Billy Payne, the visionary former Georgia football player and ex-$250,000-a-year Atlanta real estate lawyer who dreamed up and then led the campaign that brought the 1996 Summer Olympics to Atlanta, says he has a clock in his head that counts his Olympic days, both forward and backward. As of Monday his forward-looking clock indicated that 1,250 days remained until the Games begin, on July 20,1996, and his backward-looking clock showed that 2,207 days had passed since Feb. 10,1987, the day he was smitten with the idea that he could bring the Olympics to Atlanta.
The good news is that Payne's lick-tick-ticks have now counted off nearly two thirds of the time it will take to reach the culmination of his Olympic dream (to say nothing of the day when silence returns to his head). The bad news is that the best of times are cither far behind—such as the glorious day in Tokyo in September 1990 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded Atlanta the Gaines—or far, far ahead, in the golden Olympic tomorrows of '96. In the interim lie the worst of times, when the headaches build, the conflicts escalate and every day is full of doubt and accusation.
As president, chief executive officer, dreamer-in-charge and chief spellbinder of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG, which locals pronounce AY-cog), Payne now refers to the Olympics as "the greatest peacetime event in the 20th century." Thus the warlike nature of recent months has weighed heavily on him. "I have been trying to be a diplomat, and that has been extremely difficult for me," he says. "My tongue has gotten shorter from biting it off so many times."
February 22, 1993
The issue that has shortened Payne's tongue most is the difficulty ACOG is having raising the $1.4 billion the Games will cost—$900 million in operating expenses and $500 million for the construction of sports facilities and the Olympic Village. The best estimates are that the committee is running two thirds behind schedule in its cash flow, and in January 1992 it had to turn to a $300 million line of bank credit to make ends meet. Michael Lomax, chairman of the Fulton County commission and a member of the Metropolitan Atlanta Olympic Games Authority, which functions as a public watchdog over the privately organized ACOG, says, "The last financial report was not a good one. ACOG is not hitting its goals. Its members said they were not expecting anything from the government, so we want to make sure they are not overspending based on revenue they are not producing. They have a very expensive executive payroll, and that was based upon the enthusiasm we initially had about the Games."
Included in that very expensive payroll is Payne's annual salary of $530,000, a figure that was announced by ACOG last April and denounced immediately by some local critics. However, many Atlantans forgave Payne his fat salary because from 1987 through '91 he pursued his—their—Olympic dream without any pay and wound up with more than $1 million in personal debt. Also, Payne supporters point out that the salary is not out of line for a CEO of an average Fortune 500 company. A.D. Frazier, a former Atlanta and Chicago banker who is ACOG's chief operating officer, No. 2 behind Payne, is paid $375,000 a year, about half of what he earned at the bank. "What we have here at ACOG," Frazier says, "is an operation the size of a Fortune 500 firm that is founded, organized and operated for six years and six years only, and then goes out of business after '96."
True, but the question of the moment is: Can ACOG raise the money it needs to stay in business for those years? The committee long ago declared that it planned to pay its bills by taking in at least $550 million from the sale of U.S. and foreign television rights, another $400 million or so from the sale of merchandising licenses and commemorative coins and tickets, and another $500 million from the sale of corporate sponsorships. The TV negotiations with U.S. networks should take place in late spring or early summer, and if the economy continues to improve, TV could produce revenue close to ACOG's predictions. Sales of coins, licenses and tickets usually produce a dependable income, but it doesn't start flowing in until closer to the beginning of the Games. So the immediate question about ACOG's finances lies in the sale of $500 million worth of corporate sponsorships.
Originally the hope was to bring in 10 national "Partners" in different commercial categories such as automobiles, fast food, telecommunications, insurance and beer. In the fall of 1991 Payne promised to have the national Partners signed and sealed by the end of 1992. At the time, he declared boldly, "Only the big boys need apply." He meant the very big boys. The price of a partnership was $40 million. By contrast, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, which invented the corporate-sponsorship gimmick for the '84 Games, charged only $4 million apiece for its 30 major sponsorships, and eight corporations paid at least $23 million each to be joint partners with the Barcelona Games organizers. The IOC now charges $40 million apiece for its dozen worldwide TOP (The Olympic Program) affiliations, but those sponsorships include marketing rights in virtually every country that has a national Olympic committee.
For $40 million, each national Partner is affiliated with not only the Atlanta Games but also the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC). Each national Partner receives exclusivity in its market category, so that, for example, only one commercial bank—NationsBank—will sponsor the U.S. Olympic Team at the '94 Winter Games in Lillehammer and in Atlanta in '96. Among other exclusive privileges, each Partner with a capital P may use the Atlanta Games' logo and the Olympic rings in its advertising. It will also have access to 400 of the best hotel rooms, VIP credentials, chauffeured cars, tickets, etc., at the '96 Olympics.
