Muhammad Ali The Diplomat: Revered Champion, Mixed Results
As we continue to remember the one year passing of Muhammad Ali, it’s not hard to note the former champion was asked by both the Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush administrations, to embark on some very significant diplomatic roles. During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, then US President Jimmy Carter actively considered sending Ali to Tehran to negotiate with the new Iranian regime. They reasoned Ali was both a Muslim and had the stature the Iranians would respect. In the end, the administration decided the Iranians didn’t want to negotiate with anyone that was American, and Ali was not sent.
But a few months later, the Carter administration did use Ali for a different kind of diplomatic mission. During the American-led boycott effort of the 1980 Olympic games scheduled for Moscow, in protest of Russia’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, Carter tapped Ali to lobby five influential African countries to support the Olympic boycott. The countries Ali were to visit included Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal.
The mission turned out to be a complete disaster. A poorly briefed Ali who did not fully understand the rationale behind an Olympic boycott, nor did he understand the Soviets were actively engaged in the liberation struggle of many of the African countries. Ali was no match for the seasoned African diplomats who questioned why they should support a US boycott of the Moscow Olympics, when the United States did not support the African boycott of the Olympic Games four years earlier. The African countries (plus Iraq and Guyana) had boycotted the 1976 Olympics in Montreal to protest the Olympic Movement’s refusal to condemn New Zealand for sending a Rugby Team to tour Apartheid South Africa.
The Tanzanians seemed to be the most confrontational. One government official slipped Ali a note, calling him a “Puppet of the Carter administration," wondering aloud if the Carter administration would have sent tennis player Chris Evert to London to negotiate a sensitive diplomatic issue with the British.
In Nigeria, President Shehu Shagari outright refused to meet with Ali personally, sending a lower level delegation to receive him instead.
By the end of the trip, the African countries had managed to convinced Ali himself that the boycott was a bad idea prompting the Champ to say, “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 returned to the US to brief President Carter on the obvious: Ali’s mission, had failed.
Ali would have diplomatic success a decade later however. During the first Gulf War in 1991, Ali successfully negotiated with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to secure the release of 15 American hostages. Ali’s success surprised most observers and cemented his status as a global ambassador of peace.