The death of Muhammad Ali made me take a trip down memory lane. Some three decades ago, while we were being put through our paces as young middle distance runners at Delhi’s National Stadium, we were asked to cancel our daily training for a day. For most of us young athletes, even a single day off was unthinkable. Naturally, we were very upset. But soon, our disappointment turned into joy when we were told that it was because of the visit of Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion, to the stadium.
For me it was a double delight. Just a few days before that, I had picked up a copy of Ali’s autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story, from an old book vendor on a footpath in Old Delhi’s congested Daryaganj for 010. The third paragraph on page 69 of the 510-page book caught my attention. I read it several times to understand the plight of the greatest athlete of our times. Recalling the ill-treatment he suffered in the then racist America, Ali said, “What I remember the most about the summer of 1960 is not the hero welcome, the celebrations, the Police Chief, the Mayor, the Governor or even the ten Louisville millionaires, but that night when I stood on the Jefferson County Bridge and threw my Olympic Gold medal down to the bottom of the Ohio River.”
In my impressionable mind, an athlete throwing away his Olympic gold medal was the ultimate insult. I had developed a lot of respect for the man who could throw away his Olympic medal. Therefore, when news of Ali’s visit to the National Stadium was conveyed to us, I was overjoyed.
On the appointed day, we waited with bated breath as ‘The Greatest’ came up on the ring erected on an open-air stage, right in the middle of the National Stadium turf. As trainees, we were given the privilege of ringside seats.
India’s heavyweight champion Kaur Singh was fielded to face the world champion in an exhibition bout. I distinctly remember how Kaur Singh, otherwise a tall and strong Army boxer, looked like a dwarf in front of Ali. Even as our own national champion was in the ring, all of us were unanimous in cheering the world champion. During the entire bout, we kept chanting Ali, Ali.
Ali just used his right hand to block punches from Kaur Singh. With his left hand, he was waving at the crowd gathered to see him in action. In between, he was talking to kids gathered around the ring. It was showmanship for which Ali was well-known. In the late 1970s, security was not a pain, unlike today. On the insistence of a seven-year-old boy, we went up the stage and I poked fingers into Ali’s ribs to see whether he was bone and muscles or steel!
I saw him again during the opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. After an entertaining cultural extravaganza, it was time for the last man of the torch relay to light the Olympic flame in the giant cauldron. Sitting in the media room, I was speculating with my fellow journalists who the final runner would be. We discussed all sorts of names, from Carl Lewis to former American decathlon champion Rafer Johnson to swimming sensation Mark Spitz. But there was one name that none of us had thought of. And, when Ali’s head appeared in the spotlight, with him coming up on top of a hydraulic platform, we all yelled in excitement. But, at the same time, it was so painful to see his hands holding the torch trembling because of Parkinson’s disease. Everyone present, including President Bill Clinton, gave him a standing ovation.
It was a thrilling experience and all kinds of thoughts were coming to my mind. Besides reading about him in his autobiography and elsewhere, I felt connected to ‘The Champion’ through two of America’s greatest folk singers, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Both were admirers of the ‘The Greatest’ and were hugely influenced by his anti-Vietnam War movement. ‘Where have all the flowers gone’? by Baez kept haunting me as the news of Ali’s death flashed on television screens. The answer, my friend, is ‘blowin’ in the wind’, as Dylan would have said.
The writer is a senior sports journalist.