A Private Payne: For Better or Worse, Billy Payne Remains in the Spotlight

All Billy Payne wants is his privacy. But in the year since the Salt Lake City scandal broke, he has found you don’t steal fire from the gods and go back to being an ordinary citizen.

He just wants to be left alone.

Not so long ago, Billy Payne was the most famous man in Atlanta. He was hailed as a hero, an improbable good old boy who had a dream and forced it to come true. He traveled the world, bridged the gaps between political correctness and corporate interests, made friends with royals dignitaries, helped revive a dying inner city and gave millions of people the experience of a lifetime. He did what he set out to do, and is trying to get back to what he used to do – carry on with his private life. In private.

0315_archive_payne_cck_oneuseonlyOf course, that’s pretty much impossible to do. You don’t steal fire from the gods and then just go back to being an average citizen. You don’t achieve heroic status without the risk of deconstruction.

It’s been a year since the international Olympic community was rocked by revelations of bribery and corruption in the Salt Lake City bid for the 2002 Games. Reporters have been snapping around Billy Payne and looking for similar faults in Atlanta’s bid. Even Congress got involved, demanding reports and forcing a reluctant Payne to turn over personal files and decades-old documents. At press time, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) was calling for hearings.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has spent the year obsessing over the notion that the event the paper once termed a miracle and the man they once hailed as a hero must now be somehow tainted. Led by the incessant carping of columnist Colin Campbell, the AJC has embarked on a relentless and never­-ending search for scandal. Any scandal.

Take, for example, that darned bulldog.

About a decade ago, Billy Payne – former star quarterback at the University of Georgia, son of a star quarterback at UGA – was a little-known real estate attorney setting out to convince the world that Atlanta should host the Centennial Olympic Games. He was chatting up the members of the International Olympic Committee when one of the dignitaries, Manuel Gonzalez Guerra, admired Payne’s ceramic desk accessory, a replica of Uga, the UGA mascot. Payne, in an impulsive show of hospitality, arranged to have a real bulldog shipped of to Guerra.

Finagling a cold-nosed, four-legged gift through Havana customs is the kind of warm-hearted gesture of Southern hospitality that Payne and other members of “the Atlanta Nine” – the group bidding for the 1996 Games – were praised for. It was a show of down-home friendliness that won over the snooty members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and charmed the millions of visitors who discovered Atlanta during the Games. After Atlanta won the Games, the AJC called Billy Payne a “folk hero,” and compared him to Jimmy Steward and Rockefeller. Sports Illustrated said Payne offered “inspired talk that harks back to river bank preachers and country poetry.”

What a difference context makes.

“That dog really tells it all,” says Charlie Battle, one of the Atlanta Nine who spent 12 years along-side Payne bidding for, and then hosting, the 1996 Games. “When we gave the bulldog to the guy from Cuba, that was a great human interest story. Now it’s a violation. There’s no context, no perspective, to it now.”

The Associated Press put out a picture of Payne captioned IN THE DOG-HOUSE?, The New York Times devoted space to the hound, the AJC mentioned it multiple times.

“They just won’t leave that darn dog alone,” says Battle.

Gifts, it turns out, are at the crux of the Olympics investigation. How many were given and how much was spent has preoccupied lawyers, Congress and journalists. Back in June, Payne and Atlanta games co-chair Andrew Young signed off on a report to Congress that mentioned a couple of dozen gifts to IOC members that were over the IOC’s self-imposed $200 limit. A few months later, the Atlanta group brought in former judge and King & Spalding attorney Griffin Bell to amend the report – they claimed over-sight, the newspaper whispered cover up. In early September Bell issue his report to Congress; it included hundreds of additional gifts over the IOC limit.

More damning in the media were the revelations disclosed, not in the Bell report, but in the few boxes of documents that Payne fought to keep private, boxes that contained memos detailing dossiers gathered in the process of woo­ing the IOC. The dossiers, mostly from third parties and former bid committees, covered everything from food preferences and shoe sizes to sexual proclivities. IOC honcho Juan Antonio Samarauch, it was noted, “likes punctuality, dislikes late evenings, does not smoke.” Prince Albert of Monaco, on the other hand, “likes the good life, wine, women.”

The AJC had a field day, recalling the “sordid details” of the bid process. They combed over party plans and schedules. The nightclub Petrus was rented “for late-night revelry,” the paper reported. A couple who offered to host a delegate was advised to “invite the wildest people you know, followed by a trip to the Gold Club.” (The couple told the AJC that they hosted their neighbors and a Latin teacher, and skipped the strip club.)

