Crowds weep at Ali's courage

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The Independent Online
Weeping turned to anger here yesterday after Muhammad Ali, the former world heavyweight boxing champion, lit the Olympic flame with a trembling arm that sadly told the full story of his advanced stage of Parkinson's disease.

Tears streamed down the faces of many in the crowd after the American Olympic swimming champion Janet Evans finished her climb to the strangely ugly, Meccano-like structure that supported the crucible and faced Ali. There had been an expectant quiet as 80,000 people waited for the name of the final bearer to appear on the giant screens. When it was revealed as Ali, there was unreserved applause and cheering but quickly it became obvious that probably the greatest and certainly the most athletic heavyweight of all time was now almost incapable of holding the torch.

Cheers died as the arm that once stunned all of the finest boxers of his time and raised him from poverty to Olympic champion could now barely be lowered steadily enough to fire the igniting wick that swept the flame up to the cauldron high above the stadium.

The Atlanta Olympic Committee had planned it to be the final, exhilarating touch but, as the orchestra played Ode to Joy, gradually the feeling swelled that Ali had been dreadfully exploited. The intention, according to a spokesman for the committee, was "to pay tribute to one of America's greatest sporting heroes". He seemed unaware that, as the crowds drifted away from what was otherwise a comparatively tasteful and original ceremony, many were criticising the gesture while accepting that Ali himself had made a brave decision.

Andrew Young, a former mayor of Atlanta and United Nations ambassador, defended the decision, saying: "There were a lot of meetings to discuss all of the different themes for the ceremony and who should take part. It was considered appropriate for Ali to light the flame and he was pleased to agree."

President Bill Clinton, who had opened the Games, remarked of Ali: "He was great, wasn't he?" The word "was" was unintentionally poignant. Ordinary spectators like the Atlantan Thomas Crocker still had tears in his eyes an hour later and said: "I cheered him when he won those titles. I wanted to cheer him tonight but they should have left us with our memories."

A few appearances by Ali on British television had revealed the extent of his illness, which supporters of boxing and some medical experts say is unrelated to his career. As it is, the campaign to ban boxing, especially at the Olympic Games, has been given strong support by this melancholy ending to a night when Atlanta at last managed to get something right.

In all the preceding days nothing worked on time, or at all, least of all the transport system. But in the Olympic stadium the simplicity of involving the crowd by giving them all torches, and the constant theme of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream", managed to remain tasteful and enormously colourful before the athletes' parade of 197 nations.

With Mr Clinton here only two days after the TWA air crash, security was paramount, but in several areas around the stadium a total lack of informed officials led to angry scenes as the crowds were left wandering aimlessly in search of transport.

There was only one serious scare during the opening ceremony, when minutes before Mr Clinton was due to declare the Games open a helicopter flew close to the stadium. The pilot was later accused by police of violating air space restrictions.

Surprisingly in view of the heat and humidity, only one competitor, a Pole, collapsed, but Steve Redgrave, who carried the British flag for the second successive Games, said: "It was stifling - we thought we were fully acclimatised but it was really uncomfortable in the stadium." Several teams were delayed on their journey from the village and had to run from the coaches up flights of steps before appearing at the top of the ramp, causing large gaps in the procession.

Other athletes commented that they found the crowd's reaction to their arrival less than inspiring. Having been entertained by lavish carnival, Gladys Knight and even chromium pick-up trucks, the crowds soon became bored with the hour-long procession. One young spectator remarked afterwards: "It would have been great if there hadn't been so many athletes."