As the Olympic boxing competition continues tonight, I was reminded of a story I heard about a Louisville boxing legend and gold medalist. The great Muhammad Ali—who was honored at this year’s opening ceremonies with the passing of the Olympic flag—won a medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics. However, sometime later this medal disappeared. There are two conflicting stories as to what happened.
The earliest account of this story is from Ali’s own autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story, which he wrote in 1975. According to the book, one evening Ali was refused service at a white’s only restaurant in his hometown of Louisville. This incident was followed by a fight with a white motorcycle gang. In anger and frustration, Ali went down to the Ohio River and tossed his medal into the water. So was the story until the Atlanta Summer Games in 1996.
At the Atlanta Games Ali was not only honored with lighting the Olympic torch at the opening ceremonies. Ali was also awarded an honorary medal to replaced his 1960 gold. However, commentator Bob Costas stated that the toss story was and “apocryphal tale” and that it had simply been lost during a move by Ali.
Given the two stories, one has to wonder which is true. It is hard to believe that Ali would be so careless with his medal to just lose it moving. It is much more likely that the official story that he wrote in his book is true. A young man, growing up in the segregated South—even though he was an Olympic hero—still faced the injustice of racism. It is quite likely that in the heat of the moment, he would have taken one of his highest achievements and thrown it in the face of the institutions he was still living with.
Whatever the true story is, it is good to know that Ali was honored again with a replacement medal. It is also a testament to the legacy and respect that the world has for him, as he continues to be honored by the Olympics.