Question of the Month:

Cassius Clay's Lost Olympic Medal

August 2005

Q:  Did Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) throw his gold medal into the Ohio River or is that story a myth?

-- Pete Ganger, Muskegon, Mich.

Ali A:  It's time to dredge the Ohio River around Louisville, folks, because we need to solve the mystery of Cassius Clay's Olympic gold medal once and for all. There seem to be conflicting accounts about its whereabouts. Muhammad Ali himself still maintains that he had tossed it in the river in disgust after being turned away at a restaurant and harassed by a white motorcycle gang. Yet there are revisionists who insist that the tale is a fiction created by Richard Durham, the ghostwriter of Ali's autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story. According to the revisionists, Ali just lost the medal, misplaced it somewhere.

There are two different Ali ideologies clashing here, and an elusive reality. On the one hand, there are those who want to deny Cassius Clay's essential radicalism in the early sixties, or at least downplay it. Then there are those who see the event as a defining moment in Clay's transformation into the principled and subversive Muhammad Ali. I stand with the latter group. But I still want to know what really happened to the medal.

In the documentary When We Were Kings, we see that annoying Norman Mailer -- repeatedly shifting his seat, clearing his throat, and dropping science like Falstaff -- stating as a plain fact that Cassius Clay tossed his medal in the Ohio River. Mike Marqusee's Redemption Song also states this as an established fact, and the denial of it is evidence that Ali has become a "receptacle for our sloppiest sentiments." This is why Marqusee cringed when Ali was awarded a replacement medal during the 1996 Olympics.

On the other hand David Remnick's King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero does away with the "Olympic medal myth" in a well-researched but oddly tendentious bit of reporting. To Remnick, ghostwriter Richard Durham -- Marxist editor of Muhammad Speaks -- was really writing a political tract, not Ali's autobiography. In this, Durham becomes Parson Weems, and there is very little we can trust in The Greatest: My Own Story. Muhammad Ali -- though he never claimed to have tossed the medal in the Ohio River before his autobiography was written -- seems to have convinced himself of the truth of the event after the book was released. It's strange how memory works, especially when someone else is constructing the narrative of your own life. In reality, young Cassius Clay just misplaced the medal, that's all.

According to Wilma Rudolph, who was with the young Cassius Clay at the time he was awarded the medal, "I can still see him strutting around the Olympic Village with his gold medal on. He slept with it. He went to the cafeteria with it. He never took it off. No one cherished it the way he did." Obviously he loved the thing, and never let it out of his sight. So how did he just "lose" it? And why has no one found it since then? How many other Olympic gold medalists have lost their medals?

Here's my theory. Yes, perhaps chucking it in the Ohio River was a myth, created for its visual sense and dramatic flair. But Ali "lost" the medal at around the same time he was being heavily politicized by his involvement in the Nation of Islam. And he really was being mistreated by restaurants and motorcycle gangs. Hell, neither he nor the legendary Joe Louis could get hotel rooms in Miami in the weeks leading up to the first Sonny Liston fight! So I say Ali did stop cherishing his medal, and it turned into a symbol of the "blue-eyed devils" who awarded it to him. And when he stopped caring about something that was once so central to him, it's easy to "lose" it, however accidentally. Maybe it ended up in a dumpster along with a bunch of banana peels and soup cans. Maybe it's still sitting in in the ruins of some demolished hotel. No matter what happened, I have yet to hear any stories about Cassius Clay flying into a rage about his lost medal, and enlisting his entourage in a furious search to find it. Losing the medal was still political and significant, and to deny this is to falsely reconfigure Ali's early life and politics.

So if anyone out there finds a 1960 Olympic medal lying around, gold with the word PUGILATO emblazoned across it, send it to Muhammad Ali. With any luck, he might take it down to the Ohio River and chuck it in.

August 2005 response by Mark Desrosiers, Minneapolis, Minn.


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