Muhammad Ali was so angered by racism, he tossed his Olympic boxing gold into a river

·5-min read
Muhammad Ali at the medal ceremony after he won the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division. (PHOTO: Central Press/Getty Images)
Muhammad Ali at the medal ceremony after he won the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division. (PHOTO: Central Press/Getty Images)

By Zhenyuan Hong

Boxing at the 1960 Rome Olympics was historic as two of the competitors subsequently become Hall of Fame legends of professional boxing. 

One of them was Italy's Nuno Benvenuti, widely regarded as one of the best middleweight boxers in history. The other was Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest boxer who ever lived, giving the world three classic Olympic moments in his lifetime.

While Ali was hugely successful in professional boxing, he also won the highest honour in amateur boxing – the Olympic gold medal. His connection with the Olympics spanned 36 years and encompassed all the achievements and honours an Olympian can achieve.

When he took part in the Rome Olympics, he was only 18, and was still known as Cassius Clay; it would be another four years before his eventual conversion to Islam and name change to Muhammad Ali. 

Ali's boxing career began just six years before his Rome appearance, and it was all because his bicycle got stolen. When the 12-year-old Ali reported the stolen bicycle to the police, he was so angry that he told them he wanted to hang the thief, but the police officer persuaded him to consider boxing instead. 

After watching some boxing programmes on TV, he finally decided to take up the sport. Not only did this decision resulted in an Olympic gold medal, but also created a boxing titan.

Despite being only 18 when he competed in the Rome Olympics, Ali won the 81kg weight division gold with all-conquering ease. His first bout against Yvon Becaus was halted by the referee when the Belgian suffered a head injury and could not continue, allowing Ali to advance.

His next match was against Gennadiy Shatkov, who was a decade older than Ali and regarded as a hero in his native Soviet Union after winning two European Championships golds and an Olympic gold in Melbourne in 1956. Ali beat him easily, winning all five rounds of their fight.

Next up was the final, where he faced double European Champion and two-time Olympic bronze medallist Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland. Again, Ali won all five rounds to clinch the gold medal for the United States.

Yet his Olympic story did not end there, with the next chapter as amazing as the fights in his first.

Ali had thought that winning Olympic gold would improve the rampant racism back in American but, on his return, he found things to be much the same. After being declined service at a restaurant because he was an African American, he was so angry that he is said to have thrown his gold medal into a river.

Although there was no physical evidence to prove this story, Ali’s friend, the noted writer and director Howard Bingham, and his coach Bundini Brown had both attested to its veracity in media interviews. In Ali's subsequent biographies, he also mentioned throwing the medal away in anger after experiencing discrimination a year after the Olympics.

Shortly after the Rome Olympics came to an end, Ali opened a new glorious chapter in his boxing career by turning professional. By the time he retired in 1981, he had became a powerful figure around the world and his influence had spread beyond sport into areas including politics, religion, music and entertainment. 

And his connection with the Olympics was still not over.

Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. (PHOTO: Reuters)

In 1996, the US hosted the Summer Olympics for the fourth time, with the Atlanta Games also marking the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics. Ali, then suffering from severe Parkinson’s disease some 15 years after his retirement, lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony.

While his hands were constantly shaking due to the ravages of his condition, the indomitable spirit in his eyes was broadcast to the whole world; the man who lit the cauldron was still the boxing god that so many people worshipped. That image became one of the most poignant moments in Olympic history, the second classic Olympic moment Ali bestowed to the world.

Ali’s third classic Olympic moment also took place at Atlanta in 1996. During half-time at a US men’s basketball match, Juan Antonio Samaranch, then-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), presented Ali with a specially-made replacement gold medal, in honour of his political and cultural achievements. 

Muhammad Ali receiving his replacement gold medal from IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch.
Muhammad Ali receiving his replacement gold medal from IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch. (PHOTO: Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

The star-studded audience at the presentation included a number of NBA greats among the US men’s basketball team, such as Reggie Miller, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, all of whom came forward to honour Ali.

As another Olympic year rolled around in 2016, thoughts turned again to Ali’s Olympic achievements. Sadly, he passed away from septic shock on 3 June of that year. Virtually the entire city came out to witness the funeral procession in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. 

While Ali is no longer with us, he leaves behind a stirring Olympic legacy that will endure forever.

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