It was not a torch bearer that graced the fields of London’s Wembley Stadium. Instead it was a 16-year-old whose lineage is intrinsically linked to Muhammad Ali.
The young man who has been dubbed the “next great boxing star” was to light the Olympic flame in London on Friday as Nico Ali Walsh, the grandson of the legendary boxer who turned to Islam, was a familiar face at many of Ali’s fights.
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Walsh was born in Louisville, Kentucky, with a picture of his grandfather – nicknamed the “greatest of all time” – holding his newborn in his arms. His maternal grandfather, Johnny Walsh, Ali’s long-time trainer, introduced the teenager to the boxing legend in 2008. It was only three years later that Walsh would reveal the family connection to the BBC.
“Mum was crying when I told her about my grandfather,” Walsh said at the time. “I have pictures of him on my wall,” he added, using the signature of a Muslim fighter, Muhammad Ali. “My dad gave me my mouth guard before I started boxing.
“It is a big deal that he’s my grandfather.”
On Friday, Walsh was to carry the flame in the celebrations ahead of the Olympic Games at the official opening event of the event.
Also in attendance were Rio Olympics gold medal-winning taekwondo athletes Kayleigh Wood and Charlie Edwards, Tareq Casserley and Victoria Durie (another member of the GB boxing team at Rio) and Tessa Sanderson, the most successful British Olympian, whose gold in the long jump in Atlanta in 1996 made her the first Briton to win two gold medals in a single Olympics.
The event comes a month before the 100th anniversary of the first Olympics in Paris, where another of Ali’s great-grandsons, John Riddick, competed. His grandfather was also the world heavyweight champion.
Muhammad Ali and his first wife, Gladys, at their wedding in 1957. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
On Friday night, Shahid Malik, the former sports minister, welcomed the group as they marched at the climax of the 60-minute programme. “I want to congratulate my colleagues, the trio of athletes … and the people of London. I remember turning 12 years old and listening to Muhammad Ali’s fights.”
Speaking after the ceremony, Kamal Hussain, chairman of the Olympic Flame Relay, said: “For this generation of Team GB, it is especially special to be here in London. As the first people to light the Olympic Flame here, we also are honoured to lead thousands of participants that have come to experience the Olympic spirit.”
“To light the flame in the London Stadium is a special experience, but for many of the athletes who will walk past the flame – it is one to share. They know the joy of reaching the Olympic Games and we are all part of the journey to Rio, no matter what the sport.”
Losing out on the rights to flame in 2005 to the mother of one of Britain’s prime ministers – Sarah Brown – marked a serious low for the Olympic torch relay, which usually has a distinctive galloping gallop. But such a wrinkle has not stopped it from becoming a veritable worldwide party, complete with divers, dance troupes and huge groups of fans, the whole of which had to be kitted out with new special LED strips to emit colourful lights when the flame reaches London for the Games.
In advance of the parade, Walsall football fans were seen tweeting pictures of themselves holding light-up shirts that spelled out: “LUKE IN LOVE” to the eventual torch bearer. The footballer Luke Shaw, who is one of four brothers, is Cole’s cousin.
Luke Shaw and fiancee Stephanie Humphreys. Photograph: Andy Lyons/PA
Meanwhile, there were intermittent flashes of fireworks as “people of London” waved the giant flame around the capital’s streets. There will be a final coronation ceremony for the flame at the Olympic Stadium, which will be the Games’ main stadium, on 2 March, before the relay is on its way to Rio de Janeiro.
The flame began its journey in Olympia, Greece, and will reach the equestrian venue of the equestrian centre at Greenwich in south-east London on Sunday. The Olympic torch will then carry it to Portsmouth on Monday, before starting its journey down the River Thames.