Olympian Ato Boldon has lauded the late Muhammad Ali for being a pioneer for black athletes in an era when that was not the norm.

“I think if you ask the majority of athletes - especially the black ones - who their all-time favourite is, it is Ali. And I think it’s because he was unapologetically himself in a time when that was not popular. So I think all of us kinda get a sense of, we were able to be who we were because he was as well,” Boldon declared yesterday.

Boldon, a renowned athletics commentator and coach, was also a senator for a short period as he looked to make his mark in shaping a better Trinidad and Tobago (TT).

The former sprinter, in a telephone interview from California, in the United States, with Sunday Newsday, explained what Ali’s career means to him.

In one of the most historic Olympic moments ever, Ali, while battling Parkinson’s disease, lit the Olympic Flame at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where Boldon earned bronze medals in the 100m and 200m events.

Being present as the charismatic Ali held the Olympic Torch, showing the world what fighting was all about, Boldon described it as one of the most memorable moments in his life and he believes that feat was even greater than Ali winning Olympic gold in the Light Heavyweight division in Rome in 1960.

Brian Lewis, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC), also reflected on that symbolic moment in 1996.

“I think it was profound.

The effort to do it (light the Flame) and I recall it even as if it was yesterday, we were actually willing him on to do it. You get a sense of the immense power of his will, his body was essentially not the same and you could have seen the power of his mind which made him what he was.

“Even when you’re going through struggles and difficult moments and adversity, I have to admit the readings and writings and quotes of Ali is inspirational.

Muhammad Ali is in the Nelson Mandelas, Martin Luther Kings, Mahatma Gandhis and Che Guevaras class.” Lewis continued: “He is an icon and a legend. Muhammad Ali came out at a time and what he stood for was important because it was a period in time as in his stance against the (Vietnam) war.

“In very many ways he symbolises, emphasises what the great Nelson Mandela said about the power of sport. I must say though I was more a fan in the ring of Joe Frazier but he (Ali) was an idol to many young people and I have to say black people.

“He came at a time with the whole social and civil realities and represented what was best. He challenged the status quo.” Lewis believes Ali made it possible for other athletes to use their popularity to make statements on serious issues affecting their community, country and even the world.

“It can be argued that he was the icon in terms of athletes using their prowess in sport to make a difference outside of sport in terms of social, civil and dare I say political matters.

“His courage in that regards stands out, I always admire Muhammad Ali for that.

He used his success and the platform he had to speak out. He was not a perfect human being but he is an idol and role model.

He was authentic and somebody I looked up to,” he said.

Lewis believes TT needs leaders of Ali’s ilk currently — brave and firm in their conviction.

“Now is not the time to be playing it safe,” he declared.