On the day the Georgia Dome came down, a golden memory of Muhammad Ali
Stadium hosted ceremony in which the greatest of all time got his Olympic gold medal back
The theme from Superman blared through the Georgia Dome’s speakers the afternoon of Aug. 5, 1996, the day Muhammad Ali got his gold back.
The Georgia Dome, of course, was demolished Monday morning in Atlanta, 25 years after it was christened a state-of-the-art, temperature-controlled echo chamber for the New South’s most prominent sporting events.
It hosted two Super Bowls, 23 Southeastern Conference football championship games, six NCAA men’s basketball regionals, three men’s Final Fours, one women’s Final Four and the largest crowd in NBA history (Michael Jordan’s farewell with the Chicago Bulls in Atlanta drew 62,046 fans). It’s been home to Deion “Primetime” Sanders, Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan, an NFC championship game and the Atlanta Football Classic, the annual tilt between historically black colleges and universities that morphed into the Celebration Bowl. Thousands of high school players, all raised from the red clay of Georgia, bumped helmets in that dome and achieved their dreams there.
But as the building was detonated today, the most indelible memory for me will be Ali.
His hands trembled as he clasped that shiny medallion around his neck, a duplicate of his gold medal from the 1960 Summer Games in Rome. Tens of thousands rose and roared. Ali eventually raised it to his lips and kissed it, and within moments the greatest basketball players in the world — all with millions of dollars and fans — reverted to giddy children who once worshipped their own athletic gods.
Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and the rest of the U.S. men’s basketball Centennial Olympic Team — aka Dream Team 2.0 — hugged The Greatest and took pictures with him at center court.
Ali’s moment came at halftime of the gold-medal men’s game that day between the U.S. and Yugoslavia, perhaps because the International Olympic Committee did not want to take away from the victors. Many of the crowd had no warning of the presentation and were about to leave their seats for the concession stands and the restrooms.
But then a sea of people parted for a puttering golf cart, which rolled up just short of the hardwood court. A very recognizable face stepped carefully onto the floor. When Ali’s name was announced and his face shown on the Jumbotron, the entire dome began to stand and cheer.
He looked nervous at first. You couldn’t tell if it was a combination of his Parkinson’s disease, raw nerves or both. He appeared almost embarrassed by the attention 36 years after that fast and pretty 18-year-old — Cassius Clay Jr. then — took the light heavyweight gold medal in Rome.
When Ali returned to Louisville, Kentucky, after the games, he wrote in his autobiography that he was barred from a whites-only restaurant. Angry over the racism he faced in his own country, he claimed he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. His inner circle questioned the veracity of that story. Ali himself wasn’t sure what happened to it.
It didn’t seem to matter in the moment. I.O.C. President Juan Antonio Samaranch placed the duplicate medal around his neck and the two exchanged air kisses. Then he was all alone at center court for maybe a minute, and we all kept roaring and applauding — even the jaded journalists in the media section.
When Ali kissed that medal, raised his arms and blew a kiss to the crowd, some of us wept openly. Then out came the men’s basketball team members — Sir Charles, Reggie, the Mailman, Shaq and the rest, bear-hugging the champ.
Vlade Divac loved Ali, too. The Yugoslavian national team captain finally led his team to midcourt for their own moment with Ali.
For the entire Centennial Games, a divider had chopped the 70,000-seat Georgia Dome stadium into two separate arenas. One side was for Olympic basketball and the other for gymnastics, where “The Magnificent Seven” incredibly captured the first U.S. women’s team gymnastics gold in Olympic history.
Remember courageous Kerri Strug, impossibly landing that vault on one foot to clinch gold, and the moment when her coach Bela Karolyi carried her off the mat to tears and deafening cheers?
It was special, just as so many great Atlanta sporting moments were over 25 years. But nothing felt as majestic as Muhammad Ali gracing the Georgia Dome floor with his presence, power and smile that afternoon, the day Ali got his gold back.