Boxing great Muhammad Ali traveled to Africa in early 1980. President Carter asked him to persuade African leaders to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow because the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Ambassador Lannon Walker was abruptly pulled from negotiations in Angola to accompany The Champ as his diplomatic advisor. This was more than sports diplomacy; the visit had a specific foreign policy objective.
In the end, the Ali visit did not achieve its ambitious goal. Of the five countries visited by Ali, only Kenya refused to send a team to Moscow — though Liberia withdrew from the games after marching in the opening ceremony.
African leaders remembered that the United States would not join their boycott of the 1976 games in Montreal because New Zealand – which did not honor the international sporting embargo of apartheid South Africa – competed. At the time, The Washington Post reported “Ali’s venture into diplomacy . . . had his State Department escorts sweating and biting their nails . . . .” In his 2010 book on the boycott, Dropping the Torch, Nicholas Evan Sarantakes judged “Ali had no reason to feel proud. He changed no policies on his trip. Instead, he managed to generate a good deal of ridicule.” A 2016 article by Michal Ezra provided another generally negative evaluation.
An article in the Foreign Service Journal by Ambassador Walker has recently provided an up-close-and-personal perspective, however. Public Diplomacy officers will especially enjoy the retired ambassador’s account. No doubt the American Embassy press officers in in Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia, and Senegal could tell their own stories of frantic handling of the local and international press eager to meet The Champ – and the press conference in Dar es Salaam that did not go according to plan. And American embassies filled in Ali’s visits with goodwill events.
Here are some of Walker’s vignettes.
I asked the ambassador to explain to Ali where we stood on the appointments. When the champ heard that they had all canceled, he stood up in a fury and said he was going to take his plane and return to the United States.
“Champ,” I said, “when you’re in the ring and someone has you on the ropes, do you leave the ring?”
“I get your drift,” Ali said, and turned to the ambassador. “Where’s downtown?” he asked.
Neither the ambassador nor I had the slightest clue what he was driving at. But when the ambassador mentioned Tinubu Square, Ali took me by the arm, “Let’s go there now.”
The long line of minibuses that had brought us from the airport was downstairs waiting, press corps and State Department delegation included. As we pulled into Tinubu Square, Ali jumped out and began to shadow box with passers-by, of which there were hundreds.
Soon he was recognized, and the growing crowd began to chant: “Ali! Ali!” When he had whipped them into a frenzy, he turned to me: “Where was that first appointment?”
I replied that I had gotten his drift, and off we went with a large, chanting crowd in tow to the foreign ministry and our first appointment. We saw other ministers, but not the Nigerian president.
[President] Tolbert was very formal, welcoming Ali and me with all the old-style protocol of which the Liberian state was so enamored. As he spoke, Ali leaned forward from his pew and began to chant: “Speak to me! That’s right, speak to me! I hear you preaching. Oh, my Lord…”
I thought, now you’ve done it—managed to get the champ to insult a strong ally and probably lose sure support. But no—Tolbert began to rap back, and before my eyes the two were [transformed into brothers. We were on a roll.
. . . a reporter stood up and, with a heavy Russian accent, launched into the same line about an imperialist ploy that we had heard in Tanzania.
The press corps began to wake up when Ali looked at the reporter and asked, “Are you a Russian?”
Yes, was the answer.
“Are you a communist?” Ali continued.
After some hesitation, a reluctant yes came out.
“Well,” said Ali, really wound up now, as if this were the last championship round. “I’ve been to your country. You don’t believe in God. Well, I’ll tell you something, we’re in Africa here, and we believe in God!”
The Russian sat down, abashed, as the press corps and onlookers cheered. The champ raised his arms in victory.
Public Diplomacy, sports diplomacy
There was more, of course, to Ali’s mission than his meetings with chiefs of state and the press. Our ambassadors and their missions went all out to arrange programs where Ali could meet the people, especially local boxers, and generally show his profound generosity. Our State Department delegation handled the public diplomacy and saw to it that his strengths were displayed optimally. It was a very good show, and the Russians got the message. Their Olympics had been overshadowed by The Champ.
A diplomat extraordinaire
I had told him then, and I meant it, that he was “a diplomat extraordinaire.” His sense of timing and his ability to get inside his interlocutor’s head and heart were a beauty to behold. Ali combined a sense of strategy, learned from the ring, with the unparalleled ability to muster popular support, above and beyond any government’s policy. This dynamite combination gave him power and entrée no ordinary diplomat can muster.
Michael Ezra judged that Ali “failed utterly” in 1980. President George H. W. Bush objected, but Ali traveled to Iraq in November, 1990, to persuade Saddam Hussein to release 15 American hostages. He succeeded. “It turned out, in the end, that Jimmy Carter wasn’t necessarily wrong in his assessment of Ali’s value on the world stage. He just might have picked the wrong mission.”
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.