The paper’s coverage hit the saturation point. Olympic beat reporter Melissa Turner wrote, “The story of Atlanta’s bid for the 1996 Olympics is quickly deteriorating into a titillating scandal of sex, lies and scholarships.”

Bell’s report verified what Payne and the rest of the Atlanta group had been saying all along, that they played the bidding game the way the IOC wanted it, that they gave gifts and did favors (as have, historically, bidders from most countries), but never in the systematic way Salt Lake City did.

As far as the memos in the final boxes, it was more embarrassing than evidential.

“We believed the salacious material didn’t belong in the public forum,” says Payne. “We thought we owed it to the people who’d inevitable be embarrassed to keep it private.”

One can only wonder, why hang on to all that stuff?

“We didn’t throw anything away. We have thousands of bankers boxes of papers,” says Payne. “One thing you can say of the Atlanta bid effort is that it’s the only effort about which all documents are in the public domain. That’s good. There’s nothing more to do or say; it’s all there.”

After Bell’s report came out, the spin cycles kicked in. IOC members said Atlanta instigated the gift giving, the Atlantans blamed the IOC’s culture, the U.S. Olympic Committee gave Atlanta a clean slate. Congress, at press time, was still reviewing the report. One thing’s for sure, the Olympic movement will have to work hard to regain a squeaky clean image. (The Atlantans’ information-gathering efforts may have seemed dirty to some observers, but they paled compared to other cities’ work, recalls one Atlantan who was involved with the bid process. He says that when the bid committees gathered in Tokyo to hear who would be named 1996 host, Atlanta’s choice of entertainment, a group of singing school children, was dismissed as naïve – another city “had flown in a plane of Greek call girls.”)

According to Bell’s report, only two of hundreds of gifts were possible illegal because their giving may have violated trade embargoes against the recipients’ countries of origin. This prompted Rep. Upton to call a press conference to declare, “Customs laws were broken and trade embargos ignored.” One was a carburetor kit given to a member from Libya. The other was that darn bulldog.

There are two ceramic bulldogs on the floor in Billy Payne’s new office, the space he occupies as chairman of a division of Premiere Technologies, an Atlanta-based Internet company. There’s a big dog and a puppy, both with the trademark Uga jowls and squared, stocky chests. They glare our over the expanse of Payne’s office.

It’s a big room, filled with the trappings you’d expect to find in an executive suite. There’s a giant desk, striped silk armchairs, an overstuffed sofa, heavy drapes that puddle to the floor, an extravagant side table constructed entire­ly out of heavy leather-bound books. Yet, off to the side, a small table holds tro­phies no other executive would have – an Olympic medal, along with a few small tokens from Billy’s great adventure. When his assistant brings in cups of steaming Starbucks, they’re placed on Atlanta 1996 coasters.

These are the understated but subtle reminders that although he’s trying to go back to private life and pick right up where he left off, Billy Payne could have stayed public. The man who headed the Atlanta Olympics – which as media hyperbole constantly reminded us hap­pened to be the largest peacetime event in the history of the world – could have run for governor, could have run the Falcons, could have taken the helm of any number of major corporations. But here he is, 52 years old and working at an Internet company alongside a couple of young guys, including his 24-year-old son, Porter.

It seems an unlikely place for a man whose last job was as a vice chairman in NationsBank and who made a career in real estate deals. He’s not your typical techie, but Billy Payne knows a hell of a lot about salesmanship and positioning. He chats with ease about unified messag­ing systems and Internet portals. The man notorious for micromanaging the Olympics seems genuinely tickled to talk about having young “bosses” and kick­ing some cyber butt for Premiere, which was named No. 23 on Deloitte & Touche’s list of the 500 fastest growing technology companies. He’ll do that, he says, in the same way he’s done anything in his life: by working as hard as he can.

It was, after all, dogged determination that enabled Payne – a Georgia boy who had never traveled overseas on business before – to convince people to buy into the Quixotic notion of bringing the Olympic Games to Atlanta. He talked to civic leaders, former mayor Andrew Yong, corporations with deep pockets, anyone who would listen. It was a relentless quest that took him from a successful but unremarkable career as a real estate attorney to the further reaches of the globe.

That quest – which saw him quit his job, take out a $1.5 million personal loan to support his family and help pay for the initial cost of wooing hometown supporters and Olympics officials – is what landed Atlanta the Games, and underdog victory that, for a while, brought Billy Payne nothing but accolades.

