African American Olympians
Cassius Clay returns from the Olympics to Louisville, Sept. 9, 1960. AP Photo/The Courier Journal, Al Hixenbaugh.
Few outside the boxing world paid much attention to the light-heavyweight championship at the 1960 Olympics. Though the American fighter, Cassius Clay, would eventually be lionized as "the greatest"—boxer, athlete, icon—of the 20th century, at the time of his bout in Rome he was relatively unknown outside of his Louisville, Kentucky hometown. Behind the scenes, however, Rome was a crucial proving ground for the 18-year-old Clay. On a major stage, though still off the radar of the ravenous U.S. sports media, Clay was free to cultivate his boxing style and personality without interference. His decisive victory against Polish fighter Zbigniew "Ziggy" Pietrzykowski validated his unorthodox technique, and he returned to Louisville with the confidence to go pro. The pride of his city, Clay was greeted by a 50-car motorcade and remarks by Mayor Bruce Hoblitzell and Congressman Frank W. Burke. More importantly, he was quickly booked for his first professional fight, a benefit match that would raise money for a local children's hospital and pay him $2,000, a huge sum for a debut. Though his race-consciousness began growing steadily alongside his profile, contrary to widespread reports Clay never threw his gold medal into the Ohio river, done supposedly after he was denied service at an all-white Louisville restaurant. Like so many of the stories surrounding Clay (later, Muhammad Ali), myth has become nearly indistinguishable from truth.