8: Ali lights the flame at the 1996 Olympics

The question was asked and debated for more than a month: Who will be the chosen one, the person to receive the Olympic Games' great honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron for the 1996 Games in Atlanta?

No one from the Olympic Committee would dare reveal the secret.

It's July 19, 1996, the Opening Ceremonies at Atlanta's Olympic Stadium. With music of the South permeating throughout stadium and images evoking powerful remembrances of the Olympics' 100-year history, the curtain is raised on the 1996 Games.

"Sweet Georgia Brown" rings through the Southern summer air, and with the vivid colors of the five Olympic rings waving through Olympic Stadium, the ceremony begins with gold fireworks in the early-evening sky. The sky is black, except for the flawless white crescent of the moon majestically suspended against the darkness. The traditional parade of nations begins, with nearly 11,000 athletes, representing 197 nations.

Fireworks continue to light up the dark summer sky, one after another, as 500 cheerleaders and a 300-member, high-stepping marching band entertain the overflowing throng. White curtains rise from the floor in center of the stadium, and, in a light, faint glow, performers create silhouettes that depict classic poses of Greek athletes.

The American delegation of 700 athletes is the last to ascend over the bridge in the north corner of the stadium. Led by wrestler Bruce Baumgartner, the flagbearer and a four-time Olympian, the Americans circle around the Olympic track amidst the spine-chilling roar of the audience.

President Bill Clinton officially begins the 16 days of the Olympic Games by announcing, "I declare open the Games of Atlanta celebrating the 26th Olympiad of the modern era."

Teresa Edwards, a four-time member of the U.S. women's basketball team, takes the Olympic oath for all athletes. Billy Payne, the head of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games that stunned sentimental favorite Athens to win the bid for the Centennial Games, announces the Games as "the greatest peacetime event in modern history."

International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain reminds the crowd and an estimated 3.5 billion television viewers worldwide that not all is festive outside the sphere of the five rings. "We still live in a world where human tragedies persist," he would say in a late addition to his speech, referring to the crash of TWA Flight 800 that claimed 229 lives a few nights earlier, shortly after takeoff from New York.

The Olympic torch arrives at the stadium at 12:20 a.m. Al Oerter, a four-time gold medal-winning discus thrower from 1956 to 1968, is the last torchbearer before the flame entered the stadium.

The final leg of the 84-day, 15,000-mile torch relay -- which began its tour across the United States in Los Angeles in April -- begins this evening at City Hall and winds toward the stadium on a route that includes the birthplace and tomb of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Emerging from beneath the center of the infield is one of Atlanta's own, boxer Evander Holyfield, a bronze medalist in 1984 and a world heavyweight champion. He takes the torch from Oerter and takes the traditional lap around the infield of the Olympic stadium.

Holyfield is joined in mid-lap by Voula Patoulidou of Greece, the gold medalist in the women's 100-meter hurdles in 1992. The twosome -- symbolizing the Athens Games of 1896 and the Atlanta Games 100 years later -- hand the flame to American Janet Evans, a four-time gold medal swimmer. Evans finishes the lap around the track and carries the torch up the ramp to the base of the cauldron tower.

There, the secret, is finally revealed: Evans is joined at the foot of the 116-foot tower leading to the caldron by ... Muhammad Ali, the former Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champ suffering from Parkinson's syndrome.

Emotionally moved, the stunned crowd roars as the honor to light the Olympic cauldron falls into the hands of the 1960 gold medalist in boxing. Ali lights a fuse to form a fireball that is carried by a pulley 134 steps above to the caldron, where the flame is ignited, a flame that will burn over the stadium until the closing ceremonies.