, the Australian Tony Madigan.
One boxer stood between him and gold: a certain Zbigniew Pietrzykowski. Not only did he need to beat him, but he had to do it convincingly. Because just before the final, another American-Polish duel for gold had taken place, which Eddie Crook had won on points against Tadeusz Walasek, but amid a certain amount of controversy.
The spectators at the Palais des Sports clearly thought it was a scandal. “Getting into the ring, I knew that I had to win without leaving any room for doubt,” Clay would later say.
Twenty-six years old, with more than 230 amateur fights to his name, Pietrzykowski was much more experienced than Clay. The young challenger, disturbed by the style of his opponent, struggled to find his range early on. He began to find his feet in the last moments of the second round, even if at the end of it, he still trailed his opponent on points. But lightning would soon strike. If Pietrzykowski wanted war, it was war that he was going to get.
“The true statesman is the one who is willing to take risks,” Charles De Gaulle famously said. This often also applies to boxing.
In the last round, Clay went on a rampage. A storm swept away the unfortunate Pole who, to his great credit, was still standing despite the battering which rained down on him. By unanimous decision, Cassius Clay was crowned Olympic light heavyweight champion. The birth certificate had been drawn up for a champion whose face and name (both the current one, and the next) the whole world would soon know.

Mayor of the Olympic village

In Rome, the Louisville tornado was like a fish to water. Especially in the Olympic village, which he made the most of – both before and after his title. If the selfie existed back then, Clay would have had his picture taken with everyone. His gregarious personality made him one of the darlings of the Games, popular with athletes from all continents, who dubbed him “The Mayor of the Village”.
“Cassius was easily one of the most popular athletes in the Villaggio Olimpico last summer,” Dave Kindred wrote in the New York Times in 1961. “He was winning friends and influencing people everywhere. If he craves publicity, he also attracts it with the inexorability of a magnet drawing steel filings.”
Kindred is arguably the journalist who has written the most about Clay and Ali. In his book, Sound and Fury, which evokes the link between Ali and the journalist Howard Cosell in the 1970s, he recounts an anecdote from the Games in Rome that says a lot about his desire for recognition:
In one photo of the 1960 U.S. Olympic boxing team, Clay, who was in the back, tilted his head. He’s at the end of the line, but he’s making sure he’s seen, leaning out to make sure his face gets in the picture. He wants to be famous, however you did that.
Behind this façade hid the invisible foundations of the young champion, and those of a complete workaholic. Since the age of 15, Clay subjected himself to a spartan training regime, closer to a seasoned professional than to that of an amateur, much less of a teenager. Clay would get up at 4 a.m. and, even in -10 degrees, would go running in the streets of Louisville while the rest of the city was asleep or barely waking up.
John Powell worked at this time in an off licence. Always the first to arrive, before the store opened, to receive deliveries, Powell got used to seeing Clay pounding the pavement early in the morning, whatever the weather. He later told Sports Illustrated:
“I could see his shadow coming around the corner from Grand Avenue. Clay was on his way to Chickasaw Park. Cold, dark winter mornings. You could see that shadow coming. He’d be the onliest person in the early morning. And I’d walk outside, and he’d stop and shadowbox. He once said to me: ‘Someday you’ll own this liquor store and I’ll be heavyweight champion of the world.’ Both of those came true, too.”

