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 warmup 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 river-bank 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."