It was Day 3,217 of Billy Payne's Olympian odyssey. Only 233 days and nights separated this bleak wintry afternoon from the moment next summer when the Greek guy will jog into Atlanta's new Olympic Stadium. And here was Payne, the driven, evangelical CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), once again behind a podium, once again talking his vision of "the best Olympic Games of all time" into the hearts and minds of a big crowd.
This is an article from the Jan. 8, 1996 issue
Arrayed before him in the ballroom of a downtown Atlanta hotel were several hundred coaches and sports officials gathered for the annual meeting of USA Track & Field. And Payne, "inspired," as he so often says he is, "by goodness," had come determined to once again summon the innate Olympic spirit that he believes dwells somewhere within us all.
"It has now been nearly nine years since I first had that which is still described as the crazy idea," Payne began. "Nine years since I came to believe that the United States could do great justice and great service to the Olympic movement at this most important time in its history."
With that, members of the audience, which included many people wearing warmup suits and running shoes and more than a few in business suits and running shoes, began to do what the crowds Billy Payne speaks to almost daily do. They began to nod and respond to his singular spell.
Few hours of any day pass without Payne proclaiming that the Summer Games will be "the most important event in the history of Atlanta, Georgia." He tells the crowds that the Atlanta Olympics will be "the largest and most important event of the 20th century" and "the most watched event in the history of the world." Although there are around five billion citizens of the world, Payne regularly extrapolates cumulative television viewership and asserts that "35 billion people" will witness the result of his unremitting quest.
At the USA Track & Field congress in Atlanta, Payne went on to ignore the philosophical vision of the Enlightenment, the canon of world communism and the tenets of several great religions and stated that the Olympic movement is "the only movement in the world that brings people together for a common and singular purpose under a common set of rules." During 100 years of august oratory about the modern Olympics and their attendant ideals, nobody has ever preached the gospel of the Games as fervently as William Porter Payne. Georgia-born and proud of it, he offers inspired talk that harks back to riverbank preachers and to the country poetry of dead-honest Southern mule traders to whom blind mules simply didn't look so good.
As almost everyone in Atlanta can tell you, the greatest of all quadrennial festivals came unto Payne as if in a vision. "Day 3,217" refers back to Feb. 8, 1987, when Payne came home from morning church services in suburban Atlanta only to be visited by "an idea founded in goodness." Back then Payne was an upper-middle-class real estate attorney who had never been to an Olympics and never even traveled abroad on a business trip. His sole claim to fame traced to his days as a successful (if "heavy-legged," as he puts it) high school quarterback and as a University of Georgia defensive end who was just unrelenting enough to be named All-Southeastern Conference in 1968.
But on that day in 1987, "for some reason unknown to me, even today," as he will tell you, Billy announced to his wife, Martha, that he would somehow bring Atlanta and the rest of the world the best Olympics of all time. Atlanta had never bid for an Olympics before, and no city in the last 50 years had won the right to stage the Games its first time out. Conventional wisdom held that it wasn't a U.S. city's turn to host the Games. Most insiders seemed sure that Greece, wellspring of both the ancient and modern Olympics, would get the centennial nod.
Billy Payne didn't want to hear about that. The ACOG (AY-cog) CEO hails from an illustrious tradition of successful Southern "greeting." Fifty years ago Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, which would later be central to the city's contention that it could handle the flow of Olympic visitors, was built as a major hub in large part because a team of boosters from Atlanta outgreeted the greeters of Birmingham—where all topographical logic indicated the Southern hub should be.
"I'd just say to them," Payne recalls of his early efforts to win over the International Olympic Committee (IOC) elite, "Hey, King! Hey there, Prince! I want to be your friend, and I want you to trust my city. I want you to come down and visit. And I want you to get to know us and know that we want to pay honor and respect to the Olympic Games. Now be my friend."
And that's what they did.
