Atlanta organizer is under pressure from many fronts


February 16, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Atlanta -- His home was picketed by community activists, his name taken in vain by labor leaders and his work hours extended from pre-dawn to past midnight in a quest to extract millions of dollars from recession-wracked U.S. corporations.

Meet Billy Payne, deep into the mean season of organizing the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Seated on a sofa in his office overlooking downtown Atlanta, Payne, 45, is rubbing his eyes, trying to wipe the signs of fatigue from his face. It's noon, but he already has been on the job since 4:30 a.m.

And the Olympics are more than 1,200 days away.

"I've changed in that I've become something I didn't anticipate -- a public figure," said Payne, chief executive of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.

"And I'll tell you this: It's not fun," Payne said.

Like others before him, the one-time Georgia football star-turned- $400,000-a-year Summer Games cheerleader has discovered that executive trashing is an official Olympic event.

Though Payne's job approval rating among Georgians remains above 50 percent, according to a recent poll in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, he is engaged in the contentious process of building a $1.38 billion Olympics during harsh economic times.

Until the opening ceremonies begin, Payne is likely to be the lightning rod for advocacy groups, corporations and unions, all seeking a slice of an Olympics pie.

"There are cycles to all of this," he said.

Besides meeting budgets and dividing the spoils of a civic make-over project, Payne, a real estate lawyer by trade and salesman by instinct, also must serve as a cultural referee.

Even after the heavy construction is complete, Payne and others need to forge a consensus on which side of Atlanta's divergent past to display.

Will it be Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" or Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream"?

The ride to 1996 has been bumpy.

A proposal to bring golf into the Olympics and stage the event at the all-male and virtually all-white Augusta National Golf Club triggered an uproar in Atlanta.

International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch stepped in, and diplomatically pulled the plug on the project.

No one yet has deflated Whatizit, the morph-like mascot that has been met with derision since it first floated through the closing ceremonies at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain.

And a slow economy and cash crunch forced the local organizers to scale back a projected budget surplus.

But the controversies, outbursts and nervousness over the financial climate aren't just signs of sporadic discontent. They are the visible displays of the great stakes and stresses involved in staging an Olympics.

"This isn't about 16 days in August of 1996," said Vincent Fort, professor of history at Morehouse College. "This is about reinventing and rebuilding the city."

How it all began

It was Feb. 10, 1987, when Billy Payne announced to his wife: "We're going to bring the Olympics to Atlanta."

"She said I was crazy," Payne recalled.

He was just ambitious, groping for a project to call his own since undergoing heart-bypass surgery at age 34.

Once Payne got the idea to bid on the Olympics, he was unstoppable. He quit a $250,000-a-year job, solicited more than $7 million to fund the bid and then pulled off one of history's great Olympic upsets.

Atlanta faced formidable odds. Athens, Greece, the ancestral home to the Olympics, was favored to become the host of the Centennial Games of the modern era.

Yet Atlanta had a secret weapon: former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, who had established strong links with Third World nations. Young and Payne made quite a team, the black civil rights leader and the white real estate lawyer, selling Atlanta and the New South to the IOC.

The strategy worked. Atlanta overwhelmed Athens and won the Olympics on a fifth ballot in September 1991.

"What we showed is you don't worry about the naysayers, about the people who say you can't do things," Payne said.

But there was a slight problem amid the euphoria.

Atlanta had won the Olympics without setting a theme.

Sure, the city would be host to a giant sporting event. But other than attracting billions of dollars and showing the world that it was something more than a giant shopping mall in the South, there was no rationale for placing the Games in Atlanta.

"There is a period of adjustment where everybody tries to figure out what it is we're supposed to do," said Paul Kelman, vice president of Central Atlanta Progress.

"We face a problem of expectations, that the Olympics are going to cure all of our problems and be everything to everybody," he said. "It's a chance of a lifetime, and how do you live up to that?"

Even before the first shovelful of dirt is turned, there is a battle for the soul of the Games.

Lots of agendas

You ask around Atlanta and discover that nearly every group has an agenda and a definition for the 1996 Games.

For baseball's Braves, the Games provide a new $207 million stadium to call home.

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