Today in history: Muhammad Ali carries the Olympic Torch, lights cauldron in Atlanta

19 Jul 1996: Muhammad Ali holds the torch before lighting the Olympic Flame during the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. (Mandatory Credit: Michael Cooper/Getty Images)

ATLANTA — It is a moment that Atlanta will never forget: boxing legend Muhammad Ali standing in front of the world, holding the Olympic torch proudly in the air, signaling the beginning of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.

That moment happened on July 19, 1996, 27 years ago to the day. According to Olympic historians, it was a well-kept secret that Ali would be the one to carry the torch and light the cauldron.

The city celebrated the anniversary of the Olympics by holding a “Relive the Dream” event featuring athletes, former volunteers and civic leaders.

Resident Chuck Leake attended the opening ceremonies and said his most vivid memory was Ali lighting the Olympic cauldron.

“That was the highlight of the Atlanta Olympics,” Leake said.

Five-time Olympic medalist Janet Evans remembers swimming in the games, but seeing Ali at the games is her fondest memory.

“Passing the torch to Muhammad Ali during opening ceremonies was incredible and it was just a wonderful experience,” Evans said. Ali lost his years-long battle with Parkinson’s disease in 2016.


In 2020, the Olympic Cauldron was lit for the first time since the 1996 Olympics. Georgia State University lit the iconic cauldron in celebration of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic U.S. Marathon Trials that took place in downtown Atlanta back in February 2020.

The cauldron sits just outside Georgia State Stadium at the intersection of Capitol Avenue and Fulton Street. Georgia State Stadium, previously Centennial Olympic Stadium before becoming Turner Field.

The stadium hosted the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics, along with all of the track and field events.