Sportsmanship Drives President Of Atlanta Olympics

Billy Payne, former All-American, tackles the '96 Games

WHEN you talk with Billy Payne, one of the busiest executives in this city of 3 million people, you are never in doubt that you are dealing with a former all-American college football player for Georgia University in the 1960s.

His voice has smooth Southern rhythms, but his responses come like snappy forward passes.

To reach his office in Atlanta's expansive Exhibition and Convention Center requires the stamina of a marathon runner and the soaring spirit of a pole-vaulter. A maze of escalators and elevators lead to the headquarters of the Atlanta committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG).

More than 400 full-time ACOG staff are already at work there. They are helped by 415 volunteers whose numbers, by July 1996, will rise to 40,000.

In the well-lit, space-age main reception area, a restless digital clock registers the days and hours left before the Opening Ceremony on Friday, July 19, 1996.

Close by, Mr. Payne, in dark suit, white shirt, and golf tie, blends business and courtesy as effortlessly as he once handled a football.

It was almost seven years ago that he took the first steps to form an Atlanta committee that would consider the feasibility of a bid for the 1996 Olympic Games, and he has never flinched before the financial, political, and public-relations challenges involved.

``I think too much money is spent in pursuit of the Games,'' Payne admits without hesitation, ``and yet as long as they are as popular as they are now, as long as cities see in the Olympic Games a way to showcase that which is best about their own cities and countries, I don't see the competition diminishing at all in the future.''

Payne has a firm grasp of Olympic tradition, especially the insistence by the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron de Coubertin, that the Games should be primarily a gathering of young people from around the world.

``We want to give the athletes their moment in time for all their years of training,'' says Payne. ``But in a larger sense, we learn from the youth of the world how people who are dramatically different and constantly at war over racial, ethnic, and religious differences, can actually come together in a spirit of cooperation and friendship.''

Newly independent nations, as well as South Africa, which has been re-admitted to the Games after years of political isolation, have increased the number of participating nations, athletes, and officials almost to the breaking point. The Games cannot grow any bigger without becoming unmanageable, Payne says.

Right now the focus of the Atlanta Committee is on ensuring that the construction proceeds - and stays - on schedule and within the total Games budget of $1.5 billion.

``Despite the cynicism and negativism in the media,'' Payne says, ``we've maintained overwhelming public support. The spirit is there, and that's what made our bid - and will make the Atlanta Games - successful.''

Billy Payne identifies two great influences in his life.

``One, most importantly, was my father, who always told me that the levels of success you achieve are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that you are doing the best that you possibly can.

``Secondly, and more recently,'' he continues, ``I've been a student of former [Atlanta] Mayor Andy Young, who is co-chairman of the board of the organizing committee. He's taught me about statesmanship and diplomacy. He's made me a better person, and I love him for it.''

Payne never takes time off for himself or his family, except for church on Sunday mornings. It's hard, he says, to break old habits of intensity and competitiveness.

When it's all over, what's he going to say to the family? ``Let's go fishin.' Or let's go on a two-year vacation....''

And what would he like to able to say to the athletes? ``Remember how it felt here, remember the joy and pleasure that you shared with all of these other young men and women. Take those thoughts and those memories home with you, and know that those kinds of feelings do not have to be confined to just the [17] days of the Olympic Games.''

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