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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The Olympic-brick idyll began one summer day in 1993 as Payne was staring out his office window at a stretch of warehouses and empty lots that would be at the epicenter of Olympic housing and most of the sports facilities. Suddenly it came to Payne right there in his office—though some versions of this epiphany put him on an airplane—that the land below him must be developed into what he calls "the largest urban park built in America since before World War II," a site that would "totally transform Atlanta and become the greatest single legacy to the city of the Olympic Games."

ACOG was already promising the city more than $500 million worth of bequeathed stadiums, dorms and other structures when the Games end, but the park vision was immediately followed by negotiations with political officials, corporate leaders and philanthropists and shortly after that, by a series of financial commitments, building condemnations and land buyouts that cleared the way for Centennial Olympic Park. The walkways and plazas inside the 21-acre park would be paved with commemorative engraved bricks, the retailing of which would cover ACOG's $15 million portion of the park's $50 million price tag. Market research indicated that two million bricks might be sold for $35 each, many of them during the holiday purchasing season before Christmas 1994. The budget projected that at least 700,000 bricks would be sold, but as of last spring a mere 100,000 had been retailed.

The indefatigable Payne could by that time be heard promising "prominent places" to would-be brick buyers all over the world. Prospective purchasers were offered miniature likenesses of their engraved bricks instead of mere certificates, and the sons and daughters of some of the three million employees of the first two dozen corporations to become Atlanta Olympic sponsors began to learn that Olympic bricks had been purchased in their names. Within weeks Delta Airlines started to move bricks in quantity by offering 1,000 frequent-flier miles to anyone who would buy a brick.

An hour after returning from his speech to the USA Track & Field delegates, Payne strolled out of his office and onto a balcony overlooking a huge moonscape of gray earth that will soon be covered over by his Centennial Park. "Might not look like it, but this park is 90 percent finished," he said. "By March 1 the fountains will be in, they'll plant the grass, put in the walkways, the bricks, the flowers and the trees,"
he said, downing another Diet Coke and pointing toward a huge, leafless tree being hoisted above the earth by a crane.

The downtown landscape, with fortress-like buildings rising amid urban devastation, looked nothing at all like the romantic Old South images inside the coffee table-style Olympic bid books. The '96 Summer Games may indeed turn out to be the best of all time, as Payne promises several times each day, but the events and the "indigenous friendliness" of Atlanta will have to transcend all the problems of modern urban life.

"This is a made-for-business downtown," Payne said, looking out at the bulldozer dragging his new park to life. "Foreign journalists get here, and they see that there ain't a building around here more than 30 years old. They say, 'Where's the history? Where's the architecture?' Well, sorry, we don't have that, but what they go away talking about is the sincerity of the welcome they got.

"We're gonna have new lampposts and pavement running away from the park and all through the downtown. Place'll look like London or something."

Payne knows his colleagues joke about his difficulty delegating details to his executive staff, but he claims his skills in this area have improved. He will still spend executive time discussing the pocket shapes and skirt colors for the outfits Olympic employees and volunteers will wear during the Games, and a few weeks before the USA Track & Field gathering downtown he had flown to Hugo, Minn., to watch test lightings of the flame that will top the Olympic caldron.

"It's not as if I brought a lot of management expertise to this endeavor," he says. "At first it was more like, 'Y'all fall in behind, and I'll take the incoming rounds.' I probably still struggle a little bit, but once I learned to delegate, I felt even more confident of our ability to do what we said we would do." As Payne spoke, a video monitor behind his desk flashed shots of workers on a closed-circuit system that has allowed Payne to sit in his office and observe the bolt-by-bolt construction of the Olympic Stadium.

The business side of the Summer Olympics has changed mightily since 1976, when the Montreal organizing committee garnered revenues from sponsors and licensed suppliers totaling only $7 million. The organization is still short of the recently revised $1.6 billion required to meet projected costs, but that deficit is slated to disappear with the continued sale of 11 million tickets and other items, including those troublesome commemorative bricks—only 260,000 of which have been sold so far. "Whether or not we raise the money we need is no longer an issue," Payne says. "The issue is dead, because we're gonna make it. There might be issues of preparation and keeping expenses in check, but there is not a revenue question. Despite anything you may have heard or read to the contrary, this Olympic effort is not about how much money can be made."

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