Because officials at every level of government had made it clear that an Atlanta-based Olympics would be staged without government underwriting, Payne—who had by then taken to wearing a button on his lapel that read, HI, I'M BILLY PAYNE—claimed that he would raise the estimated $1.5 billion the city would need through the support of corporations and other private-sector sources. Payne announced that corporate sponsorships bought for $4 million during the famously commercial Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 would now go for as much as $40 million.
Never mind that for about the same price the IOC was already selling off worldwide marketing rights and exclusive use of the Olympic rings to Coke, Kodak, Visa, Panasonic, IBM and other traditional and deep-pocketed supporters of the Olympics, including Sports Illustrated. "Billy," officials would ask him ("It was always that way," Payne says. "They were His Excellency of this or that or the Grand Duke of this or that, and I was just Billy—and that was just fine"), "how in the world are you going to find companies willing to come up with that kind of money just for domestic rights?"
"Well, sir," Payne would reply, "we're gonna talk 'em into it." And, given that nearly a half-billion dollars has been raised, that's just what he did.
As soon as Payne's marketers began pitching costly Olympic associations in corner offices around the world, a global business recession set in. But Payne's troops talked 30 billion-dollar corporations into lending executives and technicians to ACOG or donating goods and/or ponying up between $10 million and $60 million apiece to be domestic Olympic "partners" and "sponsors." A total of 125 companies signed up to be product licensees.
By the time the Games begin next July 19, more than 70,000 full-time employees and volunteers (more than three times the size of the workforce at Delta Airlines, the largest private employer in Georgia) will be working for ACOG and Payne. Some senior ACOG executives who have set aside successful careers to help bring 10,600 athletes, 5,000 coaches and officials, 15,000 journalists and two million spectators from some 200 countries to Atlanta say that the day-to-day mania of the effort isn't much fun anymore. But many of them add that they keep at it because of their desire to see Payne win his private race. They listen to him talk on and on about the Olympics as "the highest and greatest manifestation of the human spirit," but they know that for him the Games have taken on the urgency and finality of great battles in war. What at first appears to be the control-freak style of someone conducting a grand military campaign looks, at close range, like a messianic dash toward a highly personal destiny.
Asked to name his paramount motivational skill, the 48-year-old Payne says it is his "capacity to share with others that which is in my heart." Others might add that Payne has also shared an intimate sense of the physical and psychological forces that pursue and propel him--though he often seems unable to see them himself.
Everyone in the ACOG bureaucracy and most of the citizens of Atlanta by now know about Payne's dire family medical history and his two coronary bypass operations. Payne had his first bypass at age 34—just after his beloved father had died of heart failure at 53. During the procedure it was discovered that the chest pains Billy had suffered back in 1974, when he was 26, were probably indications of a heart attack.
Then, on the night of April 28, 1993 (Day 2,272), as so many huge hurdles and so many naysayers loomed before Payne, his chest started to hurt again. Another bypass, a triple, was immediately required.
Payne was back at work less than a month later, complaining that his pledge to stop arriving at the office at 4 a.m. left him with too much time for early-morning wandering around the house. "You can't change your personality," Payne told a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "but maybe you can change how many hours a day you subject your body to your personality.
"So now I start working at five instead of four," Payne said as he trucked quickly out of the ballroom when the speech to the track people was over. "Guess that means about seven more heart surgeries from now, I'll be workin' a normal day."
Upon observing Payne's carpe diem pace not long after Atlanta won the Olympics, the chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission for the '96 Games—Dick Pound, a former Olympic swimmer for Canada—took Payne aside. "Billy," he said, "this is not a sprint. You've either got to change the way you're going at this, or the stadium you want to build is going to be called the Payne Memorial Stadium." Payne wouldn't listen. "The fact is," Pound says now, "Billy is a man entirely unaware of himself in many important respects."
"With his medical history, his type A personality and working himself like he does," Payne's close friend Peter Candler says, "you wish ... well, but Billy just doesn't understand. You say, 'Billy, you're going to kill yourself,' but he just doesn't look at it that way. Makes you think of an old country and western song. I think it went, 'Live hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory.'"
