"You know, I used to be sensitive when people called me an optimist or a man without realism," Payne reflects, "but I have this belief that the Olympics is an idea that is founded in goodness, and it's the goodness that will make it achievable. I keep saying, 'Let's get it right this time. Let's show the power and hope of people coming together in a celebration of humanity.' A lot of people will say that's b.s., but it's not."
As Payne will tell you again and again, some 83% of Atlantans are glad the Olympics are coming ("We've got polls to prove it!"), but from the moment Payne came home with his prize, critics skeptical of the inherent goodness of his quest appeared. Civic leaders from inner-city neighborhoods resisted Payne's plan to build a high-tech Olympic stadium and then bequeath it to the city. At one point Payne offered the unfortunate observation that one thing these Olympics would not be was "the world's biggest urban development project." It took more than a year and the intervention of a professional negotiator to work out final plans for the stadium.
Some people in town continue to believe that Payne is the latest front man in a longtime conspiracy between white Atlanta money and black political power, a marriage of expediency inspired by greed. Many European observers—citing the unlikeliness of a scenario in which a low-profile, well-paid lawyer suddenly leaves his job and risks his house on a crazy dream that somehow comes true—believe the Olympics were awarded to Atlanta by force of a conspiracy managed by leaders of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola. Back when Payne wanted to gain quick control of the acreage needed to build his Centennial Park, he indeed went to Coke CEO Roberto Goizueta. But Young asserts that Payne and his fellow crusaders originally feared Coke might undermine their cause and so asked the company to back away.
"Coke gave as much money to the Athens and Toronto bid efforts as it did to us," Young says. "All we asked Coke to do for us was stay neutral."
"People just can't keep from diggin' up snakes," Payne says now. "And then they realize they dug 'em up just to kill 'em."
The battles have left scars on Payne. For all of his maturation as a CEO and public figure, he still takes everything personally. "Thing about Billy is, he's just so hard-charging that it's difficult for him to see the other side of things," says Vince Dooley, Payne's college football coach and now the athletic director at Georgia. "But his motivation is phenomenal. I used to play him as a tight end, a split end, and I could move him to defense to play end or even linebacker. He wasn't a superman at anything, but he could play them all, because he was just so dogged."
Early last year, with 500 days left before the Olympics, Payne got up onstage before his ACOG "family" of employees and once again told the story of his childhood quest for paternal approval. Payne seems to trundle out this tale as a management tool. It's as if he has inventoried the profound effect the story has on others without understanding it himself. On this day he explained how the Olympics will allow him to complete his personal journey. "I am now certain that when these Games are over, because you have helped me," he said, his strong voice quavering as he stared at an Olympic brick with his father's name engraved on the side, "I am going to have accomplished something I was never able to accomplish in my relationship with my daddy."
Then he started to cry.
"I don't know what the psychiatrists would say," says Horace Sibley, Payne's first recruit to the Olympic crusade from Atlanta's elite business establishment, "but it's almost as if Billy tries to take on the burden of both himself and his parent.
"One day we were driving out from the airport in Denver, and Billy was telling me about his sister, Patti, who died of cancer at the age of 40, and about his father's heart problems before he died, and about Billy's own bypass procedures—and then he told me that he didn't expect to live a full life. And I remember thinking that Billy believes he's got to do quickly what others can do over a much longer life."