Muhammad Ali electrifies Olympic audience with one wave of his hand
A HAND lifted to acknowledge the adulation of a London crowd was Muhammad Ali’s only physical contribution, but his presence at an award ceremony electrified the Olympics for all in the room.
Ali’s role at the opening ceremony has yet to be confirmed but David Beckham, his co-presenter at the awards, will be compensated for his shock omission from the Team GB football squad. Sebastian Coe, a Beckham loyalist, expressed surprise when Stuart Pearce, the GB coach, ignored the former England captain and appears to be behind the move to offer him a part in Friday’s extravagant cabaret.
“It is some kind of role in the opening ceremony which I am honoured to be involved in, because I was involved in the start process with this seven years ago,” Beckham said. “And for Seb to have kept me involved, I’m very proud of that.”
The greatest athlete of all time is in town: more unstable on his legs than ever, and almost without facial expression, but still able to bring a special lustre to the Games, 52 years after he won a boxing gold at the Rome Olympics.
Ali was joined by Beckham to present a sport in the community award to Matiullah Haidar, 19, who went to Britain four years ago after losing his whole family on a single day in the Afghanistan conflict.
Ali, 70, was accompanied by his wife, Lonnie, who extolled the virtues of the Muhammad Ali Foundation, which inspires young people to help their communities. Her illustrious husband is scheduled to make a series of fund-raising appearances this week and will meet members of the US Olympic team.
Immense physical effort is required for Ali to shuffle back into the light. But Lonnie Ali insists that he wants to go on using his fame to assist social change. His slogan is: “The greatest is yet to come” — an appeal to disadvantaged youngsters to escape unpromising starts in life.
If he is to contribute to Friday’s opening ceremony at Stratford his role will not be extensive. On this evidence he would not be capable of lighting the cauldron for a second time without an assistant. In Atlanta in 1996 he performed the final act with considerable difficulty. Could Beckham be his flame man? Modern stagecraft knows no bounds.
Ali turned his head to hear Haidar speak but mostly stared straight ahead. The raised hand offered the only hint of his old athletic greatness.
Beckham chaperoned Ali skilfully and confirmed later that he would be involved in Friday’s curtain-raising show. He told the awards audience in central London: “He [Ali] stood for so many amazing things throughout his life, whether it’s what he did in the ring or outside of the ring. His life and his career was all about survival and he is an amazing man.
“I’ll be going back and forward but I’ll definitely be trying to get to a few events,” he added. “I was at the stadium yesterday and the park and you can feel the kind of atmosphere building, the excitement building. I was brought up around this side of London and, you know, to actually see the changes that have happened and the excitement that’s going on is a proud moment.
“I’ll always have ambitions in football as long as I am playing,” said Beckham, who still clings to his sporting career.
“I might be 37 years old but I still want to continue to win championships, I still want to continue to be the best that I can be and continue to represent my country in any way, shape or form.”
But even Beckham’s notoriety cannot compete with that of Ali, who has Parkinson’s disease and was admitted to hospital late last year after a fall at his home.
In the last year he has passed 70 and attended the funeral of Joe Frazier. At the end of last night’s award ceremony he fiddled with one of his rings and had to be persuaded by a family member not to fret.
Ali fought Henry Cooper twice in London in the 1960s and has outlasted his old adversary, despite the severity of his illness. We all left the room shaky, but invigorated.