Over on his website, Mark Evanier posted a video of the famous torch-lighting ceremony at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, which he called his favorite Muhammad Ali moment. And it's hard to argue with that, the event is certainly as emotional and memorable you will find. The clip is is a featurette about how it all came to be that NBC put together about the occasion,
Take a look at it here and then come back because there are some other looks and more to the story...
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Understandably, all the attention is on Muhammad Ali, and it's only grown over the years. But at the time, there was more to the story.
The focus, of course, was on who would light the Olympic flame. At first, there was some thought that it could be Al Oerter, the remarkable discuss thrower who won a stunning four, individual Gold Medals, as he was the athlete who entered the stadium with the torch. But first usually doesn't mean last at the Opening Ceremony.
So, then it looked like it might be Evander Holyfield, the boxer, who took the torch and was then joined by a Greek athlete to run hand-in-hand, in what was a very touching, dramatic moment.
But that wasn't to be, because there was a surprise coming. And the surprise here was not Muhammad Ali. It was that hidden away among all the competing athletes was the very popular U.S. swimmer, Janet Evans (of whom I was and am a fan), who was there on the infield with all the other athletes because she was going to be racing later in the Games. And an unprecedented thing occurred -- always, the torch bears are either former Olympians or prominent figures. But Evans was actually competing in the games, and she was asked (in secret) to take the torch and run up to the cauldron. It was so much a secret that her fellow-swimmers didn't even know about it. She went to the Olympic Stadium with the other athletes, dressed in the team uniform. But as Holyfield started coming around the track...Evans because to remove her uniform and was dressed with her special running clothes for the occasion. Afterwards, she told about how her friends with her on the infield were shocked by what she was doing, having absolutely no idea why she was taking off her uniform. (She hadn't even told them.) And only then discovered that she was in her running gear and stepping out on the track to take the torch and head up the incline to the torch.
Left out of the NBC video above is that at that point, everyone assumed that Janet Evans would be the final athlete lighting the torch, as she finished the run around the track and headed up that incline to the roaring of the crowd. Even the announcers thought she'd be the final torch-bearer. Among them all, though, only Evans and a few select officials knew that there was someone else, a second surprise, the big surprise -- that she would be handing it off to Muhammad Ali. Also, one other thing Janet Evans said later -- the include up to the flame was seriously pronounced, and she was a swimmer, not a runner, and she said she was terrified that she wouldn't be able to make it up, and might fall down. Happily, she made it.
There are two things wonderful about this video below. The first is that starting at the 3:36 mark, you can see how utterly overjoyed Janet Evans is, handing off the torch to Ali and being there with her. No disappointment of a multi-Gold Medal world renown athlete getting to the top yet not being the final flame lighter, but just pure, excited joy.
And the second terrific thing about including this video is that this tells the story from another perspective. It's from British TV, and they're as moved and emotional about is as America was. (You'll note that one commenter talks about how there had been no rehearsal, so nobody knew how Ali would handle the moment. But as the NBC video makes clear, there had been a secret rehearsal in the very early morning.)
There's one other, short video. Another featurette on the behind-the-scenes perspective for the Muhammad Ali flame-lighting. What I like about this one, and why I'm including it, is another Janet Evans part of the story. As I mentioned above, she had said how her concern was that she wouldn't make it up the incline and might fall over. She might scoff at such modesty, but this video includes footage of her running up that incline -- and just watching it for only a few seconds is exhausting.
And then she makes it up and hands the torch over to Muhammad Ali. And...well, you know the rest. His wonderful, memorable moment
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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