Is this a good deal? So far four corporations—NationsBank, Sara Lee, Home Depot and IBM—think it is and have signed individually tailored deals with ACOG. For instance, IBM will provide $40 million worth of equipment and services—but no cash—for its partnership. Both Payne and Harvey Schiller, executive director of the USOC, express optimism about selling more national partnerships—soon. Says Schiller, "The marketplace continues to improve. One problem we had was that we were prevented from selling these partnerships until after the Games in Barcelona, due to an IOC restriction."
Another difficulty in selling the partnerships popped up early last December when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that ACOG planned to sell a second tier of Olympic supplier (with a small s) sponsorships for only $10 million to $20 million. The story caused consternation among the original big-bucks buyers. "Part of the appeal of being a [national Partner] was having fewer...Partners and suppliers. That would eliminate the clutter," Brad Iversen, corporate director of marketing at NationsBank, said when the article appeared. Home Depot spokesman Lonnie Fogel said, "We have legitimate concerns about the devaluation of sponsorships."
Payne insists nothing has been devalued. "Our program has always been to get nine or 10 national Partner sponsors," he says, "and then make available different sponsorships with very greatly reduced rights." In fact ACOG has signed up no supplier sponsors, but Payne claims that the cheaper package is already in demand. "We have found that the universe of American companies interested in the lower level of $10 million to $20 million is significantly greater than we anticipated," Payne says. What the supplier sponsor would get for its money or payment in kind, however, has yet to be negotiated. "Our $40 million Partners will have something to say about the second-tier rights and privileges," says Payne.
None of the four big boys bolted after the Journal-Constitution story broke, but Payne is still furious at the paper for printing it. "Very little has been written accurately," he says, "and what has been written of late rocked the boat. The paper said that the difficulty and complexity of getting $40 million causes us to reduce prices. Nothing is further from the truth. Journalism was making news as opposed to reporting news, and it was doing a disservice to our efforts." Thomas Oliver, the editor in charge of the Journal-Constitution's Olympic coverage, says, "That story obviously caused some problems for Mr. Payne. I talked with him after it appeared, and he made it very clear that there were no factual errors in the article, but that what concerned him was that he had not told anyone about the supplier sponsorships yet. We stand by the story."
To Payne's frequent discomfort, the Journal-Constitution has taken an aggressive and proprietary approach to the Games, covering ACOG and other Olympic issues with a full-time team of two editors and five reporters, plus three more reporters who work the beat from time to time. "We know the public is very interested," says Oliver. "The general mood is, We as a community are 90-plus percent glad we got the Olympics. The big question is, Will a lot of people have the opportunity to participate, or is it going to be some good ol' boy network that is not open to most people?"
The paper runs Olympic stories almost every day and a full page called "Olympic Watch" in both the Saturday and Sunday editions. Payne sometimes finds the constant surveillance hard to take. An early riser, he usually devours the day's Olympic stories by 5 a.m. and has been known to telephone the reporter responsible for what Payne deems a negative story by 5:05 a.m. for a predawn tongue-lashing (no less painful for the writer despite the new shortness of Payne's tongue).
Payne, who has developed something not far removed from paranoia over Journal-Constitution coverage, should take comfort in the fact that the watchdog style of reporting on local Olympic committees by newspapers is routine. Dick Pound, the Montreal lawyer who is an executive board member of the IOC and has been a close observer of Olympics ever since he swam in the 1960 Games in Rome, puts it this way: "The nature of local newspaper coverage of the last 10 Olympics has followed a cycle that you could plot on a graph. First there is the exhilaration of winning the bid, boosterism, civic pride. Then comes the postcoital depression about whether the town should have the Olympics, whether it will be a disaster. This part of the cycle fits pretty much with the Atlanta situation now, because this a very boring couple of years in most local Olympic cycles. Nothing very interesting is happening—sponsorship sales, assembling building sites, negotiating contracts, stuff that really can't be done in the public eye. At this time the papers are searching madly for plots and counterplots.
"Then the buildings start to go up, there are things to see, the money is coming in, and suddenly everybody feels good. And then the Games come at long last, and they are, of course, a resounding success—just as they were going to be all along, with or without the coverage.
"Don't get me wrong; I think public examination of Olympic committees is helpful. It keeps certain types of people in line, and the free press has every right to cover these matters any way it wishes. But I guarantee you, the graph is there, the coverage can be plotted in advance."
Money shortages and newspaper coverage haven't been the only points of contention for ACOG. There was until late last month the sticky question of golf. Payne announced in October that ACOG wanted to add golf to the 1996 Games, though the sport had not been played at the Olympics since 1904. This was somewhat controversial since many IOC members consider golf an elitist, white man's game. Edgar Rogers, the black general secretary of the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee, said in November, "Only a very small portion of the population of any given country worldwide has access to a golf course. If it were admitted at the expense of a sport more widely played, it would have my objections."