"The thing that convinced me to help him was the single-minded dedication I saw," says Andrew Young, the cochairman of ACOG, who was mayor of Atlanta back when Payne made his unlikely approach to the city. "I learned that Billy had actually quit his job and was spending his savings in pursuit of his goal. He'd had a heart attack, and he had the feeling that doing something for others was what life was really all about. 'I don't know what I'm doing,' he said, 'but I believe I can do it. I believe it with every ounce of strength I have.' It reminded me of the line from the philosopher Kierkegaard that 'purity of heart is to will one thing.'"
Every ACOG official has heard about the things Billy's daddy said to him—and, more important, failed to say—making him unable to proceed in any gear but overdrive. Billy was born a child of Athens, the one just east of Bogart, Ga. He was also the child of a Georgia football hero named Porter Otis Payne. Billy's father was the Bulldogs' captain in 1949, and he played on the College All-Star team that beat the Philadelphia Eagles the next year.
"My daddy always said, 'Never was a horse that couldn't be rode or a rider that couldn't be throwed,'" Payne says. "He would say, 'Billy, if you're not smarter than a lot of people or a better athlete than somebody, you can always outwork 'em.'"
Billy was a workhorse A student and a workhorse athlete. After each report card and after every game in which he'd played his heart out, he would approach his father in search of what he calls "adulation."
"Well, whaddya think, Dad?" he would say. "Was I good today? Are you proud of me?" And Porter Payne would always say the same thing: "Doesn't matter, Billy. The only thing that matters is, did you do your best?"
"Never once in those hundreds or thousands of conversations with my dad," Payne has said often to those he would inspire to join his cause, "could I ever respond that, yes, I had done my best. So I think it's kind of obvious what motivates me now."
"It's the kind of motivation that gives you heart attacks," says Young. It's also the kind of motivation that allows a relatively unsophisticated attorney to rise out of nowhere to build a multibillion-dollar, 70,000-person enterprise designed to galvanize the attention of much of the world for 17 days and then cease to exist.
ACOG headquarters sprawls over 14 floors of an Atlanta office tower and 240,000 square feet of a dramatically sterile stainless steel and marble building called the Inforum. The Inforum was designed by John C. Portman Jr., who was one of the bright young participants in the postwar economic renaissance that marked Atlanta as a "Cinderella city" of the New South. For most of the second half of this century a coterie of boosters, bankers and business hustlers has endeavored to "put Atlanta back on the map," as they say, though students of the city's rebirth, including Young, admit that an inferiority complex still dwells beneath Atlanta's bravado. "I don't think Atlanta believed in an international vision for this city until September of 1990," Young says, "when we won the right to host the Olympic Games."
Before he pledged to elevate Atlanta to the status of Olympic city, Payne was one of thousands of locals who rode the great rise in Atlanta-area real estate values that commenced during the late 1970s. As a commercial real estate lawyer Payne was considered a hard-driving maker of deals rather than a legal technician. The carpetbagging investors and condominium converters who flocked into Atlanta helped make Payne and his family prosperous--though before the boom the small law firm Payne had founded with a University of Georgia law school buddy had struggled. "A lot of our business came from friends and associates of Billy's father," recalls Payne's former partner, Read Morton. "Then Billy had his bypass in '83, and since he said he wanted to slow down, we merged with a larger firm. But Billy only slowed down till he got well. The man cannot sit still."
It was in a restaurant in Aspen, Colo., that Payne told Morton that Atlanta should host the Olympics. "Sure thing, Billy," Morton said. "Have another beer."