Sure, there were spats. He is a notori­ous control freak, known for his short temper and sometimes thin skin. “He demands a lot of himself and others,” says Charlie Battle. “Billy pushes people to try to get them to do things they may not think they can do.” And it paid off. Atlanta hosted the Games without going bankrupt, survived the devastating tragedy of a bombing, and emerged with renewed vigor.

“The real legacy of the Games is that the people of Atlanta felt for themselves the legacy of possibility,” says Payne. “We can do anything we set our minds to. All the people of Atlanta and Georgia, during the Games, it was as though we were looking into a mirror and we were beautiful.”

During this early morning interview – the first solo interview he has given to local media in months – Billy Payne is guarded and cautious. It’s mid-summer and the investigation is still underway. But he is adamant that the people of Atlanta shouldn’t feel that their Olympic experience is tarnished by the sniping of media critics.

“Nothing, I believe, will ever erode the magnificence of the experience nor the wonderful memories that Georgians possess about this Olympic experience,” he says. “Down the stream, when you ask what was Georgia’s finest hour, you’re going to get an overwhelming response that it was the Olympic Games. And so, you know, the way I look at the rest of it, it’s business. If newspaper columnists go after me, it’s business.”

Part of the business of being a hero is that eventually you get sniped at. And if you want a metaphor for Billy Payne’s heroic quest and his current dilemma, you can’t do much bet­ter than the story of Prometheus.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus and his brother were handed the task of giving gifts and talents to man and beasts. Prometheus took it upon himself to give mankind a gift that would make them superior to the beasts. He traveled up to the sun, lit a torch and brought the flames back to Earth, giving mankind the gift of fire and thus, control over the beasts.

Jupiter was ticked off by Prometheus’ presumption and, so the story goes, decided to make things tougher for the torchbearer. So he sent over a woman, called Pandora who, as you might have heard, brought with her a box filled with nasty surprises that unleashed a host of horrors on Prometheus and the people who received his gift of fire. And Prometheus was eventually banished to a mountainside, where he was tied to a tree and pecked apart by birds.

Thus, Billy Payne, the man who brought the torch, literally, to Atlanta, and elevated the city in the world’s view, is now held up to the public eye and scrutinized by reporters flocking around like vultures waiting for road kill.

At the head of that flock is Colin Campbell, the AJC columnist who crusaded for Payne to turn over the thousands of ACOG (Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games) boxes of files he was holding in private. Campbell wrote a series of columns crying for disclosure. He accused Payne of trying to avoid scrutiny, even implied he may have purged files he didn’t want the public to see.

“I am not out to get him,” says Campbell of Payne. He says he thinks the media would have treated Payne differently had he reacted with more openness in the immediate wake of the scandal in Salt Lake City. “Why didn’t he say, ‘We were under certain pressures, it was a new game for us, very competitive, we were trying to be hospitable, make friends, some [things we did] were over limits, and here’s a list. We still think we didn’t do anything bad, we were a victim of the IOC system.’ Why couldn’t he do that?” asks Campbell. “It’s been a battle, and I am not quite sure why it was fought.”

When the bulk of the boxes were made public, only five media outlets – the AJC, AP, CNN, The Athens Daily News, and WSB-TV – requested access to the boxes. And the only private citizen to show interest was a graduated student at Georgia State.

This year’s clamor to look into Atlanta’s bid process may be more a reflection of the pressure on today’s media to dish up scandal, to offer the latest breaking tidbits and gossip, rather than to labor and actually ferret out real evidence of wrongdoing.

After all, the specter of corruption in the Olympic bid process was raised early on, with a 1991 report in the German magazine Der Spiegel that claimed Atlanta and other cities engaged in bribery to win IOC votes. The story was picked up by the Times of London, which later published a clarification but did not retract the story. Payne demanded a retraction by Der Spiegel, which stood by its story. Coverage of Der Spiegel’s allegation by the AJC? About a dozen items, most of them rehashes of the Der Spiegel piece with firm denials by the Atlanta Nine.

In 1994 the AJC dutifully reported that Payne owned property in Rockdale County near a possible location for the equestrian venue; he had disclosed that information to Olympics officials early on and recused himself from involvement in selecting an equestrian venue, which eventually did end up near Payne’s land. The AJC ran an article reporting that Payne went above and beyond ACOG’s ethics standards for reporting conflict of interest, and quoted him as saying he certainly hoped to make money off his investment at some point.

