"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 Inforum. The Inforum 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 carpetbagging 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 3½ 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."
Payne's ceremonial outer office includes the standard-issue executive golf club resting against an elegant chair. After his most recent bypass Payne pledged to play a lot more golf—"My singular release in life," he says—but then Billy Payne-style golf involves playing as fast as possible and alone, preferably at dawn. Those who have suffered through rounds of golf with Payne note that he always hits first, no matter how he did on the last hole. He regularly tees off with the group in front of him still within striking distance, always tries to hit over the least traversable stretch of water ("Take every risk in the world; that's my motto"), and since he allots no more than two hours to any golf outing, he usually picks up his ball and strides off the course before finishing a round.
"Billy calls it golf, but it's really polo," one colleague notes. "He walks up to the ball swinging."
"And I'm improving, too," Payne says. "Played 13 holes the other day and was seven over par."
Not far from Payne's golf club sits an engraved brick that resembles the burnished bricks discernible atop so many horizontal surfaces inside ACOG headquarters, each of them emblazoned with the name of an employee or the names of an employee's family members or friends. More than the state of Georgia Olympic license plates (just over one million sold), more than the Olympic Barbie doll, more than the official Olympic television game shows, more even than official Olympic T-shirts and the 1,996-foot-long Olympic hot dog that was wound around the inside of the Georgia Dome a few months ago, the ACOG Adopt an Olympic Brick program has drawn Payne's micromanagerial focus because it has never quite measured up to his intent.