Forty years ago, the United States boycotted an Olympic Games for the first and, to date, only time. This is the story behind Muhammad Ali’s misguided attempt to drum up support around the world for President Jimmy Carter’s decision.
For a time, Muhammad Ali could take down any opponent inside a boxing ring. But in the world of international diplomacy, Ali was an utter lightweight. Nowhere was that more obvious than when he attempted to drum up support for President Jimmy Carter’s Olympic boycott in 1980.
No figure epitomized the intersection of sports and politics during the Vietnam War more than Ali. Defiant and outspoken, he was willing to sacrifice more than three years of his career for his beliefs. That principled stand made him a hero to many Americans … and it led many, Ali included, to overestimate the reach and strength of his political influence.
“Ali couldn’t say no to anybody,” said Jonathan Eig, author of the 2017 bio “Ali: A Life.” “It was like what Homer Simpson said about beer — Ali’s generosity was the solution to, and cause of, the great problems in his life.”
Ali’s fighting days were nearly done
By 1980, Ali was a largely ceremonial figure. The legacy-making Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila were years behind him. He’d been reduced to gimmickry like an exhibition against Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki. He’d lost his title to Leon Spinks, and then regained it in a pair of ugly fights. His speech had begun to slow and his hands to tremble.
Ali had basically rallied back from the hatred he’d endured from much of America for refusing to be drafted in the 1960s. He’d largely stepped away from politics, focusing on being Muhammad Ali rather than being a radical political force. He’d even visited the White House during the Ford administration after beating George Foreman in Zaire.
“Ali was drawn to power and powerful people,” said Thomas Hauser, author of the 1989 authorized biography ‘Ali: His Life and Times.’ “There’s irony in the fact that this man who loved freedom fought two of his most significant fights in Zaire and the Philippines.”
Carter called for the boycott following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Despite the strong national desire for a vigorous defense against Soviet incursion, the thought of an Olympic boycott was divisive at home, and even more fraught around the world. Carter recognized that he needed buy-in from the American public and the world at large. Carter’s people reached out to Ali, and he jumped in with both gloves, dubbing himself “the black Henry Kissinger.”
(The Olympic tour wasn’t the first time Ali’s name had been mentioned in connection with international politics; there had been some discussion about getting Ali to help resolve the ongoing hostage crisis in Iran. As a famous Muslim, the thinking went, perhaps Ali could have helped end the crisis. But the Carter administration eventually decided that no American could negotiate with Ayatollah Khomeini.)
Doomed from the start
The Carter administration’s plan involved sending Ali on a goodwill tour designed to whip up support for the boycott. Ali was to fly to Tanzania and then on to Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal. The idea was that he would preach Carter’s gospel, trying to indicate that America is the land of the free, and for these nations, participating in the Olympics was the equivalent of supporting the Soviet regime.
“There was a specific interest on my part in having Muhammad Ali explain our country’s position on the Olympic boycott,” Carter told Hauser in 1989, “and also in his pointing out what our nation is, what its basic policies are, our commitment to freedom and human rights, and the fact that we have black Americans who have been successful with a diversity of religious commitments.”
For his part, Ali now weighed a heavy 255 pounds. The Parkinson’s disease that would eventually ravage him was going untreated. He needed money, but more than that, he needed attention. None of this boded well for the mission.
“Ali was not a diplomat,” Hauser said. “He did not have a grasp of geopolitics. He was poorly informed on the issues. He didn’t know what he didn’t know. This was a task he was not well suited for.”
Ali was in New Delhi on a goodwill tour when the State Department contacted him about making the trip. He immediately agreed — that was Ali’s way — but the Russian ambassador to India came to Ali’s hotel and very nearly talked Ali out of going. That should have been the first sign that Ali wasn’t quite up to the task, but the State Department pressed on regardless.
Ali’s missteps and mistakes
The Carter administration’s first misstep was not taking into account the fact that Ali had encountered problems in Africa before. He’d joked about cannibalism amongst African nations, and he’d happily dealt with the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. But he also had legions of fans in Africa; in one of the more stirring moments in sports history, thousands welcomed Ali to the Rumble in the Jungle chanting “Ali Bomaye!” (“Ali, kill him!”)
The second problem with Ali’s mission was the fact that the United States was trying to sway regimes that had come into power thanks to Soviet assistance. Skepticism about the United States’ motives ran wild.
Adding to Ali’s challenge: the fact that 22 African nations had boycotted the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal over the inclusion of New Zealand, whose rugby team had toured apartheid South Africa. The United States didn’t support those African nations then; why, then, should Africa support the United States now?
The third problem was that Ali began to speak.
The more he heard about the boycott, the less he sympathized with the U.S. position. In Tanzania, his first stop, he was asked to explain why African nations should turn against their Soviet benefactors. Ali replied, “Maybe I’m being used to do something that ain’t right. You’re making me look at things different. If I find out I’m wrong, I’m going back to America and cancel the whole trip.” Not exactly the stuff of steadfast diplomacy.
Although he was beloved, Ali wasn’t taken seriously as a diplomat. Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere declined to meet with Ali, sending his minister of youth and culture instead.
“African leaders said the Court of St. James [the U.K.’s diplomatic arm] would not have sent a tennis player,” Hauser said, “so why was the United States sending a boxer?”
In Kenya, Ali allowed that Carter had sent him “around the world to take the whupping over American policies.”
A State Department official tried to shut down one meeting, and Ali said, “I’m not a traitor to black people. If you can show me something I don’t know, I want to be helped. You all have given me some questions which are good and are making me look at this thing different.”
“He always flew by the seat of his pants,” Eig said. “He wasn’t the kind of person to read up on the history of a region. He treated this the same way he got into the ring; he never had a plan. He just assumed he’d figure it out when he got there. He had a beautiful innocence about him.”
“The most bizarre diplomatic mission in U.S. history.”
Ali eventually slunk back to the United States in defeat. Time called it “the most bizarre diplomatic mission in U.S. history.” Kenya and Liberia did end up supporting the boycott, but many other nations sent delegations to Russia.
A post-mission report from Ali, in diplomatic jargon that sounds little like him, painted the mission in stark Cold War terms: “I learned on this trip that many African countries lean more towards Russia than the U.S., even though they would rather be friends with America than Russia. I also learned that Africa first approached America for help on their needs and wants, but America turned her down. For America to retain her friends in the Third World she must increase her technical and financial help, and her investments and respect. If not, Russia stands ready to do so.”
After the Africa debacle, a chastened Ali checked into the Mayo Clinic, trying to get certified to fight Larry Holmes. He obtained his certification in late July, and then fought Holmes on Oct. 2. It was a farce, one of the worst fights of Ali’s career, and it stopped when his corner threw in the towel in the 11th round.
The failed diplomatic mission, Hauser believes, “could have been one of the factors that fed into that decision [to fight Holmes]. He’d suffered a blow to his ego; what better way to restore it than a fight?”
Strangely enough, Africa wouldn’t be his last diplomatic mission. He went to Iraq in November 1990 — this time over the objections of a president, George H.W. Bush, as well as many of Ali’s friends — and tried to secure the release of hundreds of Americans from Saddam Hussein. Somehow, he managed to return with 15 Americans.
“He was not a Rhodes scholar, but he was a good guy,” said Gene Kilroy, Ali’s longtime confidant. “You can’t blame him, blame the people who sent him.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.