In July and August 1996, the world sent its finest athletes to Atlanta. Some athletes came as familiar names from familiar nations. Others had toiled in obscurity. Each came proudly to Atlanta, and Atlanta received them in the same manner. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of those Summer Games, the AJC presents a series of 20 memorable athletes and performances.

The 20th in the series: Muhammad Ali starts the Games with a momentous spark.

Late on the night of July 19, 1996, Ginger Watkins, the soul responsible for the Opening Ceremony to Atlanta’s Olympics, was perched down near the tunnel where The Flame had made its entrance.

With her were her three children, who had absolutely no idea. Not even family was privy to this most wonderful surprise of these Games.

“Oh no, they didn’t know. I didn’t tell anybody. It was too tightly held a secret. There wasn’t anybody I trusted with knowing,” she said.

From hand to hand the Olympic flame ceremonially passed. From a discus thrower, Al Oerter, to a hometown boxing champion, Evander Holyfield. As a nod to the Olympic homeland during these centennial Games, Greek hurdler Voula Patoulidou accompanied Holyfield around the track. Holyfield then passed the torch to the most accomplished of distance swimmers, Janet Evans.

Holding the flame high, Evans ran it up a long ramp to the base of the 116 foot tower that led to what became irreverently known as The Big French Fry Box, the Olympic cauldron.

Organizers had played with the idea of entrusting strong legs to climb the steps all the way to the summit of the stadium in order to light the cauldron. They even had brought in track runners and rehearsed the ascent. Under the best of circumstances, that had seemed to take too long and lack the appropriate punch and drama.

Such a climb definitely wasn’t going to work for the man who had been tasked with the last act of a torch relay that had begun months before at the Temple of Hera in Athens, Greece. What was lit by the light of the sun halfway across the world was about to be introduced to its final vessel, where it would illuminate this Georgia night, and the next 15 to follow.

It was time to unwrap the great secret, the one that could not be trusted even to the closest of family.

Appearing on the platform, as if materializing from the fog of memory …

Was that …

Could that be …

Yes, it was Muhammad Ali.

The universe had lost touch with its favorite fighter and most recognizable sporting figure of the 20th century. It had been nearly 15 years since Ali was last in the ring and a dozen years since he had begun displaying the Parkinson’s-like symptoms thought to have been the wages of his sport.

His public appearances managed and limited, his once strident voice locked in the unbreakable vault of his condition, we did not know how deep his debilitation went. We had forgotten Ali, in a sense.

A ceremony had become a secular confirmation, an act of recalling and then conferring Ali’s spirit upon these Games. Not just for those in the Olympic Stadium, but also for the billions watching around the globe.

“It was the 90,000 people sitting in the stadium having their breath taken away,” Watkins recalled. “This (and here she makes the sound of a sucking gasp). Then, overwhelming applause.”

“It was just one of those moments in life that you will always keep.”

Evans passed the torch to Ali, his whole body shaking. The world held its breath as he stood there, the noble bearer of the Olympic torch, not at all the brash gold medalist from the 1960 Games and reflection of all the turbulence of the ’60s and ’70s, but rather a much more human, vulnerable version of himself.

In trembling hand, Ali lowered the torch to a flammable plug, appearing little larger than a hot dog bun, that initially looked none too flammable. With such an unsteady hand that seemed to tempt the fire to lick it, seconds seemed like minutes. C’mon, thing, light. Was it ever going to ignite?

Finally, the contraption caught and made its slow journey up the long, angled wire to the cauldron. The Atlanta Games officially could proceed.

Those Games and its organizers would take a lot of shots in the days to come. But on this first impression, they most assuredly had gotten it right.

Upon Ali’s death June 3, his lighting of the 1996 Olympics was as prominent a part of his many, lengthy obituaries as any of his fights, be they with Joe Frazier, George Foreman or the Selective Service System.

Shortly after Ali’s death, the man who brought the Olympics to Atlanta, Billy Payne, said, “I don’t remember seeing a single athletic event or anything, and I went to a hundred of them. All I was doing was working and making sure A, B and C worked. I remember (the cauldron lighting). I’ve been emotional since I’ve gone back and looked at it since then, for sure.”

The kicker is that Ali was not the shoe-in choice for this job. Holyfield held the hometown advantage among many of the Atlanta organizers. And some considered Ali’s past refusal to be drafted during the height of the Vietnam War to be an indelible black mark, especially in the conservative south.

“Me, I’m always on the wrong side of the tracks, I thought that was crazy because I thought he was a draft dodger,” A.D. Frazier, the chief operating officer of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, said. “I thought, wow, I hope they know what they’re doing. Well, they did.

“It was genius to get this man who was suffering to come here and light our cauldron. It was a scene for the ages, man. It was fantastic.”

The inspiration for Ali had come from the head of NBC Sports at the time, Dick Ebersol, whose stubborn sense for good programming eventually won the day. And even Holyfield, who felt a bit jilted when learning he would not be lighting the cauldron, applauded the selection when finally he learned the identity of the winner of the cauldron sweepstakes.

Once ACOG settled on Ali, and Ali and his people agreed, the key was to keep the whole arrangement under wraps. The breathtaking impact of Ali’s appearance depended upon the element of surprise. The CIA should keep secrets as well.

“We flew him in here on a private plane (for rehearsal, three days before the ceremony), hid him, put him in a van, blacked out the windows, put a blanket over him, the whole thing,” Payne said.

The effect come the night of July 19, 1996 was exactly as they all had hoped, only more so of everything — amazement, awe, joy, the whole package.

Years later, Evans, speaking during the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards ceremony, recounted: “My moment with him was brief. … To stand there in front of the world and inspire even more young people like myself, to be and do and accomplish anything we want to do, it was an epiphany for me. It was a defining moment in my Olympic career.”

Bill Clinton, present as president during the 1996 Ceremony, said during Ali’s eulogy in June: “I was weeping like a baby seeing his hands shake. No matter what it took, the flame would be lit. The fight would be won. I knew it would happen.”

The partnership between Ali and the Atlanta Games was very much mutually beneficial (While in town, Ali also received a replacement for his lost 1960 gold medal). He won. Atlanta won. The world won.

As Payne put it, “As we put him on the world stage that night, so too did he help put Atlanta on the world stage.”

“He had done so many incredible things in his life — this is just my personal opinion seeing him afterward — I don’t think he was prepared for it to be as big a deal as it was and how wonderfully and unanimously and universally it was received,” Payne said.

“I think it made him feel really special, more so than he thought.”

More key moments and memories from the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta

Explore25 years since the 1996 Atlanta Games: Anniversary stories from the AJC