Muhammad Ali: Watch 'The Greatest' Light the 1996 Olympic Torch

Ali lighting the Olympic torch 1996 H 2016
ScreenShot/Team USA/YouTube

Former NBC exec Dick Ebersol and Olympians recall how the famous moment from the Atlanta Games came to be.

Muhammad Ali's surprise appearance to light the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta has since become one of the most iconic moments in sports history. 

No one, including Olympians at the event, knew who was going to light the torch until Ali appeared at the opening ceremony. The legendary boxer, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1984 and died Friday at 74, took the flame from Olympian Janet Evans, surprising and inspiring his fans around the world. 

Former NBC Sports executive Dick Ebersol recalled the events leading up to his appearance in SportsBusiness Daily, remembering that he wanted Ali to light the flame over the first choice, Evander Holyfield

"It should be Muhammad Ali," he remembers saying in a meeting. "Muhammad Ali may be, outside of perhaps the Pope, the most beloved figure in the world. In the third world, he’s a hero. In the Muslim world, he’s a hero and a fellow traveler. To anybody young — just about — in the United States, he’s a man of great moral principle who was willing to go to prison."

Ebersol spent months on his campaign to get Ali to the Atlanta Games, until he encountered a problem. The organizers of the event built a tower that Ali would have to walk up to get to the cauldron with the torch, but because of the former heavyweight champion's affliction, Ebersol wasn't sure he could physically do it. They decided to light a fuse that could be carried up the tower instead, which took longer, but it didn't matter, because according to Ebersol, "Most people don’t remember it, because after that, all you saw was an edited version of this that I would show during the rest of the Olympics."

“When Ali appeared," said Ebersol, "it was the greatest collective gasp any of us had ever heard. As I always did, I never told [announcers] Bob Costas and Dick Enberg that it was going to be Ali. What came out of them was sheer awe.”

Team USA also recalled the event in the video below, with athletes remembering that they had no idea who would light the torch even as they stood in the stadium. 

Watch the full video below.