Clay’s crush on Wilma Rudolph

The end of the summer of 1960 marked his first springboard towards global notoriety. Both in and out of the ring, as Kindred recalls:
The Games made him an instant celebrity. He was a beautiful man. He was loud, he was funny, and he had a great achievement winning the gold medal at 18 years old.
At the time, however, he was still just a kid from Kentucky and the powerful American delegation teemed with names more famous than his. At least, for a while. One of these was the sprinter Wilma Rudolph, with whom Clay became extremely close.
Rudolph was queen of the Rome Games with her golden treble in the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m on the track of the Stadio Olimpico. She and Clay got to know each other well during their golden fortnight in the Italian capital. In fact, it was perhaps only the intense timidity of the young Clay – which he so often hid behind his patter – that stopped their relationship from going any further.
In an article in Sports Illustrated in 1992 celebrating Ali’s 50th birthday, the magazine looked back at this intense platonic friendship: “The two athletes had become friends in the days they spent together in Rome. Clay was sweet on Rudolph, but he was too shy to tell her how he felt. His diffidence with girls was painful. He had fainted dead away the first time he kissed one, two years earlier, and it took a cold washcloth to bring him to. So he concealed his shyness in bravura.”
“His peers loved him,” Wilma Rudolph recalled in the same article. “Everybody wanted to see him. Everybody wanted to be near him. Everybody wanted to talk to him. And he talked all the time. I always hung in the background, not knowing what he was going to say.”
After their separate triumphs, the two Olympic champions spent more time together – in New York and at Louisville, where Wilma paid him visits, not knowing how to react when Clay, from his car, would harangue passers-by with loud cries of:
Look! Here she is, down here! It’s Wilma Rudolph. She is the greatest! And I’m Cassius Clay. I am the greatest!
“I saw him at the very beginning,” says Rudolph. “It was bedlam. I always told him, ‘You should be on stage.’” Then again, perhaps he already was. For throughout his boxing career, Ali would put on a show and sell out the box office.

Clay, American and proud of it

But in 1960, it was no act. Clay did not miss any opportunity to shout from the rooftops that he was Olympic champion. He was proud of himself but also of his country. “I can still see him strutting around the village with his gold medal on,” recalled Rudolph. “He slept with it. He went to the cafeteria with it. He never took it off. No one else cherished it the way he did.”
The man himself confirmed as much: “I didn’t take that medal off for 48 hours. I even wore it to bed. I didn’t sleep too good because for the first time I had to sleep on my back so that the medal wouldn’t cut me. But I didn’t care, I was Olympic champion.”
During the Olympic champions parade in New York, Clay could be seen in Times Square with the medal still around his neck. On his return to Louisville, he was welcomed as an all-American hero. The American flag hung on the porch of his house and his father, who had painted the front steps in red, white and blue, greeted him with a rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. A ceremony was organised by the Louisville town hall, then another by the governor of Kentucky to celebrate the local hero.
It was Cassius Clay, the child of America, who covered himself with gold in Rome. If anyone said ill of his country, he would be the first to defend it. For example, in Italy, during a press conference after his victorious final, a Soviet journalist provoked him with a question about segregation in the United States: “As a Black man, how do you feel about the fact that you will not be allowed to eat at certain restaurants back home?”
Both aware of the trap and annoyed that someone would attack “his” country, Clay replied as quickly and loudly as in the ring: “You’re Russian? Well, we got qualified men working on that problem. We got the biggest and the prettiest cars. We got all the food we can eat. America is the greatest country in the world, greater than yours, and as far as places I can’t eat goes, I got lots of places I can eat, more places I can than I can’t.”
The same man who uttered these words would, seven years later, divide public opinion and the American media by refusing to join the army and go to Vietnam. But by that point, Clay would have become Ali. The break between the proud patriot Clay and his idealism, even his naivety, would be quickly realised. On his return from Rome, he was given a royal welcome, but he remained a Black man in a southern state where segregation was not only a law, but a way of life.
Clay may have been an Olympic champion, but he was, above all, Black.

