Moment of the Year, 1996? Ali, of course. Ali emerging from the darkness, from the past, from the recesses of our imagination. Ali, a ghost in white, materializing after midnight to accept the flaming torch high on a ledge in Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Games. The massive crowd rising, straining to see who would have the honor of lighting the cauldron, and then crying "Whooooaaa" in astonishment, the "Whooooaaa" washing into a "Whoop," a hands-to-the-sky celebration.
How much finer than the other fine moments? As much as Michael Johnson finished ahead of the field in the 200-meter final—that's how much finer. First because of the surprise, the most known face on the planet showing up at the most unexpected instant. But more so because it was loaded, this simple moment, loaded with so much more meaning than anything a man could do in any game or any race.
For here was the perfect counterpoint to all the power and youth and majesty assembled on the field below. Everything around Ali, everything that would unfold in the following 2½ weeks, would sell and smell of limitlessness, of dreaming the dream. And there stood Ali, saying, Yes, it can be that, but, no, it's never just that...by saying nothing. By simply standing there, alone, the torch shaking in his hands, the former gold medalist and heavyweight champion struggling to accomplish a moment's stillness.
As he strained to light the world's largest wick with the world's largest matchstick, it became clear: Every grand human event, every instance of pomp and ceremony, should have its aging man with Parkinson's syndrome, its reminder of change and frailty—not to file the sharp and shiny edges off of the spectacle but to permit the experience to achieve its truest roundness.
Moment of the Year, 1996? You take the sudden and the swift, the whooshes and the swooshes. I'll take the trembling still life.