Groundbreaking was about to begin for the last of the 1996 Summer Olympic venues, a 5,700-seat basketball arena on the campus of Atlanta's Morehouse College. Next July the giants of basketball-Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill and the other members of Dream Team III -- will play here. But on this morning the star is a middle-aged white man with the powerful gait of an ex-jock, and an Opie Taylor grin. Surrounded by TV news crews and photographers, he makes his way over to a group of neighborhood kids and immediately answers the question on each one's lips. "I'm the man," he says, "who's bringing the Olympics to Atlanta."
To the world, the 1996 Olympics is another American Games, the third here in 16 years. To Americas, it is the Atlanta Games, a destination for next summer's vacation. But in Atlanta, everybody knows these are Billy Payne's Games. "Billy's a rare combination of vision, bulldog-hard work and old-fashioned Southern charm," says Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell. "It's easy to understand how the International Olympic Committee was seduced by him."
Modern Atlanta is a city that loves its dreamers. Robert Woodruff turned a soda-fountain drink into The Real Thing. Martin Luther King Jr. brought down Jim Crow's mighty walls. Ted Turner used a satellite link to build a worldwide communications empire. Billy Payne's dream that Atlanta would capture the Centennial Olympics, a celebration that seemed historically ordained for Greece, was no less improbable. It came to Payne on a sleepless night in 1987 after the dedication of his church's new sanctuary. He had led the $2.5 million land-raising effort and that day had luxuriated in the rich organ sounds and the comforting sense of community. "I told my wife, Martha, we needed to find another cause to build this experience again," Payne recalls. "The very next day I mentioned the O word. I said, 'Martha, we're going to bring the Olympics to Atlanta'."
Martha didn't laugh, at least not in Billy's face, which distinguished her from most everyone else in Atlanta. Payne wasn't exactly a nobody: raised in the city's wealthy Buckhead section, he was a football star at the University of Georgia and a leading real-estate lawyer in Atlanta. But he was not a member of the inner circle. When he asked for seed money from the Chamber of Commerce, the officers, consumed with preparations for the 1988 Democratic convention, ignored him.
So he turned to the Friends of Billy for financial backing. "They called us the Crazy Atlanta Nine," says Horace Sibley, an attorney and longtime Payne pal. "Nobody else believed it would fly." Despite two children at home, Payne quit his law practice and lived off savings and loans. It was three years before he began to draw a salary as chief executive officer of the official Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG).
If his hometown didn't take Billy too seriously, the International Olympic Committee was definitely impressed. His courtship was as ardent and crafty as Rhett Butler's. Payne says he told the IOC that Atlanta's average temperature in July is just 75 degrees. "That's if you divide it over 24 hours," Payne chuckles. To win the Games, he needed a majority of the 96 members of the IOC. Each voting member received birthday greetings from Atlanta. President Juan Antonio Samaranch was singled out for special tributes. On one visit to his lakeside offices in Lausanne, Switzerland, Payne presented Samaranch with a girl box of fancy goblets, explaining that they were suitable for sipping mint juleps. "Are they also suitable for sipping Coca-Cola?" wondered the IOC president, a nod to the power of the Olympics' oldest international corporate sponsor. "You bet," nodded Billy. (Coke executives insist they did nothing to influence the selection of Atlanta, lest they offend their consumers in competing nations. For the Games, Coca-Cola is building a nine-acre park near its international headquarters in downtown Atlanta.)
When Atlanta upset Athens, Greece, to win the '96 Games, many of the city's movers and shakers assumed that Payne, the salesman, would step aside. After all, he was not a buttoned-down corporate manager in the mold of Peter Ueberroth, whose glory came from delivering major surpluses at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. But while Payne made room for numbers-crunchers and other experts, he had no intention of playing a token role in his own dream. Besides, the IOC had grown rather fond of Billy. Says IOC director general Francois Carrard: "He does serious things, without taking himself too seriously."
It's hard not to be serious about a $1.5 billion production. The 1996 Summer Olympics will play out in 31 athletic venues, 10 of which-including the centerpiece Olympic Stadium - had to be built from scratch. So as the clock in the entry way of the ACOG offices ticks relentlessly down to the opening ceremonies- soon one year and counting--there is but a single, urgent question: Will Atlanta be ready? "We're on schedule," says Payne. "We're on budget."