The honeymoon ends, illusions are shattered

On October 29, 1960 Clay disputed and won his first professional fight, against Tunney Hunsaker. It was the start of a long march towards the heavyweight belt. Coming down to earth from his Olympic high, and still a long way from being king of the world, Clay understood quickly that the party was over. He hoped that his status as Olympic champion would give him respect and the rights that he did not have. He was wrong. No one cared about his medal – especially in white-only establishments.
Flanked by his friend Ronnie King, Clay had entered a restaurant banned for Black people. They sat down and ordered a couple of hamburgers and vanilla milkshakes. The embarrassed waitress meekly told them that she was not allowed to serve them. “Miss, I am Cassius Clay, the Olympic champion,” he said, showing her the medal that he carried everywhere with him.
She went to see her boss but he was unequivocal: “I don’t give a damn who he is. I told you, we don’t serve n****** here.”
“That’s okay – I don’t eat them,” Clay reportedly replied after hearing the man’s comment. But it was a watershed moment for the young champion, who now saw the light: “My Olympic honeymoon was over. Whatever illusions I’d built up in Rome as the All American Boy were gone.”
Annoyed by Clay’s petulant reply, a gang of white bikers came to kick out the two intruders. Once outside, two of these bikers continued to attack them in what became a violent confrontation. They had picked the wrong person to fight. Later, Clay and King met by the river to wash their bloody clothes. Then, standing on Jefferson Bridge, Clay removed the medal from round his neck and threw it into the Ohio.
He would later write:
For the first time, I saw it as it was. Ordinary, just an object. I threw it. The medal was gone but I felt calmly relaxed, and felt very confident. My Roman holidays was over. I felt a new, secret strength.
The medal sunk deep to the bed of the Ohio, this moment serving as a breaking point in the existence of both the man and the champion. If he would not give up his “slave name” until 1964, this is where Cassius Clay, in spirit, began to give way to Muhammad Ali.
This anything but anecdotal anecdote – of his beloved medal tossed in the river to free himself from an America celebrating the actions of a champion but refusing to recognise his rights as a human – is both strong and symbolic. But is it true? Ali made no mention of the episode until 1976, in his autobiography. The fact that he had never mentioned it during the previous 15 years invited a fair degree of scepticism as to its veracity. Was it, they asked, a means to rewrite history retrospectively, to add yet more legend to the legend?

‘I think he simply lost it’

Sixty years later, we’re still none the wiser regarding the truth behind Ali’s lost medal. In 2016, in a Sports Detective documentary released, by a strange coincidence, the day after the death of Muhammad Ali, the former FBI agent Kevin Barrows and the journalist Lauren Gardner set out in search of the truth.
The testimony of Victor Bender, a childhood friend of the boxer, is featured. Clay never told him whether the story of the medal thrown into the Ohio was true or not, but he has his convictions: “I think that he simply lost it.” It’s a theory echoed in several biographies of Ali, including one of the most famous by Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.
While conducting the investigation at Louisville, the authors of the documentary discovered just how much the gold medal of the local celebrity remains a subject of debate. “It’s a town divided over the story, so it’s not that it’s just one of those urban legends people shrug about,” Barrows explained at the time of the airing. “They feel very strongly about it, and they’re very split depending on who you are. It touches on a lot of the history and the deeply held feelings and divisions in his hometown.”
The only thing that is certain is that, whether discarded or lost, the gold medal never resurfaced. But another would appear…

Ali and the Dream Team

Fast forward to Atlanta, August 4, 1996. The Games of the XXVI Olympiad were drawing to a close. The final of the basketball tournament, one of the last major events of the fortnight, saw the United States take on Yugoslavia. As half-time, cheers rippled through the Georgia Dome when the caller announced the arrival of a surprise guest: Muhammad Ali.
The International Olympic Committee had taken the opportunity to organise a unique ceremony of its kind. Its president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, personally presented the Olympic light heavyweight champion of 1960 with a replica of his long-lost gold medal and wrapped it around his neck.
Ali seemed nervous, which made the scene all the more touching. At 54 years of age, his arms were shaking compulsively, the most visible and frightening effect of the Parkinson’s disease which had taken over his body – officially for the past 12 years, but most likely for much longer. His emotion was palpable. His step was uncertain. The illness that was eating away had aged him considerably, but his face was still lit up by that famous half-smile, giving him a fresh and childlike aspect, like an echo of the faraway Roman hero.
When Ali took the medal in his hand and brought it to his lips to kiss, the arena erupted. Even in the press gallery, a few tears flowed. The emotion of the moment pushed aside any doubts. Whether the original lay at the bottom of the Ohio or somewhere else – none of it mattered any more.
The members of the Dream Team 2.0 – Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson et al – came up to hug Ali before having their pictures taken with him. Then it was the turn of the Yugoslavs, most notable the centre Vlade Divac, for whom the former heavyweight champion was his idol. If the ceremony bore witness to one thing, it was the transcendent strength of Muhammad Ali, a figure of universal stature who broke the boundaries of his sport and his country.

