image: Muhammad Ali gazes at his Olympic gold medal in 1996
Behold the Olympic gold medal – so prestigious an award, lustrous in design, and rich in history! You might act ho-hum come each April when baseball season rolls around. Or you might dismissively declare yourself agnostic to those who would claim football is America’s national civil religion.
But the Olympics? C’mon! Who among us didn’t gasp as nineteen-year-old Simone Biles vaulted during the Rio de Janeiro games to lead the U.S.A.’s women gymnasts to team gold, and then claimed for herself the much coveted all-around gold?
And who among us can pretend not to be astounded at this dazzling statistic? If the peerless Michael Phelps were a country, he’d have more gold medals than one hundred seventy-three actual countries now competing in the Rio Olympics. That places him ahead of Egypt, Argentina, India and Mexico – and just one gold medal behind host country, Brazil.
It wasn’t always this way, though. Athletes didn’t always step up on a platform to have a gold medal placed around their neck for winning an event. At the very first modern Olympic Games, just before the turn of the last century in 1896, winners were crowned with an olive wreath and awarded a silver medal. It wasn’t until the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, when the tradition took off for awarding gold, silver, and bronze medals for first, second, and third places, respectively.
Still, the 1904 Olympics were a bit of a fiasco. The games became spread out over four months, and were smothered for public attention by a World’s Fair that celebrated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France.
What distinguished this disorganized event, though, was the participation of gymnast, George Eyser, who, though he sported a wooden leg, managed to snag six medals, including three gold ones. Eyser preceded Olympic athlete, double amputee and convicted murderer Oscar Pistorius by a hundred and eight years.
Of course, the world will never forget the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, when a black man, Jesse Owens, considered “… [P]erhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history,” earned four gold medals. In so doing, Owens dashed the proof for Aryan world supremacy, zealously sought in the Olympic Games by host-country Führer Adolf Hitler.
A slightly lesser-known, but equally dramatic story occurred when an eighteen-year-old Cassius Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali, aka “the Greatest,” almost didn’t show up for the 1960 Olympics because of his overwhelming fear – not of getting beaten in the ring, but of boarding a plane that would actually leave the ground. Clay was afraid to fly.
He told his trainer, Joe Martin, he simply would not fly to Rome for the Olympic Games. Martin then had to take Clay to Central Park in Louisville, Kentucky, and spend a few hours talking firmly to him. When the eighteen-year-old boy insisted he would not go, Martin told him, “Well, you’ll lose the opportunity of being a great fighter.” And so Clay bought himself a parachute in an army surplus store, and, according to one account, did a lot of praying in the aisle on the plane ride to Rome.
An apocryphal account of what happened to Clay’s gold medal relates how he hurled his gold medal into the Ohio River after a Louisville restaurant wouldn’t serve him, and a motorcycle gang threatened him. But the very careful and fearful Cassius Clay eventually evolved into the blithe and fearless Muhammad Ali we came to know and love – a peerless boxer who apparently simply lost his Olympic gold medal. Years later, he remarked, “I don’t know where I put that thing.”
But the world refused to accept that Muhammad Ali could be without his gold medal. So during half-time at the 1996 USA vs. Yugoslovia basketball game in Atlanta, trembling from Parkinson’s disease, “The Greatest” managed to step forward to receive his replacement gold medal from the International Olympic Committee.