Billy Payne: His vision changed Atlanta history

He was the man with the crazy idea: Atlanta, Olympic city.

Right there alongside Paris, London and Tokyo would be the capital city of Georgia. William Porter “Billy” Payne, real estate lawyer and former University of Georgia football star, was the polite but insistent southerner so many dismissed. Not only did he have the farfetched notion of Atlanta winning a bid for the Games, but for the Centennial Games.

Almost everyone thought the 1996 bid would go to Greece, the ancient home of the Olympics and where they had been reborn in 1896.

Indefatigable, Payne marched into boardrooms and trotted the globe to sell Atlanta. He was the visionary and cheerleader who eventually convinced Andrew Young and recruited a city, a state and a nation to believe.

“The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of … Atlanta,” IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said on Sept. 18, 1990, in an announcement that changed the region’s history.

“If you believe that if you surrounded yourself with enough talent, enough good friends, enough people willing to push or pull all in the same direction, there can be absolutely no limitation on what you can achieve,” Payne said that day.

Then came the small matter of putting on the Games, with Payne as CEO. That meant building arenas, coordinating governments, sponsors and adding infrastructure – including a park that would redefine Atlanta’s urban core.

Payne, now 68, returned to real estate after the Olympics and is chairman of Augusta National Golf Club. He said in a recent interview one of his most cherished memories is that of the crowds in the new Centennial Olympic Park. He called it “the beating heart” of Atlanta during the Games, though it also was the site of a deadly bombing.

Payne said Atlanta’s resiliency showed through in reopening the park a few days later.

Payne said for all the global goodwill the Games created for Atlanta, the park remains the most enduring physical legacy. But not its only legacy.

“To me, (the Olympics) really stood for only one thing: when this community comes together we can do anything we want to do,” Payne said.

Staff writer Dan Klepal contributed to this report.

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