Atlanta, the Ali surprise

The 1996 Games ended as they started: with Ali. He managed to prop up the Atlanta Olympics in a way that no one else could possibly have done, giving the Georgian Games a historical anchor that it perhaps lacked. For the choice of Atlanta for the centenary edition of the modern Olympics had been a controversial one. Rather than Athens, where it all started, the IOC opted for the Georgian metropolis, the headquarters of both CNN and Coca-Cola.
Instead of harking back to history, the Atlanta Olympics were tagged “The Money Games” by some, who argued that the Olympic movement had sold out to a global soft-drinks juggernaut.
To soften this criticism, Atlanta wanted to make a big impression during its opening ceremony. As is so often the case, the greatest mystery lay in the identity of who would set the Olympic cauldron ablaze. Names were suggested, rumours circulated. Very few mentioned Ali, who was said to be too ill, and whose public appearances had become rare. The most obvious choice was that of another boxer – he, too, a world heavyweight champion, a former Olympic medallist and child of Atlanta, where he grew up.
On July 19, 1996 Evander Holyfield was indeed present at the Olympic stadium. Al Oerter, the four-time Olympic discus thrower, entered the enclosure, flame in hand, before passing it on to Holyfield. Then came Voula Patoulidou, the Greek runner, and finally Janet Evans. The great American swimmer was the penultimate torchbearer, carrying the flame up to the platform below the gigantic basin. She was one of only a handful of people on the planet who knew to whom she was going to pass the torch. As Evans recounted in 2015, she herself had been told only 24 hours earlier:
“And at midnight, the night before Opening Ceremonies, I went to the Atlanta stadium, and I practiced running the torch. The only thing was the person that was lighting that cauldron wasn’t there. I asked why and they told me it was going to be Muhammad Ali, and when they told me that I had to keep it secret, because let me tell you I wanted to tell everyone, I was more nervous than ever. How do you pass the Olympic flame to the greatest, right? I was out of my mind.”

The most famous image of all opening ceremonies

So it was there, on that platform, that Muhammad Ali emerged, all dressed in white, his entire body trembling. Everyone who witnessed this scene, whether in the stadium or in front of their TV across the world, held their breath, wiped an eye, and urged the former lord of the rings to keep hold of the torch firmly enough to complete the job in hand. He may have been frail, but we should never have doubted Ali.
This image is probably the most famous in the history of Olympic opening ceremonies. Atlanta, much maligned and under the spotlight, managed to pull off this feat. Or rather, the icon Ali made it possible. Who else? He was no longer this controversial and divisive character, rejected by a section of his own society. He had become a unifying emblem. Even reduced to a shadow of his former self, the paradoxical Ali had managed to cock a snook at the establishment.
“Putting him on that platform was a stroke of genius that transformed a very nice ceremony into a celebration, a block party,” the journalist George Vecsey wrote in the New York Times. “I was sitting with a Black male colleague and a white female colleague, and when we saw Ali shining on that platform, we exchanged high-fives at the audacious perfection of it. Ali was at the Games. Ali was on the hill. Raise the flame. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, all of us.”
If the life of Muhammad Ali is worthy of a novel, his Olympic history alone, from the sacred fire of Rome to the flame of Atlanta, captures its essence entirely. It was the Games that revealed to the world in 1960 a kid barely out of his teens. The Games, again, which globally endorsed his immense popularity 46 years later. In 1999, Ali was named “Sportsman of the 20th Century” by both the BBC and Sports Illustrated. His athletic accomplishments and the scale of his personality justified this choice, but the image of the Atlanta ceremony, still fresh in the minds of everyone, no doubt helped, too.
As an ultimate symbol, it was during another Olympic ceremony, in 2012, in London, that Muhammad Ali would appear for the very last time in public. It was very unlike Ali to say farewell without shouting his name from the rooftops, but the loop of his life cycle was complete.
Translated by Felix Lowe
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