After Payne left his law partnership in 1987, he paid the family's bills from a $1.5 million loan he took out against some real estate he owned. He drew no salary during his 3 1/2 years of lobbying to land the Games, and he paid personally for travel that kept him out of the country 20 days a month. After Atlanta won the bid, Payne began to draw a salary of $530,000--which was publicly criticized as excessive. As of last October he gets $669,112 per annum, a level of remuneration—as the Journal-Constitution was quick to trumpet to Atlantans grown used to the paper's tracking of Billy Payne's every move—that marks Payne as the most highly paid nonprofit executive in the nation.
"I get a big salary," Payne said upon returning to his big corner office at the Inforum. "But 40 percent goes to taxes, and a third of it goes to retire that million and a half in debt. At the end of the Games I will still owe $572,000 ... and everybody still gives me a rough time."
Payne's ceremonial outer office includes the standard-issue executive golf club resting against an elegant chair. After his most recent bypass Payne pledged to play a lot more golf—"My singular release in life," he says—but then Billy Payne-style golf involves playing as fast as possible and alone, preferably at dawn. Those who have suffered through rounds of golf with Payne note that he always hits first, no matter how he did on the last hole. He regularly tees off with the group in front of him still within striking distance, always tries to hit over the least traversable stretch of water ("Take every risk in the world; that's my motto"), and since he allots no more than two hours to any golf outing, he usually picks up his ball and strides off the course before finishing a round.
"Billy calls it golf, but it's really polo," one colleague notes. "He walks up to the ball swinging."
"And I'm improving, too," Payne says. "Played 13 holes the other day and was seven over par."
Not far from Payne's golf club sits an engraved brick that resembles the burnished bricks discernible atop so many horizontal surfaces inside ACOG headquarters, each of them emblazoned with the name of an employee or the names of an employee's family members or friends. More than the state of Georgia Olympic license plates (just over one million sold), more than the Olympic Barbie doll, more than the official Olympic television game shows, more even than official Olympic T-shirts and the 1,996-foot-long Olympic hot dog that was wound around the inside of the Georgia Dome a few months ago, the ACOG Adopt an Olympic Brick program has drawn Payne's micromanagerial focus because it has never quite measured up to his intent.
The Olympic-brick idyll began one summer day in 1993 as Payne was staring out his office window at a stretch of warehouses and empty lots that would be at the epicenter of Olympic housing and most of the sports facilities. Suddenly it came to Payne right there in his office--though some versions of this epiphany put him on an airplane--that the land below him must be developed into what he calls "the largest urban park built in America since before World War II," a site that would "totally transform Atlanta and become the greatest single legacy to the city of the Olympic Games."
ACOG was already promising the city more than $500 million worth of bequeathed stadiums, dorms and other structures when the Games end, but the park vision was immediately followed by negotiations with political officials, corporate leaders and philanthropists and shortly after that, by a series of financial commitments, building condemnations and land buyouts that cleared the way for Centennial Olympic Park. The walkways and plazas inside the 21-acre park would be paved with commemorative engraved bricks, the retailing of which would cover ACOG's $15 million portion of the park's $50 million price tag. Market research indicated that two million bricks might be sold for $35 each, many of them during the holiday purchasing season before Christmas 1994. The budget projected that at least 700,000 bricks would be sold, but as of last spring a mere 100,000 had been retailed.
The indefatigable Payne could by that time be heard promising "prominent places" to would-be brick buyers all over the world. Prospective purchasers were offered miniature likenesses of their engraved bricks instead of mere certificates, and the sons and daughters of some of the three million employees of the first two dozen corporations to become Atlanta Olympic sponsors began to learn that Olympic bricks had been purchased in their names. Within weeks Delta Airlines started to move bricks in quantity by offering 1,000 frequent-flier miles to anyone who would buy a brick.
An hour after returning from his speech to the USA Track & Field delegates, Payne strolled out of his office and onto a balcony overlooking a huge moonscape of gray earth that will soon be covered over by his Centennial Park. "Might not look like it, but this park is 90 percent finished," he said. "By March 1 the fountains will be in, they'll plant the grass, put in the walkways, the bricks, the flowers and the trees," he said, downing another Diet Coke and pointing toward a huge, leafless tree being hoisted above the earth by a crane.
