In the wake of his death on Friday, Muhammad Ali has been remembered as the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, a controversial black nationalist, an early opponent of the Vietnam War, a devout Muslim and a humanitarian who spent countless hours helping people around the world.
But as a political figure, he was even more than that. Ali was almost uniquely complex and unpredictable, and he played roles we would find astonishing now. One of his least remembered was one of the most unlikely: diplomat.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter decided to use Ali’s considerable political capital to push America’s agenda on the world stage—specifically, to recruit countries to join the the United States’ boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow. The job must have seemed perfect for the man: a globally important sports figure, a rare American icon with political traction in the Third World, pushing one of the most important and electric collisions of athletics and politics.
It failed utterly. Ali, one of the most famous and beloved figures in the world, was almost ludicrously ineffective at the job he’d been handed. But the reasons he failed—and the details of just what happened—were perfectly Ali. His unpredictability and openness, fatal flaws in an envoy entrusted with the sharp end of a diplomatic mission, were exactly the qualities that made him so attractive to people and what made him the powerful cultural icon he was.
By the late 1970s,Muhammad Ali was back as a public figure. He appeared to have regained everything he lost during the previous decade, when his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War almost ended his career. He retired after taking back the title in 1978 from upstart Leon Spinks, who had upset him earlier in the year.
Politically, Ali had seemingly relinquished his role as a firebrand oppositional figure in America; Republican President Gerald Ford had invited Ali to the White House a few years earlier to honor the champ after he regained the title from George Foreman in Zaire.So it was not a complete surprise when Carter, a culturally conservative Democrat, turned to Ali to take on a larger political role pushing the U.S. Olympic boycott. Carter had long valued Ali as a potential asset on the world stage. Ali agreed.
With characteristic bravado, he felt that his potency as a celebrity would translate into successful diplomacy—that he could be, as he would refer to himself, “the black Henry Kissinger.” At a time when it seemed as though the U.S. was losing the Cold War and public confidence in the government was low, perhaps Carter could even ride the coattails of Ali’s popularity to increase his own support.
And they weren’t talking about mere lightweight goodwill missions: Carter and his advisers had considered Ali as an envoy to Iran during the hostage crisis, the rare prominent American Muslim who might be respected enough to deal with the radicals. That one didn’t happen; they eventually determined that the Ayatollah Khomeini wouldn’t be willing to negotiate with any American, no matter how famous.
But the President saw another opportunity to deploy Ali. The U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics had become a global flash point: In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter had pulled the American team from the Moscow games, and over 60 countries, many of them U.S. allies, had agreed to skip them as well.
At a moment when the U.S. and the USSR were vying for influence across the globe, the more countries the U.S. could recruit, the more powerful a statement it would be. Ali was drafted for the job. He would be flown on a State Department plane to Tanzania and then travel to Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal. His job was to echo Carter’s line that participation in the games was tantamount to an approval of the Soviet Union’s abhorrent occupation of Afghanistan.
Ali had made his share of gaffes where Africa was concerned: He had joked about cannibalism in promoting a fight, and his uncritical dealings with dictators like President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire had raised eyebrows in the West. But millions of Africans admired Ali, a feeling that went back to his first trip to the continent in 1964, after he had beaten Sonny Liston for the title. Both Ali and Carter were confident that Ali was a revered figure in Africa whose word would resonate with the people of Africa.
Nearly from the moment Ali arrived in Tanzania, however, it became clear that the trip was not going to be a success.
By 1980, the champ was in bad shape, already suffering from untreated Parkinson’s, in a dysfunctional marriage, barely able to box, his weight up to 255 pounds and cash-strapped. Though a global celebrity, Ali was near a personal breaking point when Carter had summoned him. And he was no doubt the wrong man to send to carry America’s political water if the message was opposed by significant portions of the black or Islamic world.
