Ali is my all-time sports hero. I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in the era of Jack Nicklaus, Rod Laver, Pele and Peter Snell. --------------------
Two jarring moments detracted from an otherwise outstanding London Olympics opening ceremony.
Former Beatle Paul McCartney, hair dyed, face lifted, really struggled to belt out one of his signature songs, Hey Jude, at the end of the show.
It was the sort of stage that in years past, McCartney would have relished, with 80,000 spectators inside the Olympic Stadium in a party mood. But McCartney looked like what he was: a 70-year-old rocker desperately trying to cling to his youth.
He was a long way removed from his Fab Four days.
Unfortunately, McCartney wasn't the saddest sight of the evening.
That was Muhammad Ali, the 70-year-old former world heavyweight boxing champion.
I'm not quite sure why Ali was even brought to London. He's an American.
It's not as if the English don't have enough sports stars of their own. Steve Ovett or Sally Gunnell, both world champion athletes, would have been more relevant.
Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996. He was 54 and just managed to steady his Parkinson's disease-ravaged body enough to perform the task.
He was lauded at the time and given the respect he had earned because of his boxing feats and what he had said and done out of the ring.
Sixteen years later it was distressing to see him so lifeless and helpless. He stood shaking, wearing dark glasses, hair dyed jet black, propped up by his attentive wife, Lonnie. There was no suggestion he might be able to wave, let alone speak.
Those close to Ali say he's totally aware of his surroundings, but is simply unable to convey that physically. I hope that's the case, but it didn't look like it.
Ali is my all-time sports hero. I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in the era of Jack Nicklaus, Rod Laver, Pele and Peter Snell. But Ali is my personal No 1, as he is for many sports fans of my generation.
I loved the way he boxed, and I enjoyed the colour he brought to the world of sport.
But that was a different Ali. The ailing man who was on show in London was a reminder of how cruel his sport can be.
When he bounced into England in the 1960s to take on “Our 'Enry” (Henry Cooper) twice, and another Englishman, Brian London, Ali was about the liveliest sports star on the planet. He was charismatic, always ready with a quip and immensely likeable.
When he fought Cooper in 1966 he stepped into the ring wearing a huge crown. The English didn't know what to make of the brash and brazen American, but they sure wanted to watch him.
Everything he did was outlandish and newsworthy.
It wasn't a shock to see him in his current state, because he's been suffering from Parkinson's disease since the early 1980s and has been really debilitated for the past 15 years.
Even so, it was immensely poignant.
Perhaps the 15,000 athletes competing at the London Olympics could take one lesson from watching Ali.
They should train hard and strive to win, of course. But perhaps even more importantly, they should enjoy their youth, their time in the sun.
You never know what's around the corner.
- © Fairfax NZ News