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Muhammad Ali
Lance Armstrong
Joey Cheek
Tim Howard

Tatyana MacFadden

Muhammad Ali

In 1999, Sports Illustrated magazine named former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, Sportsman of the Century. It was Ali's zest for life, a famous stand on principle, and his generosity outside the ring that made him the one of the most beloved living Americans.

"I am the greatest!" was the signature boast of the son of a Kentucky sign painter who took up boxing after neighborhood bullies stole his bicycle. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior, he was soon known as the Louisville Lip for his taunts and homespun poems in an amateur fighting career topped by a light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Clay shocked the boxing world by winning his first 19 professional fights and knocking out Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship in 1964. "You'rn old, ugly bear," Clay said to Liston's face. To describe himself, he offered a verse:

This brash, young boxer is something to see,
And the heavyweight championship is his destiny.
This kid fights great; he's got speed and endurance.
But if you sign to fight him, increase your insurance!

A year before the Liston fight, Cassius Clay had joined the Nation of Islam, known as the Black Muslims, and afterward he announced he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. "I had been a Negro; I had no confidence," was all he would say on the subject. But he brimmed with self-assurance now.

Using a duck-and-weave style that he called his "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee technique," he was graceful yet ferocious in the ring. Outside it, he kept crowds and reporters laughing. Before his 1975 title fight with Joe Frazier in the Philippines, Ali pulled a toy gorilla out of his pocket. "It'll be a killa', and a thrilla', and a chilla' when I get the gorilla in Manila!" he said, to laughter and applause.

In 1974, a year before the Thrilla' in Manila bout, fans in Zaire had followed his every move surrounding what came to be called the Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman. "Bomaye, Ali!" the crowd shouted. "Kill him, Ali" -- brutal words for perhaps the world's most famous pacifist, who, in 1967, refused U.S. military service, despite the threat of five years in prison and a hefty fine. He said at the time, "My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America, and shoot them for what? They never called me 'nigger.'"

On college campuses nationwide, Ali spoke out against the Vietnam War while his case was appealed, and ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his draft-evasion conviction.

Muhammad Ali won 56 of 61 professional fights. In his last two bouts, in 1980 and 1981, he was already showing the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease, the brain disorder that affects muscle control. In one of his last television interviews, in 1985, the shuffle and slurred speech brought on by the baffling disease were evident.

In November 2005, at the dedication of the $80-million Muhammad Ali Center in Ali's hometown of Louisville, former President Bill Clinton told the cheering crowd the world is a better place because of Muhammad Ali. "You thrilled us as a fighter and you inspire us even more as a force for peace, reconciliation, understanding and respect. Now you've got this center, which will enshrine both your thrills and your inspiration and inspire others to follow your lead." Remembering that, in 1990, Ali negotiated the release of 15 U.S. hostagesin direct negotiations with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein -- was a force for peace, Clinton said, "You proved once again that the power of example matters a lot more than the example of power.”

In addition to the exhibits celebrating Muhammad Ali's boxing career and the significant events in his life, there are six pavilions, each representing what Ali calls his core values: respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, giving and spirituality.

Visitors to the Muhammad Ali Center will see and hear details related to two major ents in Ali's life that, at the time, drew scorn from much of the American public. One was his conversion to Islam in 1964, which prompted his name change. The other came two years later, when he refused, on religious grounds, to be drafted into military service for the Vietnam War. As the legal battle that resulted from his draft resistance made its way through the courts, Ali would be barred from boxing professionally for three years, until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor. It was that event that raised Ali's profile from a pugilist to a peace advocate. "He really woke us up, you know," says his friend, musician James Taylor. "He helped Americans wake up by associating with his process, we came to know so much more about ourselves, about injustice… just because of the magnetism of his personality and his persona, he captured us all and we felt what he felt, you know it was, he was an amazing communicator of his personal experience to so many people...he's just an astounding character in our cultural history and on the world stage."

In the same month that the Muhammad Ali Center was opened, President Bush awarded Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was hailed by the president as one of the greatest athletes of all time. "It is quite a claim to make," said Mr. Bush. "But as Muhammad Ali once said: 'it isn't bragging, if you can back it up.’”

Lance Armstrong

Cancer survivors cling to hope because of Lance Armstrong. Athletes of all abilities have drawn strength from Armstrong's cycling victories to push themselves to higher goals. Charities and other fundraisers have modeled programs after Armstrong's successful cancer foundation. But there was nothing in his early cycling career that made him stand out. Armstrong had limited success as a professional cyclist in the early 1990's. He rode in four Tour de France events, finishing the race just once in 1995. And suddenly his career, and perhaps his life, appeared to be nearing an end in 1996.

"On Wednesday, October 2nd (1996), I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The catscan revealed that my condition has spread into my abdomen," Mr. Armstrong says. "For now I must focus on my treatment. However, I want all of you to know I intend to beat this disease. And further I intend to ride again as a professional cyclist."

Armstrong's testicular cancer had also spread to his lungs and brain. While doctors feared the disease would kill him, Armstrong fought back and made an amazing return to health and cycling. He entered the 1999 Tour de France with only one goal -- winning the race. His training was relentless. While virtually every other rider took time off to rest during the year, Armstrong kept peddling. He focused on each individual stage, especially the grueling mountain climbs through the French Alps and Pyrenees.

