Special Olympics Missouri Risk Management Director Gary Brimer shares a story about boxer Muhammed Ali, who passed away Friday, and his experience at the Special Olympics. Ali, a three-time World Heavyweight Champion during his career, also served as an activist and made several appearances at international Special Olympic events throughout his life.
“I had never been a big fan of Muhammad Ali. I don’t know why but I had never cared for people that bragged about themselves. It just seemed so egotistical and pompous. Yet in 1979 when I arrived in Brockport the rumors that Ali was there kind of mellowed my feelings. I mean the most famous man in sports took his time to come see our athletes.
As I wandered about my first International Games, awed by sights and sounds of such a wonderful event, I heard the story of how Muhammad Ali had disembarked from his own private air craft in Chicago and boarded a commercial flight carrying the delegation from Washington state so that he could be with our athletes. This couldn’t be the same guy that boasted “I am the best”, could it?
Then I saw an autograph tent with hundreds of athletes around it waiting to get in. I could not guess who could be in there so I asked a nearby volunteer wearing a red Coca-Cola volunteer t-shirt. She said that it was Muhammad Ali’s tent and it had been that way for two full days.
As I watched in wonder, suddenly the tent opened and the man himself emerged. His body guards immediately began pushing back the crowd of athletes and behind them the coaches and other fans. He stopped his body guards with a word, waved them back and told them to keep all the non-athletes back and then began his saunter across the campus with hundreds of athletes around him.
It was an incredible sight. He held hands with as many athletes as he could, lifting the smaller ones for a quick hug or just to show them something. At that moment he was “The Greatest” in my eyes and he became one of my heroes from that moment on.
I saw him many years later at another Games in Ireland as I walked in with Team USA. He was there to participate in yet another Opening Ceremonies. He had aged dramatically, his Parkinson’s had a terrible effect, but his eyes were still bright with the fire that he had in 1979. I will always admire the man for what he did for our Special Olympics Athletes and how he put them on pedestal.”