My Diplomatic Moment with Mohammed Ali

(from Diplomatic Courier)

While many recall and some still criticize Mohammed Ali’s refusal to be drafted to fight the U.S. war in Vietnam as a conscientious objector, I remember the time when the boxer conscientiously took on a tough fight for his country.

In December 1979, the army of the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. What did this event have to do with Mohammed Ali, the American boxing champion?

The Soviet aggression against Afghanistan was such a blatant illegitimate act that President Jimmy Carter was totally enraged. He wanted to punish the Soviets. He decided that the United States would boycott the Olympic games scheduled to be held in Moscow during the summer of 1980. In addition, he unleashed an international diplomatic offensive designed to persuade every other government to boycott as well.

This is where Mohammed Ali came in. To convince the African nations to boycott the Moscow summer Olympics, President Carter asked Mohammed Ali to visit five influential African countries and make the argument to them.  His itinerary included Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal.

I was the United States Ambassador to Senegal at the time, so I was responsible for preparing Mohammed Ali’s visit. I asked President Leopold Senghor to receive Ali. He was delighted to agree. I also asked our press and cultural diplomats to make sure that Mohammed Ali would be able to spend time with the Senegalese people. In view of the champion’s fantastic reputation, and the great admiration he enjoyed among the Senegalese population, making arrangements was relatively easy.

We decided to recommend two activities to Mohammed Ali. The first was to invite all Senegalese parents, residing in the capital city of Dakar, who had named their babies Mohammed Ali, to come to the Ambassador’s residence to have their children blessed by him. The second was to have Mohammed Ali go to the boxing matches and say hello to the boxers and to the boxing fans.

The day of the blessing of the babies was very popular. The line stretched from the residence for several blocks down to the ocean beach. And Mohammed Ali was terrific. He gave every mother and child a lot of attention and affection. It was as if they were all his own children.

In the evening, we escorted Ali to the boxing matches. On the way, he handed out generous donations to handicapped people lining the road.

The sport of boxing is very big in Senegal.  Ali was introduced to the crowd who spent a long time cheering him.  After a while, Ali was invited to climb into the ring and put on the gloves. Ali and his Senegalese opponent sparred for a few minutes. At one point, Ali allowed his opponent to land a hard punch on his chest. Ali went down on his back and the referee counted to ten. Ali had been KO’d. Needless to say, there was much affectionate laughter.

The final event was Ali’s meeting with President Leopold Senghor, the founding father of Senegal, who was also a well known poet and champion of black culture, known as “negritude.”  Rather than have a formal meeting in his office, Senghor decided to invite Ali have lunch with him and some family and young friends at his beach residence, “Popinguine,” about 25 miles south of Dakar. My wife Suzanne and I were also invited.

Ali made President Carter’s argument about boycotting the Olympic games in Moscow quite forcefully to Senghor. After listening intently, Senghor pointed out that the Africans had proposed boycotting the 1976 Olympics in Montreal because the international community was doing virtually nothing to help them combat apartheid in South Africa. Senghor said that the response from President Gerald Ford at the time was that the world should not mix politics and the Olympics. Hence, Senegal will refuse to treat the 1980 Olympics as a political issue, and will participate.

Ali accepted Senghor’s explanation without a rebuttal.  He said that the four previous African governments that he had visited gave the same reply.  We then settled down to a friendly lunch and chitchat about life in the United States and Senegal. At the end of the lunch, Senghor whispered in Ali’s ear, and they both went off together to another part of the house. They came back together about twenty minutes later. Senghor then asked the butler to pour champagne.

Senghor then proposed a short toast to US-Senegal friendship. In proposing his response toast, Ali had a lot to say about the importance of Africa to many Americans of African descent, and how proud he was to be representing President Carter.

At the end of his toast, Ali said that Senegal was the final stop on his five-nation African tour, and it was clearly the most enjoyable of all, for which he thanked President Senghor, as well as all of the Senegalese people he had the privilege of meeting. However, instead of ending his toast there, Ali had another important point to make.  He said that at no previous stop had a head of state escorted him personally to the rest room, and had waited for him to escort him back to the dining room. President Senghor, and all the rest of us, thought that Ali’s revelation was absolutely delightful.

So as Mohammed is remembered this week as someone who won his fights and who refused on moral and religious grounds to serve in the American military in Vietnam, I remember him today as a man who stepped willingly up to fight for another American president’s goals. And though Ali did not win that fight, I respected him even more for trying.

An autographed photo Ali gave to my son during his visit in Dakar.

An autographed photo Ali gave to my son during his visit in Dakar.