THERE ARE LOTS OF FUN THINGS TO DO IN Atlanta—take in a Braves game, have a chili dog at the Varsity, raft the Chattahoochee. Playing golf with Billy Payne, however, isn’t one of them. “Golf is the way I relax,” says Payne, president and CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. “But people don’t seem to find my game relaxing. Someone described it as more like polo—I just ride up to the ball already swinging.”
Billy Payne lives his life about the same way he plays golf. And right now he’s swinging hard at the nettlesome last-minute details of what he modestly calls “the most important peacetime event of the 20th century, watched by more people than any other event in the history of the world.” Which helps explain why Payne, the event’s biggest cheese, is sitting behind the desk in his glass-enclosed office lining up someone to supervise the minibuses that cart VIPs to and from the flame-lighting ceremony in Greece. It’s one of the thousands of details he has wrestled to the ground since that September day in Tokyo more than five years ago when Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, startled nearly everyone by saying simply, “It’s Atlanta!”
Only the third U.S. city (after St. Louis and Los Angeles) to host the Summer Games and the first city to win it with its first bid—Atlanta went berserk. A billboard with the slogan “No Payne/No Gain! Thank You Billy!” paid tribute to the man who first dreamed the improbable dream and then, against all odds, made it happen. A half-million screaming fans turned out for a ticker-tape parade on Peachtree Street for Payne and the other committee members. “It was the most wonderful possible feeling,” says Payne. “I had this real feeling of ‘We did it’—not Billy Payne, but everybody on the street too.”
If it hadn’t been for Payne’s vision and hustle the centennial games would probably be back in Athens, where the modern Olympics began. The son of Porter Otis Payne, captain of the 1949 University of Georgia football team, who went on to be an insurance executive, and Mary, a homemaker, Payne, 48, was a real-estate lawyer, well-to-do but largely unknown outside his community, when he had an epiphany of sorts in 1987. He and his wife, Martha, 48, a homemaker, had headed a fund-raising drive for a new sanctuary in their Presbyterian church in Dun-woody, a suburb of Atlanta. “The day we finally dedicated it,” he says, “I had a sensation I’ve never had before—of people really, really feeling good about what they had sacrificed, surprising even themselves. I wanted the whole city to feel the way the people had felt in church that morning.” Within 24 hours, Payne figured out just what would do the trick: the 1996 Olympics.
When Payne presented his vision to then-Mayor Andrew Young, the official laughed out loud and later remarked, “That guy’s a nut.” Despite such skepticism, Payne quickly formed a committee to snag the Games. He raised $1.5 million by mortgaging some of his real-estate holdings, and he and his committee—including a converted Young—started wooing the IOC around the globe. “It was a question,” he says, “of who could make the most friends. We built up a whole network.”
Disaster almost struck the day before the final balloting in Tokyo. Payne, who had suffered a heart attack when he was 34, was gripped by chest pains. “All I could think of was not letting any of the IOC see what was happening,” Payne says. He insisted that Martha attend an IOC event as planned. “I was totally terrified but unable to show it,” she says. Fortunately the pains turned out to be from stress, not a heart attack, and on the fifth vote, Atlanta won.
At the University of Georgia, where he was a lineman on both offense and defense, Billy Payne played to win—and to earn his father’s approval. “As soon as I could,” he says, “I’d sneak in the question, ‘Wasn’t I good today?’ And he somehow always turned it back, asking, ‘Well, what do you think, Billy? Do you think you really did your best?’ I guess at this point I’d have to tell my dad I’m not quite there yet.”
But on July 19, when the Olympic flame burns bright in his hometown, Payne may finally get the answer he wanted—if not from his father, who died in 1982, at least from Atlanta: Yes, Billy, you made it all happen.
GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Atlanta