SI Olympic Coverage


It Took Courage for Billy Payne to Pursue the 1996 Summer Olympics for Atlanta, and It Will Take All of His Religious Fervor to Pull Them Off


from Sports Illustrated January 8, 1996

It was Day 3,217 of Billy Payne's Olympian odyssey. Only 233 days and nights separated this bleak wintry afternoon from the moment next summer when the Greek guy will jog into Atlanta's new Olympic Stadium. And here was Payne, the driven, evangelical CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), once again behind a podium, once again talking his vision of "the best Olympic Games of all time" into the hearts and minds of a big crowd.

Arrayed before him in the ballroom of a downtown Atlanta hotel were several hundred coaches and sports officials gathered for the annual meeting of USA Track & Field. And Payne, "inspired," as he so often says he is, "by goodness," had come determined to once again summon the innate Olympic spirit that he believes dwells somewhere within us all.

"It has now been nearly nine years since I first had that which is still described as the crazy idea," Payne began. "Nine years since I came to believe that the United States could do great justice and great service to the Olympic movement at this most important time in its history."

With that, members of the audience, which included many people wearing warm-up suits and running shoes and more than a few in business suits and running shoes, began to do what the crowds Billy Payne speaks to almost daily do. They began to nod and respond to his singular spell.

Few hours of any day pass without Payne proclaiming that the Summer Games will be "the most important event in the history of Atlanta, Georgia." He tells the crowds that the Atlanta Olympics will be "the largest and most important event of the 20th century" and "the most watched event in the history of the world." Although there are around five billion citizens of the world, Payne regularly extrapolates cumulative television viewership and asserts that "35 billion people" will witness the result of his unremitting quest.

At the USA Track & Field congress in Atlanta, Payne went on to ignore the philosophical vision of the Enlightenment, the canon of world communism and the tenets of several great religions and stated that the Olympic movement is "the only movement in the world that brings people together for a common and singular purpose under a common set of rules." During 100 years of august oratory about the modern Olympics and their attendant ideals, nobody has ever preached the gospel of the Games as fervently as William Porter Payne. Georgia-born and proud of it, he offers inspired talk that harks back to riverbank preachers and to the country poetry of dead-honest Southern mule traders to whom blind mules simply didn't look so good.

As almost everyone in Atlanta can tell you, the greatest of all quadrennial festivals came unto Payne as if in a vision. "Day 3,217" refers back to Feb. 8, 1987, when Payne came home from morning church services in suburban Atlanta only to be visited by "an idea founded in goodness." Back then Payne was an upper-middle-class real estate attorney who had never been to an Olympics and never even traveled abroad on a business trip. His sole claim to fame traced to his days as a successful (if "heavy-legged," as he puts it) high school quarterback and as a University of Georgia defensive end who was just unrelenting enough to be named All--Southeastern Conference in 1968.

But on that day in 1987, "for some reason unknown to me, even today," as he will tell you, Billy announced to his wife, Martha, that he would somehow bring Atlanta and the rest of the world the best Olympics of all time. Atlanta had never bid for an Olympics before, and no city in the last 50 years had won the right to stage the Games its first time-out. Conventional wisdom held that it wasn't a U.S. city's turn to host the Games. Most insiders seemed sure that Greece, wellspring of both the ancient and modern Olympics, would get the centennial nod.

Billy Payne didn't want to hear about that. The ACOG (AY-cog) CEO hails from an illustrious tradition of successful Southern "greeting." Fifty years ago Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, which would later be central to the city's contention that it could handle the flow of Olympic visitors, was built as a major hub in large part because a team of boosters from Atlanta outgreeted the greeters of Birmingham--where all topographical logic indicated the Southern hub should be.

"I'd just say to them," Payne recalls of his early efforts to win over the International Olympic Committee (IOC) elite, "Hey, King! Hey there, Prince! I want to be your friend, and I want you to trust my city. I want you to come down and visit. And I want you to get to know us and know that we want to pay honor and respect to the Olympic Games. Now be my friend."

And that's what they did.

Because officials at every level of government had made it clear that an Atlanta-based Olympics would be staged without government underwriting, Payne--who had by then taken to wearing a button on his lapel that read, HI, I'M BILLY PAYNE--claimed that he would raise the estimated $1.5 billion the city would need through the support of corporations and other private-sector sources. Payne announced that corporate sponsorships bought for $4 million during the famously commercial Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 would now go for as much as $40 million.

