Participants stand at the men's light-heavyweight boxing medal ceremony at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games, with Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) winning gold.
Muhammad Ali could float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
But 18-year-old Cassius Clay did not want to fly like an eagle to the Olympic Games Rome 1960.
“He was afraid of flying,” said Jeanie Kahnke, Senior Director of Public Relations and External Affairs at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. “The irony, of course, is last year the airport was named after him.”
That much is indisputable. Other elements of Clay’s flight to Rome are the stuff of legend, just like the fate of the gold medal he would go on to win in the light heavyweight division.
The “fear of flying” story goes that after a particularly rough flight earlier in his amateur career, Clay - who changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964 - had to be convinced to board the plane to Rome. After all, Clay had taken a bus home from the Olympic trials in San Francisco rather than endure another plane ride.
His coach told him he could win a gold medal, but that wasn’t persuasive enough. In his 1975 autobiography, “The Greatest: My Own Story,” Ali said he consulted the Air Force about flights between Rome and the United States. “They said they couldn’t even remember the last time one had crashed,” Ali said.
While that was reassuring, according to some reports Clay bought a parachute at an Army supply store to wear on the plane.
“I’m glad no one told him that if the plane was crashing, the parachute may not have done him any good,” Kahnke said. “It’s so sweet, though.”
In the book “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World,” by David Maraniss, there is no mention of a parachute, but teammate Nikos Spanakos “remembered that he was screaming the entire flight,” and Clay talked incessantly to calm his fears.
He didn’t stop talking when he arrived at the Olympic Village. “In Rome, Clay did so much glad-handing that some athletes called him ‘The Mayor of the Olympic Village,’” wrote Dave Kindred in the book “Sound and Fury,” about Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell.
Kindred, a National Hall of Fame Sportswriter who figures no one has written more about Ali than he has in 50-plus years, said the 1960 Olympics made Clay “an instant celebrity. He was a beautiful man. He was loud, he was funny, and he had a great achievement winning the gold medal at 18 years old.”
Center Of Attention
In one photo of the 1960 U.S. Olympic boxing team, Clay, who was in the back, tilted his head.
“He’s at the end of the line, but he’s making sure he’s seen,” Kindred said, “leaning out to make sure his face gets in the picture. He wanted to be famous, however you did that. He made boxing what it became and now no one even knows who the heavyweight champion is.”
Ali died in 2016 at age 74 after a 32-year bout with Parkinson’s Disease or Parkinson’s Syndrome, likely brought on by brain damage caused by so many blows to the head.
“I’ve always said the two greatest heavyweight champions of all time were Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali because they were different fighters,” Kindred said. “Clay was the guy you couldn’t hit, the guy you couldn’t find in the ring, and Ali was the guy who could take everybody’s punch and survive. He just had a great natural athleticism, a great natural charisma. He was absolutely unique, and he was the most famous man in the world. Literally, the surveys always had him and the Pope running 1-2. Sometimes Ali would be No. 1 and sometimes the Pope would be No. 1.”
Maraniss pointed out Clay was far from No. 1 in 1960. Track stars Rafer Johnson, Wilma Rudolph and Ray Norton and basketball players Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Jerry West were considered the Team USA stars going into the Rome Games, not the brash young fighter from Louisville.
“In retrospect, because of the worldwide fame he gained later as Muhammad Ali, there is a temptation to present him as a larger figure at the Rome Olympics than he really was,” said Maraniss, who noted that Clay had a crush on Rudolph. “He was ebullient and memorable from the start, but he was not a leader of the U.S. delegation. It was Clay seeking out people, not people seeking out Clay…. An American official said that in four days, Clay had already posed with 28 different delegations and signed countless autographs.”
Maraniss quoted Francis W. Nyangweso, a boxer from Uganda, about discussing topics including “wild animals, forests and snakes” with Clay. “Before we parted,” Nyangweso added, “This gentleman advised us that the boxer on our team who happened to be drawn against him should duck on medical grounds and should not try to fight him, for he, Cassius Clay would not like to demolish a young brother from Africa.”