The downtown landscape, with fortresslike buildings rising amid urban devastation, looked nothing at all like the romantic Old South images inside the coffee table-style Olympic bid books. The '96 Summer Games may indeed turn out to be the best of all time, as Payne promises several times each day, but the events and the "indigenous friendliness" of Atlanta will have to transcend all the problems of modern urban life.
"This is a made-for-business downtown," Payne said, looking out at the bulldozer dragging his new park to life. "Foreign journalists get here, and they see that there ain't a building around here more than 30 years old. They say, 'Where's the history? Where's the architecture?' Well, sorry, we don't have that, but what they go away talking about is the sincerity of the welcome they got.
"We're gonna have new lampposts and pavement running away from the park and all through the downtown. Place'll look like London or something."
Payne knows his colleagues joke about his difficulty delegating details to his executive staff, but he claims his skills in this area have improved. He will still spend executive time discussing the pocket shapes and skirt colors for the outfits Olympic employees and volunteers will wear during the Games, and a few weeks before the USA Track & Field gathering downtown he had flown to Hugo, Minn., to watch test lightings of the flame that will top the Olympic caldron.
"It's not as if I brought a lot of management expertise to this endeavor," he says. "At first it was more like, 'Y'all fall in behind, and I'll take the incoming rounds.' I probably still struggle a little bit, but once I learned to delegate, I felt even more confident of our ability to do what we said we would do." As Payne spoke, a video monitor behind his desk flashed shots of workers on a closed-circuit system that has allowed Payne to sit in his office and observe the bolt-by-bolt construction of the Olympic Stadium.
The business side of the Summer Olympics has changed mightily since 1976, when the Montreal organizing committee garnered revenues from sponsors and licensed suppliers totaling only $7 million. The organization is still short of the recently revised $1.6 billion required to meet projected costs, but that deficit is slated to disappear with the continued sale of 11 million tickets and other items, including those troublesome commemorative bricks—only 260,000 of which have been sold so far. "Whether or not we raise the money we need is no longer an issue," Payne says. "The issue is dead, because we're gonna make it. There might be issues of preparation and keeping expenses in check, but there is not a revenue question. Despite anything you may have heard or read to the contrary, this Olympic effort is not about how much money can be made."
But no matter how much time he spends willing it to be otherwise, many observers are certain to measure Payne's and Atlanta's performance against the $1 billion in municipal debt incurred by organizers of the Montreal Olympics, and the $250 million surplus delivered to Los Angeles by Peter Ueberroth and his 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee.
The success of most organizations of ACOG's size is measured in large part by their ability to sustain themselves over generations. But Payne's creation is designed to instantly disappear. Big companies blow a quarter or a fiscal year and come back strong the next time around, but Payne and ACOG have only one shot at the bottom line. The Olympic Games are the focus of an estimated $100 billion—plus worldwide sports economy that has exploded through the constant addition of leagues, teams, logos, licensing and endorsement deals, television outlets, sports talk-radio channels, sponsored events and even new sports synthesized to feed a market demand. One of the many transparencies used in a typical corporate-style presentation by an ACOG marketing executive shows a giant red sphere representing the "$5.1 billion economic impact of the Centennial Olympic Games" in the Atlanta area alone. A much smaller green sphere on the same chart, looking like the tiniest moon of a very big planet, represents the paltry $166 million generated by Super Bowl XXVIII. While NBC is now looking to reap upward of $650 million from Olympic television ads, the network can expect around $80 million from the forthcoming Super Bowl.
The official Olympic employee and volunteer garments to which Payne has paid such attention are actually donations, part of a $100 million—plus partnership between ACOG and the Sara Lee Corp. Sara Lee's investment covers, among other things, $40 million in various Olympic partnership fees, about $20 million in licensing guarantees covering everything from sweatshirts to meat, and perhaps $15 million in "hospitality" for VIP guests. Sara Lee's Hanes division is even connecting the Olympics to endorser Michael Jordan via a TV ad campaign called Olympic Briefs. Sara Lee officials say they are confident that they will recoup all of the money in stronger brands and increased product sales.