Never mind that for about the same price the IOC was already selling off worldwide marketing rights and exclusive use of the Olympic rings to Coke, Kodak, Visa, Panasonic, IBM and other traditional and deep-pocketed supporters of the Olympics, including SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. "Billy," officials would ask him ("It was always that way," Payne says. "They were His Excellency of this or that or the Grand Duke of this or that, and I was just Billy--and that was just fine"), "how in the world are you going to find companies willing to come up with that kind of money just for domestic rights?"

"Well, sir," Payne would reply, "we're gonna talk 'em into it." And, given that nearly a half-billion dollars has been raised, that's just what he did.

As soon as Payne's marketers began pitching costly Olympic associations in corner offices around the world, a global business recession set in. But Payne's troops talked 30 billion-dollar corporations into lending executives and technicians to ACOG or donating goods and/or ponying up between $10 million and $60 million apiece to be domestic Olympic "partners" and "sponsors." A total of 125 companies signed up to be product licensees.

IMAGE: name

In Budapest with Young for an IOC meeting in June, Payne talked up Atlanta to a Kuwaiti sheikh. Back home he played to the cameras.
photograph by Lynn Johnson

By the time the Games begin next July 19, more than 70,000 full-time employees and volunteers (more than three times the size of the workforce at Delta Airlines, the largest private employer in Georgia) will be working for ACOG and Payne. Some senior ACOG executives who have set aside successful careers to help bring 10,600 athletes, 5,000 coaches and officials, 15,000 journalists and two million spectators from some 200 countries to Atlanta say that the day-to-day mania of the effort isn't much fun anymore. But many of them add that they keep at it because of their desire to see Payne win his private race. They listen to him talk on and on about the Olympics as "the highest and greatest manifestation of the human spirit," but they know that for him the Games have taken on the urgency and finality of great battles in war. What at first appears to be the control-freak style of someone conducting a grand military campaign looks, at close range, like a messianic dash toward a highly personal destiny.

Asked to name his paramount motivational skill, the 48-year-old Payne says it is his "capacity to share with others that which is in my heart." Others might add that Payne has also shared an intimate sense of the physical and psychological forces that pursue and propel him--though he often seems unable to see them himself.

Everyone in the ACOG bureaucracy and most of the citizens of Atlanta by now know about Payne's dire family medical history and his two coronary bypass operations. Payne had his first bypass at age 34--just after his beloved father had died of heart failure at 53. During the procedure it was discovered that the chest pains Billy had suffered back in 1974, when he was 26, were probably indications of a heart attack.

Then, on the night of April 28, 1993 (Day 2,272), as so many huge hurdles and so many naysayers loomed before Payne, his chest started to hurt again. Another bypass, a triple, was immediately required.

Payne was back at work less than a month later, complaining that his pledge to stop arriving at the office at 4 a.m. left him with too much time for early-morning wandering around the house. "You can't change your personality," Payne told a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "but maybe you can change how many hours a day you subject your body to your personality.

"So now I start working at five instead of four," Payne said as he trucked quickly out of the ballroom when the speech to the track people was over. "Guess that means about seven more heart surgeries from now, I'll be workin' a normal day."

Upon observing Payne's carpe diem pace not long after Atlanta won the Olympics, the chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission for the '96 Games--Dick Pound, a former Olympic swimmer for Canada--took Payne aside. "Billy," he said, "this is not a sprint. You've either got to change the way you're going at this, or the stadium you want to build is going to be called the Payne Memorial Stadium." Payne wouldn't listen. "The fact is," Pound says now, "Billy is a man entirely unaware of himself in many important respects."

"With his medical history, his type A personality and working himself like he does," Payne's close friend Peter Candler says, "you wish ... well, but Billy just doesn't understand. You say, 'Billy, you're going to kill yourself, 'but he just doesn't look at it that way. Makes you think of an old country and western song. I think it went, 'Live hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory.'"