Never At A Loss For Words
However, USA teammate Humberto “Lefty” Barrera told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in 2016 that Clay’s garrulousness wasn’t always welcome.
“You’ve got to be crazy to be talking like that all the time and never stopping,” he said. “It gets old. I mean, if you listen to him once a day or twice a day, it’s fine. But if you listen to him all day.”
Clay told everyone he met that he was going to win the gold medal, and when he did, “He was like, “I told you so, I told you so,” Barrera said.
The 1960 boxing tournament was held in Rome’s Palazzo dello Sport, which seated 14,000 to 16,000. With a Roman name like Cassius Marcellus Clay, how could he not be a crowd favorite?
In the 178-pound division, Clay had a bye in the round of 32, then faced Yvon Becaus of Belgium in the round of 16 on Aug. 30. According to Maraniss, he won with a “left hook and right cross with 1:10 left in the second round.” The referee stopped the contest.
In the quarterfinals on Sept. 1, Clay had a 15-centimeter height advantage over Gennady Shatkov of the Soviet Union, who had captured the gold medal four years earlier in Melbourne in the middleweight division.
Clay won by a 5-0 decision, then defeated Tony Madigan of Australia 5-0 in the semifinals two days later.
Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland, a three-time European champion and the 1956 bronze medalist, was Clay’s opponent in the September 5 final.
Pietrzykowski was left-handed, just like Amos Johnson, whose defeat of Clay in 1959 in the Pan American Games trials final was his only top-level amateur loss.
“Again puzzled by the southpaw style,” Kindred wrote, “Clay came to the third and final round needing to win it decisively. He put such a storm on the Pole that by round’s end Pietrzykowsky was helpless."
By yet another 5-0 decision, Clay won the gold medal. While light middleweight Wilbert McClure and middleweight Eddie Crook Jr. of Team USA also were Olympic champions, Clay got the bulk of the attention and parlayed his gold medal into the most illustrious boxing career in history.
The Champ Meets The Future Champ
The day after Clay’s victory, Floyd Patterson, the reigning world heavyweight champion who won the1952 boxing gold medal in the middleweight division, came through the Olympic Village. Again the stories vary, but photos of Patterson and Clay together prove they crossed paths.
Team USA sprinter Dave Sime told Maraniss that he was sitting in the cafeteria with Clay when they spotted Patterson. Clay then “jumped on the table with his knife and fork and says, ‘I’m having you next! I’m having you for dinner,’” said Sime, who recalled that Patterson chuckled.
But Ed Temple told Maraniss that after some people said they saw Patterson in the distance, he asked Clay if he was going to follow them. Clay said, “I ain’t going to see no Floyd Patterson, because I’m going to be heavyweight champ myself some day.”
And he was, defeating Patterson twice.
But before Clay wore the first of his three heavyweight championship belts, his favorite accessory was his Olympic gold medal.
In Rome, for the first time in Olympic history, medals were placed around the athletes’ necks instead of presented to them in a box. That worked out well for Clay, who seemed to never want to take his medal off.
He wore it around the Village. “’I got to show this thing off,’ he kept boasting,” according to Maraniss. “His coach said Clay had slept with the medal, or at least gone to bed with it.”
The young boxer later said he was forced to sleep on his back for the first time, or the medal would have cut his chest.
Yet he’d barely stepped off the victory podium when he was asked what it meant to be a Black Olympic champion living in a segregated nation.
Kindred wrote that the day after the boxing finals, “Clay told American reporters that a Soviet journalist had asked how it felt to win a gold medal and know he still couldn’t go home and eat with white folks. ‘I looked him up and down once or twice,’ Clay said, ‘and standing tall and proud I said to him: Tell your readers we’ve got qualified people working on that problem, and I’m not worried about the outcome. To me, the USA is still the best country in the world, including yours. It may be hard to get something to eat sometimes, but anyhow I ain’t fighting alligators and living in a mud hut.”
