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Monday, January 23, 2012

Muhammad Ali's gold medal

Posted By on 01.23.12 at 10:00 AM

Muhammad Ali with Helen Wooten
In honor of Muhammad Ali's 70th birthday, the Sun-Times ran a five-page spread celebrating the heavyweight champion's life.

It's filled with pictures, quotes, and fascinating anecdotes.

Let's give a shout out to James Smith, the writer. Loved every bit of it, but...

In the time line under 1960, Smith writes "Clay wins every tournament he enters this year, including...ultimately, Olympic gold in Rome. Legend has it that Clay threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after being denied service in a Louisville restaurant. Some believe he simply lost it."

Sigh....

OK, I realize I have an unusual fixation on this topic. I may be the only man left in America who even remembers it.

Just as I remain the only man in America who still rents movies from video stores, subscribes to newspapers, and doesn't own an Apple product.

Sorry, tangent....

The thing is—it's not some unnamed legend who has it that young Clay threw his gold medal into the Ohio River.

It's Ali himself!

He described the incident at great length in The Greatest: My Own Story, the autobiography he wrote with Richard Durham, a writer from Chicago.

I urge all Ali fans to run, run, run to the Chicago public library and check out a copy.

Better run, run, run really fast—before Mayor Emanuel shuts down the branches so he has more money to spend on G8/NATO-summits contracts for his cronies.

Sorry, another tangent....

I remember reading Ali's autobiography when I was in college and loving it to death. It's right up there with Foul! by Connie Hawkins, another great sports books you should run, run, run to read.

One of the highlights of The Greatest is a story Ali tells that begins with him being denied service in a Louisville restaurant, moves on to him brawling with racist motorcycle bikers, and ends with him tossing his beloved gold medal into the river as he proclaims: "My holiday as White Hope was over. I felt a new secret strength."

First I heard of the revisionist spin came in 1966, as I watched Ali receive an honorary gold medal during the Olympics in Atlanta. NBC commentator Bob Costas called the medal toss an "apocryphal tale" and said Ali really just lost it.

I was like—huh!

Wrote an article about it and everything.

Been talking and thinking about it ever since.

And after years and years of much consideration, I've come the following conclusion....

Yes, I understand why many people would find the story uncomfortable, as it reveals more about our country and its racist past than many might want to deal with.

And, yes, I realize there's a good chance that Ali made it up—or at least a good portion of it.

But so what? It's still his story. I've seen no evidence of him publicly denying it. Quite the contrary, he repeated it in a book he wrote with his daughter. And in 1998, he made the same claim to Tribune writer Fred Mitchell.

And if he did make it up, he had his reasons. He obviously wanted to create a parable about the torment he felt over despising a great country that he loved.

I can relate. In many ways, I sort of feel the same about Chicago.

Well, anyway—Happy birthday, champ. You're still the greatest.

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