In 1992 NationsBank CEO Hugh McColl came to visit ACOG from his headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. McColl listened to the Payne pitch and quickly inquired about the price tag for the right to attach the Olympic flame and rings to his ever-expanding banking empire. "Aw, hell," McColl remembers replying when Payne said $40 million. "I thought you were gonna ask for a hundred. We're in."
McColl says he would have committed to a figure "way north" of that $40 million. "See, we're the third-largest bank in America, and we spend north of $100 million a year on marketing alone," he says. "We had just taken over C&S/Sovran, the biggest bank in Atlanta. I thought of the sponsorship as a way to show our commitment to the city, and I also wanted to make the general point that we are 'successful people' at NationsBank—which is a substitute for saying we're big and we're rich."
Although recent estimates show ACOG has fallen some $85 million short of original sponsorship projections, the effort still netted hundreds of millions of dollars from companies that had never committed to a local organizing effort before.
Suggest that the Atlanta free-market way of putting on the Olympics might be risky and inefficient, and Payne's eyes widen and he suggests in no uncertain terms that you are wrong. During a speech at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., last spring, the IOC's Pound proclaimed, "We will never award the Games in the future to a city, in the United States or elsewhere, which has no significant public-sector commitment, either in the form of financial contribution or, at the very least, in the form of a guarantee to meet the necessary costs of organizing the Games." Pound contended that the lack of government underwriting and the resulting concentration on raising private-sector money has diverted ACOG's focus from other details. Pound also questioned ACOG's strategy of giving the Olympic Stadium to the city of Atlanta as a new home for the Braves when the Games are over, saying that this is not what Olympic sponsorship money should be used for.
Though Payne acknowledges that the Olympics cannot grow much larger than Atlanta '96 without public-sector support, Pound's speech infuriated him. He screamed at Pound on the phone. Now Payne asks, "Am I happy with the way certain other parties get certain shares?"—referring to a formula by which nearly 35 cents of every dollar raised through marketing deals must go to the U.S. and International Olympic committees—"Well, no. I've been aggravated by the system."
To which Young adds, "You have to make the people who will enjoy the Olympics pay for it. It's unfair to the poor of the world, or to the poor of Atlanta, to take any of the funds that ought to be building houses for them and providing education, and use them to bring elite athletes here. From now on, sports should always be self-sustaining.
"What the lack of government underwriting causes is the continual questioning of whether we will make it," Young continues. "The question preoccupies the media ... and it preoccupies Dick Pound. But none of it will make a difference, because we will make it."
"You know, I used to be sensitive when people called me an optimist or a man without realism," Payne reflects, "but I have this belief that the Olympics is an idea that is founded in goodness, and it's the goodness that will make it achievable. I keep saying, 'Let's get it right this time. Let's show the power and hope of people coming together in a celebration of humanity.' A lot of people will say that's b.s., but it's not."
As Payne will tell you again and again, some 83% of Atlantans are glad the Olympics are coming ("We've got polls to prove it!"), but from the moment Payne came home with his prize, critics skeptical of the inherent goodness of his quest appeared. Civic leaders from inner-city neighborhoods resisted Payne's plan to build a high-tech Olympic stadium and then bequeath it to the city. At one point Payne offered the unfortunate observation that one thing these Olympics would not be was "the world's biggest urban development project." It took more than a year and the intervention of a professional negotiator to work out final plans for the stadium.