Fast forward to 1999. At the top of the page of a Sunday paper was a large, bold headline that read: PAYNE PROFITED FROM LAND DEAL NEAR HORSE PARK. Aside from the sale of land, there were no new revelations; the paper reported the profitable sale, and rehashed its earlier reporting, but juxtaposed stories of the land deal and Payne’s Olympic “vision” in a decidedly negative slant.

The paper’s reaction to the remaining files has been equally breathless. OLYMPIC RECORDS REAVEAL A FIERY SIDE TO PAYNE, blared one headline that caused Payne to burst out laughing. “Hell,” he says. “We all know that; it’s not news.”

Billy Payne has learned to shoulder the criticism, even accept his role as scapegoat.

He says he doesn’t object to being single out for criticism, but what he doesn’t want to do is have to serve as an apologist for the entire Atlanta Games, what he calls Georgia’s finest hour. Everywhere he goes – even now, three-and-a-half years after the Games – people come up and thank him. And remembering the Olympic experience is what Billy would rather have people do then feel sorry for him.

“He definitely doesn’t want sympathy,” says Martha Payne, his wife of 31 years. “That’s not in his personality.” What he wants, really, is to be left alone. “His favorite thing is to be at home,” she says.

Home is sacred to the Paynes. They met their freshman year at Georgia; that first Christmas break they both went home and told their parents they were getting married, which they did right after their junior year. “Meeting Martha was the best thing that ever happened to him,” says Vince Dooley, the UGA athletic director, who has known Payne for 35 years. “He married his ideal mate. Billy and Martha have been a team. He is very dependent on her, and she likewise.”

Martha says with a laugh, “It sounds hokey, but he never goes a day without saying ‘I couldn’t do this without you.’ My friends tease and say, ‘Martha, it must be hard to be on a pedestal,’ but it helps to be appreciated.”

The Paynes are definitely a team. They both use the word “we” more often than “I.” When asked about what they’ve been doing for the past three years, the first thing they both mention is their grandchild, Bo Sikes. “They are delirious over that child,” says Chris Price, senior minister of St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church, in Dunwoody.

Billy and Martha Payne attend his church and always sit in the same place – right side, up near the front. They are active in every aspect of the congregation, from teaching Sunday school to leading fund-raising drives. Church members give him space. “He’s a reserved person, very serious,” says Price, who has known Payne since they were both high school football players, and who served in a military reserve unit with Payne in the 1970s.

During this interview, Payne remains reserved and upright; he rarely makes eye contact. But at mention of his grandchild, he leans forward and grins so deep that dimples form on his cheeks. He walks over to a silver-framed baby picture on his table and rummages through his desk for more snapshots. His second grandchild is due next month. “It’s amazing,” he says with a wide grin.

He and Martha moved into an empty nest small home in Buckhead; they spend time at the lake on weekends. “When we go to the lake we come home exhausted. He never stops – fishing, golf, more fishing, he is not without lots of hobbies,” she says.

He says he won’t be taking of any huge civic projects. He serves on the fundraising board for Hands On Atlanta’s school mentoring program, but has kept a low profile – and swears he wants to keep it that way.

A lot of people expected Billy Payne to use the Olympics as a launching board for a political career. Instead, he has gone back to private life, and Charlie Battle thinks he will stay there. “Everyone thinks people do things like Billy did just to use them as a stepping stone,” says Battle. “They don’t know what to do when people do great things for all the right reasons. Billy taking on the Olympics had nothing to do with a long-range goal to use it as a springboard. He just wanted to do something good and then go back to his life.”

“The most important thing to know about him today is he is happy,” says Martha.

It’s a blistering day in August, a heat wave, and weeks since the last rain fell. The fountains at Centennial Olympic Park dance and sparkle in the blazing sun. The water almost drowns the sound of construction a few hundred feet away at Philips Arena, but it is the gleeful screams of children that finally do the job.

They race through the water, dozens of them. Some are local kids, brought in day camp buses, or by parents looking for some easy summer entertainment. Many are the children of tourists playing in the fountain while their parents snap pictures of the glittering Chamber of Commerce building or The Tabernacle, just two of the landmarks leftover from Atlanta’s big party.

Tourists from out of town who remember watching the fountain on television during the ’96 Games walk around it, looking at the bricks in the pavement, pointing out names, countries, greetings etched in the bricks.

Front and center, there is a small cluster of bricks. “The Atlanta Nine.” “Charlie Battle,” “Ginger Watkins,” and of course, “Billy Payne.” Kids run screaming by, and the letters are covered up with tiny wet footprints.

This article originally appeared in our November 1999 issue.