When Ali held court at Atlanta


The history of the Olympics is filled with glorious chapters chronicling the dazzling performances of athletes. From Jim Thorpe to Michael Phelps, scores of stars have pushed the boundaries of excellence. There can be no doubt that the bedrock of the Games is the endeavour of athletes.

At the same time, the Olympics has also provided some unforgettable moments away from the field of competition. The lighting of the cauldron is such an evocative ritual that it has become central to the opening ceremony.

The burning fire is a metaphor for the vibrancy and purity of the Games. Nothing excites fans more on the opening day than knowing the identity of the final torchbearer and the mode of lighting the cauldron.

The sight of a trembling Muhammad Ali igniting the cauldron at Atlanta was one of the iconic images of the 1996 Games, if not in the entire Olympic history.

Here is a chronological account of memorable final acts in the opening ceremonies.

Helsinki 1952: Finnish long distance legends Hannes Kolehmainen and Paavo Nurmi lit the cauldron. The honour was particularly important to Nurmi because he was banned from taking part at the 1932 Olympics for a breach of amateur rules.

Kolehmainen laid the foundation for Finland’s domination in long-distance running by winning three gold medals at the 1912 Olympics (5,000m, 10,000m and individual cross country).

Tokyo 1964: Yoshinori Sakai, born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese day, kindled the fire in the giant torch.

The ceremony evoked mixed memories of war and peace. By staging the Olympics, Japan put the devastation it had suffered in World War II behind it. Sakai symbolised the new, resurgent Japan.

Mexico City 1964: Norma Enriqueta Basilio de Sotelo became the first woman to light the cauldron.

Montreal 1976: An English girl, Sandra Henderson, and a French boy, Stephane Prefontaine, jointly ignited the flame to symbolise unity between the English and French speaking people of Canada. The story that Sandra and Stephane got married later on was a product of someone’s fertile imagination.

Barcelona 1992: The spectacular opening ceremony of the Barcelona Games set the bar high. Special applause was reserved for the way the giant torch was lit. Did Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo fire a flaming arrow into the cauldron from more than 60 metres?

A lot of people thought he did. But in reality Rebollo’s arrow sailed a couple of meters above the cauldron as it flew outside the stadium.

An automatic device set off the fire in the cauldron exactly when Rebollo’s arrow reached the top of the torch.

Credit, however, must be given to the archer who had trained arduously to fire his arrow just above the cauldron. Rebollo showed great composure to pull it off.

Atlanta 1996: For once the man who lit the big torch took precedence over the method of lighting. Muhammad Ali’s mere presence illuminated the opening show in 1996.

His shaking hands, caused by Parkinson’s Disease, added poignancy to the occasion. The United States of America, which Ali had once derided at every forum, embraced its most famous sportsperson.

During the Atlanta Games the IOC gave the boxer-charmer a replacement for his 1960 Olympic gold medal that he had thrown into the Ohio River after being denied service at a whites-only restaurant.

Sydney 2000: Once again reconcilement was the theme. Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman seemed to walk on water before lighting the flame, which later transformed into a cauldron.

Ten days later Freeman clinched the 400m gold in a cathartic moment. She celebrated with both the Aboriginal and Australian flags in her hands.

Who will get the lighting honour at London?

Britain has a lot of worthy Olympic heroes. Double Olympic champion Sebastian Coe would be a fantastic choice but his position as chairman of the local organising committee is a stumbling block.

Coe’s choice is two-time Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson, but he says the decision isn’t in his hands. There is some speculation that Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile under four minutes, will get the honour.

But the smart money would be on five-time Olympic rowing champion Steven Redgrave. After winning a fourth successive Olympic gold at Atlanta in 1996, Redgrave announced that he was done with rowing.

“Anybody who sees me near a boat has my permission to shoot me,” he said. But nobody shot him when he nailed his fifth gold at Sydney four years later. Redgrave is a red-hot favourite. Bet on him.

Did you know?

The International Olympic Committee learned a bitter lesson at Seoul. During the opening ceremony, doves were released before the cauldron had been lit.

Quite a few doves stayed perched on the cauldron, unaware that it would soon be burning. When three torchbearers gave life to the cauldron the flame consumed many doves. From the next edition, the IOC ensured that the cauldron was lit before the doves were released.

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