Did you love what Muhammad Ali stood for or did you loathe him? Did you smile as he floated like a butterfly inside the ring and produced one-liners like a modern-day Shakespeare outside it? Or were you disappointed in him for refusing to serve in the U.S. Army?
Whichever camp you stood in ceased to matter July 19, 1996.
There, inside the Olympic stadium in Atlanta, swimmer Janet Evans was making her way around the track and toward a ramp leading to the base of the Olympic Cauldron. For weeks leading up to the Atlanta Games, speculation as to who would light the cauldron had run rampant. That four years earlier Barcelona had pulled off a most creative lighting – archer Antonio Rebollo launching a fiery arrow toward the cauldron – only added to the drama.
How could Atlanta top that?
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The answer came as Evans made her way to the top of the ramp. Out of a shadow stepped Ali. With his left arm trembling from the effects of Parkinson's disease, Ali took the flame from Evans and raised it high toward the crowd with his right hand.
"Oh my!" NBC's Dick Enberg exclaimed with his signature phrase.
Once the most recognizable man in the world but by then a shell of his former self, Ali stood there as a testament to the journey of life. We came to know him because of athletics, editorialized about him because of politics and eventually grieved for him because of illness.
On that night, when a momentary chant broke out – Ali! Ali! Ali! – and the goose bumps started to pop, there was no denying it. There stood "The Greatest."
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