Clay was still wearing his gold medal upon his return to the United States. The flight was so uneventful that he had time to write a poem called “How Cassius took Rome,” that Maraniss said included the lines “To make America the greatest is my goal. So I beat the Russian, and I beat the Pole.” The verse was published in some Afro American newspapers.
Sportswriter Dick Schaap took Clay around New York City, where he was amazed that people recognized him.
What Happened To The Gold Medal?
Clay went home to Louisville with great fanfare. But even though he was an Olympic gold medalist, wearing the hardware on his chest, he was still not able to eat in certain restaurants because he was Black.
According to legend, Clay was so furious about being denied service that he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River.
The Ali Center addresses this story at the entrance to one of its exhibits, which looks like a 1960s-style café. “There’s motion detection at the front door,” Kahnke said, “so as you walk in, there’s a voice that’s saying, ‘Hey what you doing in here? You know we don’t serve your kind.’”
Two of Ali’s biographers, Thomas Hauser and David Remnick, determined that Clay never threw his medal into the river, but concocted the story to account for losing it.
The Ali Center stresses that the story is a legend.
“Frankly, I don’t know if anyone but Muhammad knows the true story,” Kahnke said. “He said sometimes that he did throw it into the river and he said sometimes that he didn’t. We asked him when we were developing the exhibits 15 years ago. He said, ‘I lost it,’ but I think that he knew what he was doing. He knew that forever people would tell the story and wonder if he did it or not, so we ask people to draw their own conclusions.
“In a way, it doesn’t really matter if he did or didn’t, because the symbolism behind it rings so true -- that he wins a gold medal for his country and comes back to Louisville, Kentucky, where he couldn’t even get served in a café because of his skin color.”
Kindred said the first time he saw the story mentioned was in the biography “The Greatest,” which Ali produced with collaborator Richard Durham.
“The book was full of fiction, and one of the fictions was that he threw the medal into the river,” Kindred said. “I don’t think he would have thrown the medal away. I think it’s much more likely that he misplaced it or that somebody took it, because people were always taking stuff from him. He was always generous. He just gave stuff away.”
Emotional Games Return
At the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996, Ali was presented with a replacement gold medal the day before the Closing Ceremony.
It was a fitting bookend for a Games that began with Ali lighting the cauldron in dramatic fashion.
No one had known Ali was the final torchbearer until he emerged from the shadows in the Olympic Stadium. After he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984, Ali had withdrawn from the limelight.
“I was very worried,” said Kindred, who knew of Ali's tremors and weakened state. “It was concerning to me because I knew him personally. I knew that was it was an act of bravery for him to do it. It was almost beyond his physical capability and yet he did it.”
Both the replacement gold medal and the torch are on display at the Ali Center. Although recent press reports stated that Bernie Ecclestone donated the torch to the International Olympic Committee, the former Formula One chief had merely acquired another torch that had been used in the relay and signed by Ali.
The exhibit at the Ali Center, which will celebrate its 15th anniversary this fall, is called “Lighting the Way.”
“I think the Olympics drove him to realize that as an athlete he could really generate change,” Kahnke said. “He’s always said that he used his success as an athlete as a platform to do what he really wanted to do in the world, which was impact social justice.”
Kindred said Ali would have been famous whether or not he had won an Olympic gold medal “because he was the best athlete, the best fighter that I’ve ever seen."
And he loved his fans as much as they loved him. "Mike Tyson walks around with a phalanx of bodyguards," Kindred said. "Ali wanted people to come touch him. If Ali was bored, he’d go stand out on the street for five minutes, and there’d be 300 people gathered around pretty soon."
While plenty of Team USA boxers have won Olympic gold medals and world titles in the last 60 years, no boxer has been able to measure up to the Ali mystique. "One of his aunts said he was the alpha and the omega -- he was the first and the last," Kindred said. "People have tried to be Muhammad Ali because he was such a unique character. Nobody could be Muhammad Ali. He was a natural in every way. Sugar Ray Leonard tried to be Muhammad Ali. You could go down the whole list of fighters who came along after Ali who all tried to be a personality, tried to be interesting, tried to be flashy.
“Nobody could do it, because there was only one Ali.”