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The Greatest has left

By Jaka Bizilj


I met Muhammad and Lonnie Ali at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York and we decided to host a special evening at the Olympic Games in London to celebrate his values and make him a surprise guest of the Opening Ceremony. Ali had won Olympic Gold in Rome in 1960, but threw his medal into a river in anger when he was denied service at a diner in his hometown because of his color. He accepted his gold medal back when segregation was abandoned and, moreover, was chosen to open the Olympic Games in Atlanta—which was probably the most touching moment of modern sports history. We all remember forever his will to control his shaking hands to light the Olympic flame.

Because of Ali’s health condition his farewell in London was only possible with a special private plane to bring him over the Atlantic for the last time. While hundreds of sponsors and International Olympic Committee (IOC) members travelled to London with private planes, none of them provided a plane for Ali and none of them offered support—not a single Olympic sponsor. We had asked all of them.

Our angel at the very last moment was Michelle Yeoh, a wonderful actress from James Bond and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who I met by chance with Aung San Suu Kyi in Dublin at Amnesty International, when she came for the first time to Europe after her release from house arrest. The Lady, as she is called in Burma, was a partner of Cinema for Peace and Michelle Yeoh an honoree—for portraying her in Luc Besson’s film. Michelle heard about my problem, sent a few text messages and announced: It is done. Michelle had solved a major problem of six months in six minutes.

Others made it possible too: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt supported Ali’s visit as well as Stephen Daldry, Ron Dennis, John Caudwell and Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton, and we found the perfect setting in the Victoria and Albert museum in a room with antique paintings of the Resurrection, where we had exactly two hours to set up a dinner gala with a stage and entertainment. Many Londoners promised to help and did not, sponsors came and went, billionaires like Mittal promised a donation of fifty thousand pounds for Ali’s charity and never gave it. We never experienced anything like that before or after, there was never such a contrast of a very few good people helping and selfish people as in London. I felt like...“it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”

What a huge relief it was when Ali’s plane landed at three in the morning in Stansted—a beautiful plane with a crew that stayed there for Ali for a week at his disposal. What an inspiring evening we had with six champions of sports, film and human rights on Ali’s six core values: Wladimir Klitschko, Boris Becker, Lewis Hamilton, Fatou Bensouda, Sir Christopher Lee, who had been Ali’s friend for forty years and presenter Sir David Frost in of his last appearances on stage, the man who did the most famous and daring interviews with Richard Nixon and Ali of course.

What a great surprise moment at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games: We put black fabric around a golf cart and drove with Lonnie and Muhammad secretly into the stadium. UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon and a group of amazing personalities carried the Olympic flag in a peace and justice procession through the stadium, an idea we had developed with director Stephen Daldry, in order to present the flag to the surprise guest and salute human rights. We opened the golf cart and the stadium speaker announced The Greatest of all Time: In an emotional eruption, a hundred thousand people jumped up from their seats and started cheering Ali’s name. Muhammad could hardly move, but you could see the joy in his eyes—this was his big Olympic farewell, while the speaker announced his six core values and what they stand for. Ali’s legacy.

Nobody used openly the word farewell, and sometimes when it all got too crazy and I did not know what to do I considered postponing everything to Rio de Janeiro this year, but my instinct told me that London is the very last opportunity, and that we have to make the impossible possible—something we had learned from our patrons like Nelson Mandela, Ben Ferencz and Mikhail Gorbachev: No matter what the obstacle is, you never give up. And at the end it was like a miracle; it all came together, with Laetitia Cash as the guardian angel that appeared with the missing supporters; the media and England went crazy for Ali — even inventing stories — Muhammad was happy to celebrate his legacy, we raised tons of money for Ali’s charity work and the fight against Parkinson’s disease, and two days later the audience in the Olympic stadium was the best, while billions of people around the globe paid their final tribute to Ali.

Thank God it all worked out. Hopefully we can pay tribute in Rio de Janeiro and Ali will stay alive with us.



Jaka Bizilj is a producer and the founder of Cinema for Peace and Sports for Peace.



Trailer of the Day sent on the occasion of Muhammad Ali’s farewell at the Olympic Games in 2012:




Trailer of the Day: Olympic Games & Sports for Peace honouring Muhammad Ali

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Olympic Games are a celebration of values and humanity. The 2012 Summer Olympics start today, with an opening ceremony held at 9pm London time for more than 1 billion viewers around the globe. We encourage you to watch especially the end part, as the founder of Cinema for Peace Jaka Bizilj has prepared together with the director of Ceremonies of the Olympic Games Stephen Daldry a surprise for the global public in connection with the issue of peace&justice and a very special honorary guest.
The most memorable moment of modern Olympic history was probably in 1996, when Muhammad Ali lighted the Olympic fire in Atlanta. On the occasion of the Olympic Games in London, “Sports for Peace” hosted a special Gala on July 25 honoring  Ali.
Sports idols such as Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, tennis legend Boris Becker, the  world champion in heavyweight boxing  Wladimir Klitschko, Sir Bob Geldof, Sir Christopher Lee and the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda presented Muhammad Alis core values. "Muhammad Ali is the greatest of all time. The greatest living sportsman. To be in his presence one more time is a big honour and a privilege”, the 3-time Wimbledon-winner Becker said. “From an athlete he became a peacemaker, he became a global warrior and just a spokesperson for the right causes".
“Sports for Peace” aims at promoting the Olympic ideals of freedom and intercultural understanding and was created during the preliminary stages of the Olympic Games in Bejing 2008 in response to the question whether sport or major sporting events could be obliged to common ideals, following a discussion with Richard Gere in 2007 and joint Cinema for Peace-initiatives in regards of Tibet and China.
The Sports for Peace Gala event raised funds for the educational Muhammad Ali Center and for research into Parkinson's disease. Ali has battled the degenerative brain condition for almost 30 years and only makes rare public appearances, this was his first travel abroad for 3 years, after actress Michelle Yeoh had helped to secure adequate transportation.
Cinema for Peace longtime partner Sir Bob Geldof said Ali was the rare athlete who had made a difference in the world in the fields of sports, peace and humanity. "Muhammad Ali was intensely political, and changed the whole agenda," Geldof said. "He did it with the same bravery he did in the ring."
Muhammad Ali was prepared to give up his career and to go to prison instead of going to war in Vietnam. He was initially sentenced to 5 years in prison, was stripped his world-championship title and not allowed to fight and make a living for 3,5 years.
The reigning world champion in heavyweight boxing and 10-year-committee-member of Cinema for Peace Wladimir Klitschko: "Muhammad, you are the best of all time, you are the Greatest and we love you."

Ai Weiwei for Cinema for Peace

Ai Weiwei's 'Safe Passage' installation with life-vests from Lesbos for Cinema for Peace.


Upcoming Screenings:


August 13th 2018, at the Schikaneder Kino in Vienna / Address: Margaretenstraße 24, A - 1040 Wien