In the wake of his death in June, there was seemingly universal acclaim of the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. It was not simply sportswriters and fans but also politicians who rushed to pay tribute.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was quick off the mark declaring that Ali was a “truly great champion and a wonderful guy”. David Cameron weighed in with a suggestion that Ali “was not just a champion in the ring — he was a champion of civil rights and a role model for so many people.” Meanwhile former president Bill Clinton stated in his eulogy at Ali’s funeral that one of his “enduring images” was of the former champion, by now heavily afflicted by Parkinson’s Syndrome struggling successfully to light the flame at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
I happen to agree with those sentiments, but couldn’t help but feel a sense of nausea as I read or listened to these declarations. The opportunism of political leaders knows no bounds.
Two days after Ali’s funeral came the horrific massacre of dozens of LGBT+ revellers at a nightclub in Orlando. Within hours the very same Trump seized upon the perpetrator’s background to repeat his promise to ban Muslims from entering the US.
Here in Britain, Cameron’s tribute was delivered just weeks after his Islamophobic smearing of Labour’s mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan and in the midst of a referendum campaign which was fuelled by anti-immigrant sentiment. It was precisely his opposition to such bigotry and scapegoating that made Ali such an inspirational figure.
As Cassius Clay he won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics and his corporate backers licked their lips as they contemplated the fortunes they would make from him beating the living daylights out of other working class hopefuls as a professional.
They could live with his bravado. A little trash talk is good for hyping up the next fight. Unfortunately for them however, the “Louisville Lip” didn’t stick to the script. He was infused by the spirit of the 1960s when the struggle for equal rights was in full swing.
Clay had quietly joined the Nation of Islam and was mentored by its finest advocate Malcolm X for years before he finally changed his name and declared his allegiance in 1964. He subsequently became one of the most articulate opponents of racism and warmongering.
Ali sacrificed potentially the best years of his career when he refused to fight in Vietnam in 1966 and he inspired others. At the 1968 Olympics Tommie Smith and John Carlos stunned the world with their defiant Black Power salute during the Men’s 200m medal ceremony. Elsewhere recording artists such as Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and James Brown embraced their blackness with pride.
Barack Obama sent a message to Ali’s funeral in which he observed that, “He’d had everything stripped from him — his titles, his standing, his money, his passion, very nearly his freedom. But Ali still chose America. I imagine that he knew that only here, in this country, could he win it all back…Muhammad Ali was America. He will always be America.”
In short, Ali’s journey is presented as the ultimate embodiment of the American Dream. The replacement of his “lost” gold medal at that Atlanta opening ceremony symbolised this supposed reconciliation.
In August the Olympic “family” will arrive in Rio. No doubt the opening ceremony will include a warm tribute to one of its most distinguished members. The athletes will then be invited to compete in the “true spirit of sportsmanship”. The spectacle will be presented as something pure and noble, healthy living and international camaraderie.
Thereafter we can expect an orgy of nationalism. The most common sight will be that of athletes draped in their nation’s flag as they soak up the acclaim. Eventually we’ll hear that many of them have risked their health taking performance-enhancing drugs in their bid for glory.
More importantly, fortunes will be made by the Olympic executives and their corporate sponsors. The most recent football World Cup was also in Brazil. Its governing body FIFA made so much money from successive tournaments that its now disgraced president Sepp Blatter and two others pocketed an eye watering £55 million in their last five years in office.
The hypocrisy, racism and corporate greed that we continue to witness are proof of how little has changed since Ali’s heyday. Imagine what would be said today about a young man who changed his name, converted to Islam and condemned his country’s imperial adventures. Now that he has passed the baton on we should be inspired by his example and continue the struggle. In so doing, we should recall some of his finest words:
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.”