What made Payne's announcement more controversial was that he intended to have the competition at storied Augusta National Golf Club, which has refused to allow women as members and has made only a reluctant nod toward racial integration: It added a single black member in September 1990 (and no more since) after nearly 60 years of being lily-white. The exclusionary aspects of Augusta National caused a great split in Atlanta, which got the Games in part because it had sold itself to the IOC as a model of progressiveness in race relations. Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, who is black, supported the use of Augusta, while the city council, 66% of whose members are black, condemned the idea.
Lomax of the county commission disagreed too. "Giving the venue to Augusta would be an embarrassment to Atlanta," he told SI's Anita Verschoth. "It would ignore everything we have achieved here." Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the IOC, finally laid the whole ugly matter to rest in January when he said golf would not be a part of the '96 Games.
Another storm has gathered as Atlanta activists for a variety of causes—labor unions, the homeless, civil liberties, neighborhood protection—have zeroed in on the social policies of ACOG by organizing the Atlanta Olympic Conscience Coalition. Just before Christmas almost 100 coalition demonstrators went to ACOG headquarters and crammed into Payne's office. As it turned out, Payne was out of town, so the dissenters sang Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around and then met for more than an hour with Frazier and Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and now cochairman of ACOG. Anita Beaty, director of the Task Force for the Homeless and a cochair of the coalition, was optimistic afterward. "They agreed to meet [with us] regularly," she said, "and we have faith they will do that."
The Reverend Timothy McDonald, former executive director of Concerned Black Clergy and another coalition co-chairman, is more militant. "These people are selling an Atlanta that is a myth," he says. "This is the fourth-poorest city in America. Atlanta has a history of displacing poor people when it builds major structures. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the Georgia Dome, the Civic Center, World Congress Center—all were built in poor black neighborhoods. In the past, developers did not use neighborhood people to do the ^B work. There were even illegal aliens used. That isn't fair. The Olympic people gave no guarantee on what level they will use local union labor. They want to build for the cheapest dollar. There is no way the community will allow it."
One target of the dissenters could be the $207 million Olympic Stadium, which is to be built in Summerhill, a historic black neighborhood. Groundbreaking for the stadium isn't scheduled until late April or early May, but McDonald promises, "That day they break ground, we will have a tent city there, and we will not go away. We'll take every chance we get to embarrass [the Olympic organizers]. We are unified as never before. The churches are part of it, labor is part of it, the homeless are part of it. Any intelligent person who looks at this coalition and doesn't want to sit down and talk is crazy."
ACOG is officially sympathetic to what the coalition stands for, but there is no warm embrace from Payne for McDonald. "I will not honor him by mentioning his name," says Payne. "There are groups who want to use the Olympic Games' singularity to advance their own special interests, and while many of these interests are worthwhile from a social sense, I think it is wrong that they would seek to disrupt the most important moment in this community."
Frazier, who speaks more like a professor of semantics than a banker, says, more gently, "We don't wish confrontation. Our negotiations have been anything but hostile to labor unions. We are going into contract for services, and the unions will participate. Some articulation of our aims and goals has been miscast as antilabor, antipoor. We want to be humane and thoughtful. We do give a damn, we do care. But homelessness and vagrancy and crime are not something we can solve. We didn't initiate these things, and we can't take them away.
"The Olympics were attractive to Barcelona because they fit well within a 10-year development plan. There was no such utilitarian notion about the Olympics' coming to Atlanta. This was a grassroots crusade, from the heart, from the soul of Billy Payne. We wish to bring these Games to our city with no thought of political requirements, obligations or expectations. We are doing this for the sake of doing it; we are doing this because it is the right thing to do."
Despite the pressure of such cosmic issues—social justice, high finance, potential racism, etc.—the question about the 1996 Games that is uppermost in the minds of most people is far less lofty: What the hell izit with Whatizit? The blue blob mascot has mystified and amused the world since it was introduced to guffaws at the end of the Barcelona Games. Samaranch likes it, comparing it favorably to the crude dog that was Barcelona's mascot: "I think it is the mascot, after Cobi, who gets the most press coverage—80 percent negative, 20 percent positive."
Among the negative critics is Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, who calls Whatizit "a bad marriage of the Pills-bury Doughboy and the ugliest California Raisin." Asked about the maligned mascot, Payne grins rather grimly and k says, "We are going to get the last laugh with Whatizit, I guarantee you." He will say no more.
Even as these contentious days tick past, the fact is that the Atlanta Olympics will be held and they will most likely be a success. Too many things are too right in Atlanta—venues in place, local government lending support, a citizenry that loves the idea of holding the Games, a city where even the critics are really boosters in disguise. McDonald says, "We're going to have the best Olympics there ever were. It will be the best not because of the Games but because of a community coming together." And Lo-max says, "In 1996 all this agony will result in an ecstasy comparable to Barcelona's."
Payne would like nothing better than to set his mental Olympic clock ahead to those days of ecstasy. But, for now, there is nowhere to hide.
And no doubt his tongue will grow even shorter before the clock stops.