"The thing that convinced me to help him was the single-minded dedication I saw," says Andrew Young, the cochairman of ACOG, who was mayor of Atlanta back when Payne made his unlikely approach to the city. "I learned that Billy had actually quit his job and was spending his savings in pursuit of his goal. He'd had a heart attack, and he had the feeling that doing something for others was what life was really all about. 'I don't know what I'm doing,' he said, 'but I believe I can do it. I believe it with every ounce of strength I have.' It reminded me of the line from the philosopher Kierkegaard that 'purity of heart is to will one thing.'"

Every ACOG official has heard about the things Billy's daddy said to him--and, more important, failed to say--making him unable to proceed in any gear but overdrive. Billy was born a child of Athens, the one just east of Bogart, Ga. He was also the child of a Georgia football hero named Porter Otis Payne. Billy's father was the Bulldogs' captain in 1949, and he played on the College All-Star team that beat the Philadelphia Eagles the next year.

"My daddy always said, 'Never was a horse that couldn't be rode or a rider that couldn't be throwed,'" Payne says. "He would say, 'Billy, if you're not smarter than a lot of people or a better athlete than somebody, you can always outwork 'em.'"

Billy was a workhorse A student and a workhorse athlete. After each report card and after every game in which he'd played his heart out, he would approach his father in search of what he calls "adulation."

"Well, whaddya think, Dad?" he would say. "Was I good today? Are you proud of me?" And Porter Payne would always say the same thing: "Doesn't matter, Billy. The only thing that matters is, did you do your best?"

"Never once in those hundreds or thousands of conversations with my dad," Payne has said often to those he would inspire to join his cause, "could I ever respond that, yes, I had done my best. So I think it's kind of obvious what motivates me now."

"It's the kind of motivation that gives you heart attacks," says Young. It's also the kind of motivation that allows a relatively unsophisticated attorney to rise out of nowhere to build a multibillion-dollar, 70,000-person enterprise designed to galvanize the attention of much of the world for 17 days and then cease to exist.

ACOG headquarters sprawls over 14 floors of an Atlanta office tower and 240,000 square feet of a dramatically sterile stainless steel and marble building called the In forum. The In forum was designed by John C. Portman Jr., who was one of the bright young participants in the postwar economic renaissance that marked Atlanta as a "Cinderella city" of the New South. For most of the second half of this century a coterie of boosters, bankers and business hustlers has endeavored to "put Atlanta back on the map," as they say, though students of the city's rebirth, including Young, admit that an inferiority complex still dwells beneath Atlanta's bravado. "I don't think Atlanta believed in an international vision for this city until September of 1990," Young says, "when we won the right to host the Olympic Games."

Before he pledged to elevate Atlanta to the status of Olympic city, Payne was one of thousands of locals who rode the great rise in Atlanta-area real estate values that commenced during the late 1970s. As a commercial real estate lawyer Payne was considered a hard-driving maker of deals rather than a legal technician. The carpet bagging investors and condominium converters who flocked into Atlanta helped make Payne and his family prosperous--though before the boom the small law firm Payne had founded with a University of Georgia law school buddy had struggled. "A lot of our business came from friends and associates of Billy's father," recalls Payne's former partner, Read Morton. "Then Billy had his bypass in '83, and since he said he wanted to slow down, we merged with a larger firm. But Billy only slowed down till he got well. The man cannot sit still."

It was in a restaurant in Aspen, Colo., that Payne told Morton that Atlanta should host the Olympics. "Sure thing, Billy," Morton said. "Have another beer."

After Payne left his law partnership in 1987, he paid the family's bills from a $1.5 million loan he took out against some real estate he owned. He drew no salary during his 3 1/2 years of lobbying to land the Games, and he paid personally for travel that kept him out of the country 20 days a month. After Atlanta won the bid, Payne began to draw a salary of $530,000--which was publicly criticized as excessive. As of last October he gets $669,112 per annum, a level of remuneration--as the Journal-Constitution was quick to trumpet to Atlantans grown used to the paper's tracking of Billy Payne's every move--that marks Payne as the most highly paid nonprofit executive in the nation.

"I get a big salary," Payne said upon returning to his big corner office at the Inforum. "But 40 percent goes to taxes, and a third of it goes to retire that million and a half in debt. At the end of the Games I will still owe $572,000 ... and everybody still gives me a rough time."


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