With the 2016 Summer Olympics right around the corner and all of the controversy surrounding the games being held in Rio de Janeiro, it’s hard not to reflect back on the Peach State’s own experience hosting the major international multi-sporting event back in 1996.
Twenty years ago this week, Atlanta had the honor of hosting the Centennial Olympic Games.
Now, it’s easy to talk about what went wrong that summer — everything from the introduction of the goofy, abstract mascot for the Olympics named Izzy to the absolutely horrific bomb explosion in Centennial Olympic Park in the early hours of July 27, 1996 that tragically killed one woman and injured more than 110 people.
It was a difficult summer for Atlanta.
But there were also some wonderfully unforgettable moments that year.
One such moment that is particularly bittersweet this year is when the world watched in complete disbelief as the former Olympic boxing champion and “The Greatest of All Time” Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Centennial Olympic Games.
For many around the world, it was one of the most touching and emotional moments in Olympic history.
Whether people were watching the ceremony live on television or traveled to Atlanta to be a part of history themselves, Ali not only lit up the Georgia sky that night, he brightened the world.
But one person in particular had an unforgettable view of that Olympic moment.
Two decades ago, Olympic swimmer Janet Evans had the honor of making the final pass of the torch to Ali that night in Atlanta.
During last year’s Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards in Louisville, Ky., Evans told the audience about the impact of that single moment in time.
“About six weeks outside of the Olympic Games, I received a call from a gentleman named Billy Payne, the great southern gentleman who brought the Olympics to the great city of Atlanta,” Evans told the audience, according to an Oct. 2, 2015 story by NBC Sports. “Billy asked me if I would do him a favor and run the torch at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games. He would not tell me who was passing me the torch. He would not tell me who I was passing the torch to, but I would be the second to last person to carry that flame, and the final woman.”
Evans said she could barely believe her ears.
“I said to Mr. Payne, ‘Mr. Payne, I’m a swimmer. Swimmers don’t go to Opening Ceremonies. We swim the next day,’” Evans reportedly said. “I’d never been to the Opening Ceremonies as an athlete. I’d been in ’84 as a spectator. I said, ‘Plus, how many people are going to be watching?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you know, three billion or so.’ And I said, ‘Well, Mr. Payne, once again I’m a swimmer. Swimmers don’t run. I am not going to carry a lit flame through the Atlanta stadium and fall and forever be remembered as that little swimmer who dropped the Olympic flame and lit the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Stadium on fire.’ Well, in his true southern gentleman style, Mr. Payne talked me into it.”
On the day of the opening ceremony, Evans said that she knew little about the events scheduled that night.
“At midnight, the night before Opening Ceremonies, under the cover of darkness, I went to the Atlanta stadium, and I practiced running the torch,” she reportedly said. “The only thing was the person that was lighting that cauldron wasn’t there. But when they told me it was going to be Muhammad Ali, and when they told me that I had to keep it secret, because let me tell you I wanted to tell everyone, I was more nervous than ever. How do you pass the Olympic flame to ‘The Greatest,’ right? I was out of my mind, and I had to swim the next day.”
At that point, time began to fly by, she told NBC Sports.
“Before I know it, it’s the Opening Ceremonies, and I’m running along that track, and I’m thinking, don’t fall, Janet. Just don’t fall. Get up to Ali. He’s going to be waiting for you. Don’t fall. Don’t light the stadium on fire. Don’t catch my hair on fire with the flame,” Evans said. “And I looked to my left, my first Opening Ceremonies as an athlete, and I see 10,000 athletes that are in Atlanta representing their countries. I see the Americans, because they pushed their way to the front of that crowd of athletes. And I see the gymnasts on the shoulders of the basketball team. And I see the water polo team. I don’t see swimmers, because they weren’t there. My friends on the water polo team are shouting, ‘You’re going to fall!’ And I didn’t.”
The scene took her breath away, she said.
“I looked past the Americans, for the first time,” she said. “This was my third Olympic Games. I was the girl in the village that ate with the Americans. I spoke only to the Americans. I didn’t experience the Olympics. And I looked, and I saw athletes from all over the world. And I saw, yes, the stars, but I saw the table tennis player from Mongolia, and I saw the fencer from Tunisia, and I saw the athletes that we don’t see on NBC. And I saw the looks in their eyes. And I saw the excitement they were experiencing for being at the Olympics and participating in something that brings people together.”
All of a sudden the Olympics meant more to her than ever, Evans said.
“I ran up that track, and I ran up those three big, long stairways. And I got to the top, and there stood Muhammad Ali. And I never cried after any of my Olympic medals, but I wanted to cry,” Evans said. “My moment with him was brief; you saw how quickly he lit that flame. But that moment for me, standing there, watching this man, with his courage and his determination, and being brought into the Olympic fold once again, 36 years after his gold medal in 1960. And 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.”
That moment changed her life, Evans said.
“After those Olympics, I wanted to quit swimming and go back to college, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But after standing there with that man and watching him, I realized that as an Olympian, as an Olympic champion, a mantle we carry is to inspire and motivate others,” Evans said. “No one has ever done that greater than Muhammad Ali. So, Mr. Ali, thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for allowing me to continue to inspire young swimmers and young people to do and be the very best that they can be.”
So, as the world watches the excitement of the Olympics next month in Brazil and worries about everything from the Zika virus to potential terrorism at the games, remember Atlanta.
Remember Muhammad Ali.
And remember the magic that night.
Fear should never stop the Olympic Games.