Wednesday 22 May 2019

Muhammad Ali: Jimmy Carter’s Pugilistic Plenipotentiary

February 1980.

Here is film footage of Muhammad Ali speaking to journalists in Nigeria during his notorious tour as a plenipotentiary of sorts for U.S. President Jimmy Carter who was hoping to persuade Black African countries to boycott the Moscow Olympic Games which was to be held later that year.

Ali’s pitch, which occurred soon after Nigerian President Shehu Shagari refused to meet with him, seemed to be that if the Black African states joined in the boycott, it would create the conditions for America to become more pro-active in combating the Apartheid regime of South Africa. And if America did not requite this gesture it would put it and Ali in a bit of a spot.

But the Africans, who had boycotted the 1976 Montreal Games over the issue of sporting links with South Africa, felt no compunction about refusing to boycott the Soviet Union over its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. They were sore over the fact that the United States had dragged its feet over the question of imposing sanctions on Pretoria.

Ali visited five countries in all: Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania. Liberia was willing to go along with the United States (until the overthrow of William Tolbert), as was Kenya which was the only one to not participate.

The others remained unimpressed.

Senghor-led Senegal stood by a policy of refusing to participate in politically motivated sporting boycotts. Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian leader like Nigeria’s Shagari, refused to meet Ali. As beloved as Ali was among Black Africans, his mission proved to be a dismal failure. Carter had erred not merely by underestimating the resoluteness of African states in refusing to compromise over South Africa and their anger about America’s hypocrisy in opposing previous African-led boycotts, but also by his decision to entrust such a herculean endeavour in the hands of a non-diplomat sportsman.

An exasperated Tanzanian official asked with disarming candour:

“Would the United States send Chris Evert to negotiate with London?”

© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England. He is a contributor to the recently released Cambridge Companion to Boxing

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