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A THORNY ISSUE: Symbol of black pride

ANDI THORNHILL, [email protected]

A THORNY ISSUE: Symbol of black pride

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WHEN I ATTENDED the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the defining moment for me was seeing Muhammad Ali light the Olympic Torch.

There were other stellar moments like Canadian Donovan Bailey setting the then 100 metres world record in 9.84 seconds and American Michael Johnson establishing a new standard in the 200 metres of 19.32 seconds. Usain Bolt has since lowered that to 19.19 seconds. I witnessed Carl Lewis win the long jump with his penultimate leap.

There was also our own Obadele Thompson placing fourth in the 200 metres and reaching the semi-finals of the 100 metres after recovering from injury. Not forgetting, either, that swimmer Leah Martindale had reached the 50 metre freestyle final and had a commendable fourth place, being the first black woman to compete in an Olympic swimming final.

However, it was Ali who got my nod because with Parkinson’s disease well entrenched he was able to conquer another mountain to the applause from a full house.

That was the measure of the man in and out of the ring. I first handed “The Greatest” his stripes in 1967 when he defied the American system by refusing to be drafted for the war in Vietnam on religious grounds.

He was banned from boxing and also had to deal with a long battle to stay out of jail. The sanctions didn’t weaken his stance nor his resolve and he was destined to be out of boxing for four years.

Tremendous sacrifice

It was a tremendous sacrifice considering that he was at the peak of his powers but he thought that the principle counted for a whole lot more.

It is not often that sportsmen identify openly with political and social causes, probably for fear of victimisation, so to see one man standing up to the system with such defiance and with so much to lose, left me in awe and a big Ali fan ever since.

Not only that. In the context of the fight for civil rights, Ali was also carrying the burden of being black and he stood manfully in sticking to his position.

It is possible that his courage inspired others of his complexion to reject the draft as well and I won’t be surprised if his actions motivated fellow American athletes John Carlos and Tommy Smith to give the Black Power salute while on the podium at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, a year after the former three-time heavyweight champion did what stopped him from boxing and effectively from working.

Honestly, it is that side of Ali I admired most although he had a glittering career in the ring also.

Like most people of my vintage, it was the boxing that first caused us to be drawn to the man who earned the nickname “The Louisville Lip” because of his outspokenness and use of wit against his opponents. No other boxer has been able to market fights better than Ali. He brought a new dimension to luring fans by their thousands into the arena.

Many knowledgeable pundits credit him with pioneering the advent of big purses for boxers. His charisma was irresistible and contagious. He turned trash talk into millions of dollars for himself and others.

Whipped Liston

I remember listening to his first championship fight against the much feared Sonny Liston on Armed Forces Radio via Redifusion back in 1964 as a kid.

He went in as the clear underdog but he proceeded to whip Liston like none had done before. Surely, he was showing to the world even then that he was a man with a strong character and great resilience. These qualities were in full bloom with the draft controversy.

Ali was again the underdog against George Foreman for “The Rumble In The Jungle” in Zaire (now Democratic Republic Of Congo) in 1974, but he defied the odds once more to regain the title. Just saying there was a pattern that had emerged in respect of his mindset. It was like in the words of Jimmy Cliff “the harder they come, the harder they fall”.

My favourite fight up to now is “The Thriller In Manila”, which Ali won after 14 brutal rounds against his nemesis Smokin’ Joe Frazier. That bout tested the willpower of both boxers and in the end Ali showed what it takes to be the last man standing.

In death, he will continue to inspire because in life he proved that he was determined to defend what was just through his own actions and when health issues arose he battled them with all his might.

You can’t blame people who want to be like him when they grow up.

• Andi Thornhill is a veteran sports journalist.