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NBC chief says he pushed for Ali in ’96

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NBC sports boss Dick Ebersol said it took him six months to talk organizers of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta into choosing legendary boxer Muhammad Ali to light that city's Olympic caldron.

The appearance of Ali, whose hands trembled from palsy as he raised his torch, is recognized as one of the most dramatic moments in any Olympics. And as one of the best-kept secrets.

Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports, is one of only five officials who know the identity of the final torchbearer who'll do the honors during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Games on Feb. 8.

He told reporters in Salt Lake City attending an NBC press event on Tuesday that, unlike Atlanta, he didn't have a favorite candidate to light the caldron here. But he said "people are going to be very happy to see a great cross-section" of torchbearers in Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Speculation on the final torchbearer or torchbearers has centered on members of the U.S. and former Soviet men's hockey teams that played in the so-called "Miracle on Ice" match during the 1980 Winter Games.

But Ebersol wasn't talking.

Besides Atlanta and Salt Lake City, he also knew ahead of time that organizers of the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, had picked Australian athlete Cathy Freeman to light the caldron. "That was an inspired choice," he said, and one he did not influence.

In the case of Atlanta, however, Ebersol was the one who suggested Ali around the start of 1996. It took until June of that year to convince Billy Payne, the head of the Atlanta organizing committee, that Ali was a better choice than boxer Evander Holyfield.

"In Billy's case, I think I would have bound and gagged him if after six months of debating he had not finally changed his mind and agreed that Muhammad was the right person to light the caldron," Ebersol said.

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