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William Oscar Johnson
August 27, 1990
Some inspired Atlantans have propelled their city to the verge of landing the 1996 Olympic Games
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August 27, 1990

The Push Is On

Some inspired Atlantans have propelled their city to the verge of landing the 1996 Olympic Games

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Here is how it started. It was Sunday, Feb. 8, 1987, and William Porter (Billy) Payne, a former University of Georgia football player who was now a $250,000-a-year Atlanta real estate lawyer, had just finished a couple of years as volunteer chairman of a campaign to raise money for a new sanctuary for St. Luke's Presbyterian Church in Dunwoody, one of Atlanta's wealthier suburbs. This seemed an ordinary enough contribution by an ordinary enough community-minded suburbanite. And, ordinarily, his organizing efforts would have been over on that Sunday. But, during the dedication ceremonies in the sanctuary, Billy Payne was seized by an extraordinary sensation that changed his life.

This being Georgia, where supernatural visitations and field-of-dream-like revelations are, in some places, considered as common as clay, Payne has worked hard ever since to clarify the exact quality of his experience. "Yes, it did happen in church, but it was definitely not a religious vision," he says. "I just got an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction over the fact that so many people had worked together so hard and so long and had been able to accomplish something so worthwhile. Later, at home, I told my wife, Martha, 'You know, we have cheated life today, we have really stolen something extra by being a part of all this. We have stretched ourselves. Let's find something else and do this one more time.' "

The next day Payne went to his law office long before daybreak, as is his habit. He shut the door. "I sat there thinking. Hmmmmmm. Hmmmmmm. I was trying to come up with an idea that might repeat that great feeling of accomplishment. Hmmmmmm."

When he at last emerged from his office, the sun had risen over Atlanta, and so had a bizarre idea that just might change the city, the state and the whole American South for a very long time to come. Billy Payne had decided that he would bring the Olympic Games to Atlanta.


The 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics will occur in 1996. Six cities around the world are competing to be the host of the Games that year: Athens, Greece; Atlanta; Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Manchester, England; Melbourne; and Toronto. The winner will be selected in Tokyo on Sept. 17 at a formal assembly of members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Atlanta has become one of the favorites.

The IOC is an unmade bed of a body consisting of 88 members and their egos, ids, emotional tics, quirks, personal politics and eccentricities, each of which must be identified if one is to beg, steal, borrow, coax or perhaps even surgically remove the vote of a member (in its unsuccessful bid to win the 1992 Summer Olympics, the Paris organizing committee arranged to give one IOC member an operation and several weeks of hospital care in the City of Light). IOC members are mostly rich and cosmopolitan. They come from 70 countries and range from the tense young (he's 32) Prince Albert of Monaco, an Amherst graduate who likes fast bobsleds and fast cars, to the ancient (86) Jean Bonnin de la Bonnini�re, Comte de-Beaumont, of France, who first became a member of the IOC in 1951, and from Shagdarjav Magvan, 63, former amateur wrestler, who was once general secretary of the Central Soviet of Trade Unionists of Mongolia and now runs a porcelain factory, to Princess Nora of Liechtenstein, 39, who lists her civil status as "spinster" and her only non-Olympic activity as "president of the Liechtenstein Girl Guides." Digging for votes—one by one by one—in this polyglot swamp of odd ducks is what an Olympic bid is all about.

Neophyte though he was, Payne understood this from the start. He knew the importance of personal missionary work. "If you can capture the trust of a majority of the members of the committee, whoever does that best is the winner," he wrote before the Atlanta Organizing Committee (AOC) was formed. "They want to guard the integrity and sanctity of the Games above all else. Everything we do and say is to establish the kind of trust that guarantees we will do that for them."

The Atlanta city fathers and Chamber of Commerce tepidly wished him luck but offered no material help. The local TV stations virtually ignored him, and The Atlanta Journal and Constitution portrayed him as a screwball with a harebrained scheme. Payne's first recruits, in the spring of '87, were mainly affluent friends, people who were accustomed to doing volunteer work for charities and cultural institutions. However, Payne, 42, is still sensitive about the idea that the Olympic bid is a function of noblesse oblige. "This is not a high-society operation," he says. "This includes the broadest cross section of the community."

Now, yes. At first, no. The cross section then was pretty narrow and pretty rich. Payne says, "We did begin with people who had money because they had to put up resources we needed to start."

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