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Atlanta's Ringleader : It's 150 Days to Start of the Summer Games and the Realization of Billy Payne's Dream

February 20, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One hundred fifty days from today, Billy Payne's vision will become reality with the opening ceremony of the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta. Or at least that was among the themes of an interview with him last week over drinks at the Beverly Wilshire. But Payne, so clever that he never lets on how clever, rejects the V-word as too grand for a simple country boy.

"I hate the word vision," says the president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG). Or, as he would have been more effectively introduced in his environment at that particular moment, Atlanta's Peter Ueberroth.

"I had an idea," Payne says, "although it was a pretty good idea. Who's going to argue about bringing the Olympics to your hometown? They might have had doubts, but they didn't argue."

They were too stunned. The first person he told of his idea in February 1987 was his wife, Martha. "She said I was crazy," Payne says. Even so, he ran it past Atlanta's distinguished mayor at the time. Andrew Young, a diplomat in a previous career, now refers to the subsequent one-sided conversation as "Billy's impossible dream." But six years ago, Young, asked to describe his impression of Payne on that occasion, said, "This guy's a nut."

Knowing all that he knows now, Payne, 48, would be the first to agree. He confesses that he had no clue about the process of bidding for the Summer Olympics, and, even if he had, he did not know when the next ones were available. He had never even heard of the International Olympic Committee. If someone had told him that the father of the modern Olympic movement was Pierre Cardin instead of Pierre de Coubertin, Payne could not have argued.

Nine years later, Payne is the Olympics' No. 1 disciple, calling the Games "the greatest example of international cooperation and friendship in the world today."

Payne, trained in the law of real estate but born to sell it, often speaks in absolutes. Taking snippets from previous interviews with him, he sees the 17 days between July 19 and Aug. 4 of this year as "the best Olympic Games of all time" as well as "the most important peacetime event of the 20th Century" and "the most important event in the history of Atlanta, Georgia."

If many Atlantans are still wondering about the price they will have to pay for that occasion, Payne is not. A private man who enjoys nothing more in the evenings than putting his feet up at home and watching sports on television, he has become the most public of figures. He has had to contend with pickets outside his house, verbal floggings from every political, philosophical and social faction in the city, almost daily media scrutiny and, oh yes, a second coronary bypass operation in 1993.

But he has persevered, and, while he is the first to concede to critics that he could have achieved little without the assistance of ACOG co-chairman Young, chief operating officer A.D. Frazier Jr. and others, Payne obviously takes personal pride in his frequent proclamation that preparation for the 1996 Summer Olympics is "on time and on budget."

Considering that ACOG's budget is an Olympic-record $1.7 billion, including $550 million in building projects, it is no small accomplishment that Payne, in Los Angeles to meet with producers of the opening ceremony, is able to leisurely sip a Southern health concoction--orange juice and Jack Daniels--and say that he has little to do over the next five months except keep up the morale of the troops. By July 19, ACOG will have 70,000 full-time employees and volunteers.

"I think people want to worry, so I hate to give this answer," Payne says. "But the hardest thing we've got to do is wait until it gets here."

Despite his never-wavering optimism in discussions with the media about finances, Payne exhaled loudly after ACOG's last quarterly statement indicated that the Olympics, barring a catastrophe, indeed will not lose money. He retreated a long time ago from his original projection that they would generate a surplus of $130 million and has been particularly defensive when confronted with the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee's $225-million profit in 1984.

"It was unfair for anyone to compare us to L.A.," Payne says, pointing out that ACOG had to fund the construction and reconstruction of numerous facilities, including the new $207-million, 85,000-seat main stadium, while Los Angeles had the majority of its venues in place.

But just as it is natural to compare the Games of Atlanta and Los Angeles, so too has Payne been measured against Ueberroth. They had almost nothing in common when they began their Olympic experiences. Ueberroth was an established, millionaire entrepreneur who had his own worldwide travel agency and was hired by those who brought the Olympics to Los Angeles. Payne was a relatively anonymous, $250,000-a-year real estate lawyer who had never even been abroad and was hired because he brought the Olympics to Atlanta.

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