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Shining star Ali lights up the world

Muhammad Ali Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Perhaps the most celebrated of all the athletes who featured at Atlanta 1996 was one who did nothing more exhausting than walk into a stadium and light a flame. And yet when boxing legend Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron, the sporting world seemed to come to a halt.

Hardly anybody knew that Ali was to be honoured in this way. Having won gold at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, the American heavyweight had gone on to become one of the greatest and most acclaimed sportsmen of all time, not just for his prowess as a boxer but equally for his inimitable character, wit and intellect. He had won the world heavyweight title three times, but latterly Parkinson's Disease had begun to take its toll on his body. His popularity, though, remained undiminished.

At the Opening Ceremony, the Olympic torch was carried on its final lap of the stadium by the US swimmer Janet Evans. She ran up a long ramp and then paused as Ali emerged from the shadows. As the watching crowd realised what had happened, and began cheering their approval, Ali touched his torch against the final segment of flame that led to the cauldron itself.

It was a hugely emotional moment, with the crowd inside the stadium roaring their approval and chanting his name, while television audiences around the world sat glued to their screens.

There was another moment of high emotion to come. At the half-time interval during the basketball match between the USA and Yugoslavia, Ali was presented with a gold medal to replace the one he had lost following the 1960 Games. He was then embraced by the American players, instead of gearing themselves up for the second half, who stood applauding Ali and posing for photographs alongside him. The Yugoslav players then followed suit. It was a stirring testament to the enduring power and popularity of a truly remarkable athlete.

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