SI Vault
Donald Katz
January 08, 1996
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
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January 08, 1996

Atlanta Brave

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

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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.

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.

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