His strategy proved so successful that the race was essentially over by time the Tour moved out of the mountains. Armstrong maintained his distance from the pack year after year. Rather than try to catch him, potential rivals waited for his legs to falter. They waited for a catastrophic fall to eliminate him. Some waited for a positive drug test to disqualify him. But they waited in vain. For seven straight years, Armstrong remained on his bike and charged up the mountains without a serious challenge.

Although he made a triumphant farewell to cycling in Paris in 2005, Armstrong is not ready to ride into the sunset and disappear from public view. Armstrong has indicated he will be active with the Discovery Channel cycling team, helping and training younger riders to reach elite levels. Armstrong says he may even consider a career in politics with a possible run for the governor's mansion in his home state of Texas.

Whatever he decides to do after winning an unprecendented seven Tour de France titles, Lance Armstrong's list of inspiring achievements will likely grow much longer in the years to come.

Joey Cheek

At his post-victory news conference for the gold medal in the men's 500 meters, American long track speedskater Joey Cheek announced that since he has been blessed with the support of many to compete in two Olympics, he wanted to give something back. "The best way I can say thanks is to try to help somebody else," he said. "I have a pretty unique experience and pretty unique opportunity here, so I am going to take advantage of it while I can," he said.

Cheek said he would donate to charity the entire $25,000 in bonus money that the U.S. Olympic Committee pays to gold medal winners to an organization called Right to Play.

Cheek, 26, said he was inspired by Norwegian speedskater Johan Olav Koss.. Koss donated his bonus money to a charity he started called Olympic Aid. It is now known as Right to Play. Cheek met with Koss in Turin the morning before his race and told him he wanted to help. Now I have an opportunity to do something similar. It's my hope that I can assist some people and maybe walk in his large shoes," he said.

Cheek is asking Olympic sponsors to match his donation to a Right to Play project. Several companies have pledged to match my initial $25,000 donation and the total is over $300,000 going to help refugee children in Chad and the Darfur region of Sudan.

Tatyana McFadden

Wheelchair athlete Tatyana McFadden, 16, sued the county school system in federal court in Baltimore for the right to race at the same time as able-bodied athletes. Until recently, she was prohibited by the Howard County School District, located close to Washington DC, from racing in her wheelchair alongside the other kids. Citing safety issues, the county said that wheelchair athletes had to race in separate events. Because Tatyana is the only wheelchair athlete in the county, this ruling meant that she had to race alone. "I really didn't like running by myself,” says Tatyana. “It was lonely and embarrassing and people just looked at me differently." The court ruled that allowing Tatyana to run alongside the other athletes would pose no undo risks, would cost no money and would not alter the sport.

Tatyana, who has spina bifida, is the second-fastest wheelchair racer in the world. She also plays basketball, ice hockey and water polo with the Bennett Blazers junior wheelchair teams for Maryland. She won a silver and a bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. She is also on the honor roll at her high school.

Tatyana was born in Russia with spina bifida, leaving her partially paralyzed. Abandoned by her mother, she was taken to an orphanage in St. Petersburg. It was there that Deborah McFadden found Tatyana. "She told someone there, 'It's my mom.' She knew -- maybe before I did," says Deborah. Deborah brought Tatyana to America and adopted her. Tatyana McFadden was the only child to speak in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Adoption this year.

"Being an athlete has helped build my confidence," she says. "And my strengths and abilities break down stereotypes about people in wheelchairs. People learn more from me." Tatyana McFadden never uses the word ‘can’t.’ Instead she focuses on what she “can” do. That doesn’t leave out very much.

Tim Howard

Tim Howard, a goalkeeper for the U.S. World Cup soccer team, is a former all-star in the U.S. professional soccer league. Howard currently plays for Manchester United in England. He has also been recognized for his humanitarian efforts off the playing field. Fifteen international football stars, including English superstar David Beckham, have teamed up for a new U.N. campaign to help children. The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) said the campaign called "Unite for Children, Unite for Peace," spotlights the power of football to promote the values of peace and tolerance within communities and at the international level. The campaign uses the upcoming World Cup as a platform to show how sports can create self-esteem, self-confidence and trust among children.

Howard also, however, has a compelling personal story in that he overcame an ongoing battle with a neurological disorder called Tourette Syndrome, which causes involuntary movements (tics), spasms and muscle twitches. Howard was first diagnosed with the condition when he was 9 years old, but says it never interfered with his playing sports. In 2001, Howard was named to the Board of Directors of the Tourette Syndrome Association of New Jersey and named "Humanitarian of the Year" by the New York Life Insurance Company for his work with charities supporting Tourette Syndrome.

The dilemma for Howard is that Tourette Syndrome is difficult to control when a person feels stress. Yet, Howard plays what is considered football's most stressful position, goalkeeper. How does he manage to successfully play the position? "It's just a battle of the will," Howard told “60 Minutes.” "Your willpower versus what your mind is telling your body to do." UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said that "whether they are playing on busy streets, in crowded refugee camps or amidst the chaos of conflict, children find joy through sport. But sport is more than just a game -- it is also one of the best ways for children to learn teamwork, tolerance and the value of play." For the "Unite for Children" campaign, UNICEF is teaming up with the Swiss-based International Federation of Football Association (FIFA)

Texts are abridged from U.S. State Department IIP publications and other U.S. government materials.
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Updated: May 2008