From the start of the visit, Ali encountered opposition. The Soviet Union had backed a number of popular revolutions on the continent, and while none of the countries on the itinerary were Soviet allies, there was significant skepticism of U.S. motives and commitment to African interests. Four years earlier, the U.S. had refused to support a boycott of the Summer Olympics in Montreal by 29 African nations that had objected to New Zealand’s inclusion despite that country’s refusal to avoid international competition with apartheid South Africa. If the U.S. wouldn’t back an African Olympic boycott, then why should African countries back an American Olympic boycott? When Ali was asked this question, he had no answer.
In one nation after another, Ali was presented with persuasive arguments for ignoring the U.S. boycott—and found himself sympathetic to them. In Tanzania, in response to reporters’ inquiries, he admitted, “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.” In Kenya, he said Carter sent him “around the world to take the whupping over American policies.” In Nigeria, he was told that the country would participate in the Moscow games.
A State Department official actually tried to shut down one news conference, which turned out to be the rare such event at which the person being covered learned far more about the issue at hand than those gathered to hear from him. 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.”
Ali flew home and went to the White House, where he told Carter what the President undoubtedly knew: that things had not gone well. Time magazine would call the endeavor “the most bizarre diplomatic mission in U.S. history.” It was that kind of year for Ali; the beating he took in Africa would mirror the one he took in the ring against Larry Holmes months later, a catastrophic loss that accelerated his declining health. It is impossible to know whether Ali’s visit to Africa had any effect at all, although it is worth noting that Kenya and Liberia did wind up supporting the U.S. boycott.
Part of the reason for Ali’s immense public stature is his openness to interpretation. His statements and achievements can be taken in myriad ways to support opposing worldviews. That sense of malleability extended to the man himself: If Ali could be contradictory, it was in part because he remained open to opposing ideas, and that made him precisely the wrong choice to deliver a clear American message on the Olympic boycott. Even as someone who had renounced the most strident of his black nationalist views, Ali still had a strong anti-colonial leaning toward black self-determination. Carter’s position that African nations should follow the U.S. lead was one that Ali simply could not bring himself to deliver from the heart.
Carter was not alone. He made the same mistake that so many of Ali’s biographers and admirers have made over the years. Ali has gone from a slippery fighter early in his career to an elusive subject late in life; for decades it has been hard to lay a glove on him. Despite the plethora of attempts, nobody has nailed down a single definitive perspective on Ali, probably because there isn’t one. Carter failed to realize that what made Ali attractive as a political symbol, and still does—his willingness to bend and be bent—would undermine him as a political operative. The blunder would cost Carter valuable Cold War leverage at a key moment in his presidency.
Surprisingly, however, the failed Olympic campaign wasn’t the last diplomatic mission Ali undertook. In August 1990, shortly after invading Kuwait, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein took thousands of foreigners hostage, including 15 American civilians, some of whom had worked at the General Motors plant in Baghdad. Hussein used the hostages as human shields, housing them in locations where he thought Americans might drop bombs.
In November, President George H.W. Bush sent Ali to Iraq to secure the Americans’ release and bring them home.The New York Times blasted the idea, calling it “surely the strangest hostage-release campaign of recent days” and reminding readers that Ali suffered from a “frequent inability to speak clearly.” It was true: By then, Ali had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, needed medication to control his symptoms and tired easily. Joe Wilson, then the leading U.S. diplomat in Iraq, said, “People traveling to Iraq are making a serious mistake.” Officials feared that the negotiators themselves would be kidnapped.
After a week in Baghdad, though, Ali inexplicably emerged with the 15 Americans, after all other attempts failed. Hussein reportedly told people that he would not let Ali leave empty-handed. Just weeks later, U.S. bombing of Iraq began. It turned out, in the end, that Jimmy Carter wasn’t necessarily wrong in his assessment of Ali’s value on the world stage. He just might have picked the wrong mission. The line between overestimating and underestimating Muhammad Ali has always been a thin one.
*Michael Ezra is a professor of American multicultural studies at Sonoma State University and author of Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon (Temple University Press, 2009).