Some people in town continue to believe that Payne is the latest front man in a longtime conspiracy between white Atlanta money and black political power, a marriage of expediency inspired by greed. Many European observers—citing the unlikeliness of a scenario in which a low-profile, well-paid lawyer suddenly leaves his job and risks his house on a crazy dream that somehow comes true—believe the Olympics were awarded to Atlanta by force of a conspiracy managed by leaders of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola. Back when Payne wanted to gain quick control of the acreage needed to build his Centennial Park, he indeed went to Coke CEO Roberto Goizueta. But Young asserts that Payne and his fellow crusaders originally feared Coke might undermine their cause and so asked the company to back away.
"Coke gave as much money to the Athens and Toronto bid efforts as it did to us," Young says. "All we asked Coke to do for us was stay neutral."
"People just can't keep from diggin' up snakes," Payne says now. "And then they realize they dug 'em up just to kill 'em."
The battles have left scars on Payne. For all of his maturation as a CEO and public figure, he still takes everything personally. "Thing about Billy is, he's just so hard-charging that it's difficult for him to see the other side of things," says Vince Dooley, Payne's college football coach and now the athletic director at Georgia. "But his motivation is phenomenal. I used to play him as a tight end, a split end, and I could move him to defense to play end or even linebacker. He wasn't a superman at anything, but he could play them all, because he was just so dogged."
Early last year, with 500 days left before the Olympics, Payne got up onstage before his ACOG "family" of employees and once again told the story of his childhood quest for paternal approval. Payne seems to trundle out this tale as a management tool. It's as if he has inventoried the profound effect the story has on others without understanding it himself. On this day he explained how the Olympics will allow him to complete his personal journey. "I am now certain that when these Games are over, because you have helped me," he said, his strong voice quavering as he stared at an Olympic brick with his father's name engraved on the side, "I am going to have accomplished something I was never able to accomplish in my relationship with my daddy."
Then he started to cry.
"I don't know what the psychiatrists would say," says Horace Sibley, Payne's first recruit to the Olympic crusade from Atlanta's elite business establishment, "but it's almost as if Billy tries to take on the burden of both himself and his parent.
"One day we were driving out from the airport in Denver, and Billy was telling me about his sister, Patti, who died of cancer at the age of 40, and about his father's heart problems before he died, and about Billy's own bypass procedures—and then he told me that he didn't expect to live a full life. And I remember thinking that Billy believes he's got to do quickly what others can do over a much longer life."
All around Payne are people who seem at once motivated, enthralled and unnerved by the daily sight of him charging forward to throw himself on a coronary grenade. They cringe at evidence of a less-than-healthy lifestyle even by the standards of middle-aged men who don't have his cardiovascular history. Payne used to play basketball, but unless speed golf counts, he doesn't exercise anymore. Colleagues wince at breakfast meetings while Payne wolfs down bacon and eggs or suggests stopping for a plate of fried fish on the way home after a long day of talking the dream, perhaps believing that the abiding goodness of his cause will preserve him.
"I can still beat anybody my age in the 40-yard dash," Payne says defensively when health issues are raised.
"Oh, bull----," says one of his closest aides when told of Payne's claim.
"There's not much doubt about what's going to kill me," Payne says. "The $64,000 question is when. I have never reacted to health concerns by going overboard, by becoming a vegetarian or a marathon runner in the hope of dying at 74 instead of 72. I don't live in fear of death. I live in fear of not having my family and friends ... and maybe that is one and the same thing.
"I don't really know how to deal with health issues," Payne says after a pause. "Maybe I'm cheatin' life a little bit."
The phrase "cheatin' life" is a Paynism heard often by those close to the heat of his Olympian chase. Other people employ the phrase "cheatin' death," though few of them wake in the darkness of each morning able to recall the precise number of days it has been since they set themselves a near-impossible task, or how many days are left until the whole world sees the results.
"It's impossible for us not to achieve an overwhelming success, because this is the United States of America," Billy says. "We're doing something that's more important than any of us!" He rises to his feet and announces that it is time to stop talking and to return to the work at hand. "This thing has virtually limitless potential—if we do it right—to affect humanity. This is it, man! This is it! And I do believe we're gonna do it for sure!"