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U.S. Olympic Committee Announces Inaugural Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award To Be Posthumously Bestowed To Muhammad Ali At 2016 Team USA Awards

By United States Olympic Committee | Sept. 20, 2016, 5:22 p.m. (ET)

The inaugural Jesse Owens Spirit Award will be posthumously bestowed to Olympic champion Muhammad Ali, who passed away on June 3, and accepted by his wife, Lonnie Ali.

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. – The United States Olympic Committee today announced that the inaugural Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award will be presented to its first honoree at the 2016 Team USA Awards presented by Dow, Best of the Games, taking place Sept. 28 at Georgetown University. The annual award will recognize an individual(s) who has served as a powerful force for good in society, inspiring others by contributing to a better world, uniting people or leading a cause. In 2016, the award will be posthumously bestowed to Olympic champion Muhammad Ali, who passed away on June 3, and accepted by his wife, Lonnie Ali. 

“Our father believed in the power of the Olympic spirit, and felt that its capacity to spread goodness throughout the world has no boundaries,” said Marlene Owens-Rankin, one of Owens’ three daughters. “We are honored that the USOC has created this new award in his name to recognize individuals for the positive impact they make on society. We greatly appreciate the USOC for recognizing our father with the initiation of this award.” 

The Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award was created in collaboration with the Owens family on the 80th anniversary of Owens’ record-breaking performances at the 1936 Olympic Games. In Berlin, Owens was considered the most successful athlete at the Games, winning four gold medals and setting three world records. He is credited with defeating Adolf Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy by showcasing what makes a true champion: excellence and character. 

The award looks to celebrate Owens’ spirit and legacy, and to recognize their presence in others. Throughout his life, he used the power of sport to inspire youth and change the world. He broke down race barriers on a global stage. He worked with underprivileged children in playgrounds and classrooms throughout the country and overseas. He served as a board member and former director of the Chicago Boys’ Club, as America’s Ambassador of Sports for the U.S. State Department, and as a U.S. Goodwill Ambassador. His passion for serving his community was resounding, and his legacy continues through all of those he inspired. Owens passed away in 1980 at age 66, but his impact is still evident around the world.

“Jesse Owens is one of the greatest Olympians of all time, not just for his remarkable athletic accomplishments, but for the impact he had on shaping a better world,” said USOC CEO Scott Blackmun. “We believe this award is a fitting way to both honor his legacy and to recognize the inspirational acts of individuals who also endeavor to make a difference in society, just as the Olympic Movement aims to contribute to a better world through sport. 

“As a champion both in the ring and for the rights of people all over the world, Muhammad Ali’s legacy has transcended generations. We honor him with this award to celebrate his life’s work and his commitment to achieving equality and establishing peace for a better future – a reflection of the Olympic spirit that Jesse Owens ignited in 1936. We hope this award will showcase and celebrate that Olympic spirit throughout time and in all corners of society.” 

In its inaugural year, Owens’ granddaughter Marlene Dortch will present the award. It will be posthumously bestowed to Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all-time and an inspiration to millions. Ali won the Olympic light heavyweight title at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games, and claimed three world heavyweight championships, in 1964, 1974 and 1978. 

While known widely for his dominance in the ring, Ali is also remembered as a humanitarian, advocate and visionary. Despite being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Ali dedicated his life after boxing to those in need, people living in poverty, fighting for racial and religious equality, and world peace. Ali spent time volunteering in soup kitchens and hospitals, and made goodwill diplomatic missions, delivering medical supplies and food to other nations. In recognition of his commitment to global peace, Ali was designated a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 1998.

In addition to his influence abroad, Ali was also a strong supporter of the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and is remembered as an advocate and inspiration for people with Parkinson’s Disease. As part of his fight against Parkinson’s, Ali joined others to establish a Parkinson’s research center in 1997 – The Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center – located in Phoenix. The center serves as a resource to patients and their families. 

In 2005, Ali and his wife opened the Muhammad Ali Center, whose mission is in part “to promote respect, hope and understanding, and to inspire adults and children everywhere to be as great as they can be.” And in 2007, Ali joined Andre Agassi, Mia Hamm, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and others in cofounding Athletes for Hope, an organization designed to bring athletes together to build a better world through sport. Ali’s commitment to helping others, and to promoting goodwill and peace, is truly the Olympic spirit in motion. His altruism, compassion and legacy embody the essence of the Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award. Ali passed away on June 3, 2016, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. 

“Muhammad believed with his whole heart in service to others and in advocating for those in need, and he was always proud of how the Olympic Movement could ignite that flame and unite the world in so many ways,” Lonnie Ali said. “I am honored to accept the Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award on his behalf, and to encourage young people everywhere to harness that spirit and compassion to make their own impact on the world and to leave it a better place for future generations.”

Lonnie Ali, born Yolanda Williams, married Ali in 1986 after a 20-year friendship. In their 30 years of marriage, Lonnie became Ali’s caregiver, the keeper of his legacy, the manager of his businesses and charities, and his greatest advocate. She has a psychology degree from Vanderbilt University and an MBA from UCLA. Muhammad Ali has nine children – seven girls and two boys – and 11 grandchildren. 

The Team USA Awards will take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at Georgetown University’s McDonough Arena in Washington, D.C. More than 600 members of the 2016 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams are expected to attend the ceremony, which will honor the awe-inspiring, outstanding U.S. performances from the Rio 2016 Games, and will air Oct. 4 on NBCSN from 10-11 p.m. ET. 

In addition to presenting sponsor Dow, six USOC sponsors – Coca-Cola, DICK’S Sporting Goods, Kellogg’s, The Hartford, Samsung and USG – are associate sponsors of the Team USA Awards, Best of the Games event.