DRIVING FORCE: NO PAYNE, NO GAIN FOR ATLANTA.
These are the days Billy Payne dreamed of.
Nine years after Payne mused that the Olympics would be a nice way to get people working together, Atlanta has been transformed by hundreds of millions of dollars of new development and improvements and is about to welcome about 2 million people for the Summer Games.
The Games will open Friday at a stadium Payne fought to have built. Crowds will mingle at a park that once existed only in his mind as he looked from his office balcony out to a neighborhood of crumbling and vacant old buildings.
The Atlanta Olympics are at hand, and they are very much Billy's Games. From dark-horse bid to bumpy preparations to the final touches now being applied, the Centennial Games bear the imprint of the Georgia football player turned lawyer turned visionary.
While the whole world seems to be fretting over whether Atlanta is ready, the president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games exudes utter calm and confidence.
Known to relax with a glass of Jack Daniel's whiskey, Payne idly swings a golf club while explaining in an interview that his only concern is getting too emotional when the time to open the Games finally comes.
Some things have not turned out the way Payne envisioned, but for the most part he appears ready to deliver what he promised: an Olympics that will - for better or worse - make sure the world knows Atlanta.
``He laid it out exactly like it is turning out,'' said Bob Holder, a construction executive who was an early convert to Payne's Olympic crusade and became co-chairman of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games.
``The one powerful constant in this whole thing has been Billy's eye on the prize, and never wavering from what the ultimate outcome here was going to be,'' Holder said.
With the possible exception of Peter Ueberroth, the former baseball commissioner who organized the 1984 Los Angeles Games, no other Olympics has taken on the personality of its organizing chief to such an extent.
``That would come out of the star complex that is peculiar to America,'' said Richard Pound, an International Olympic Committee member from Montreal who has overseen Atlanta's preparations.
``The Atlanta Games need a star, and that is Billy Payne. They (Los Angeles) needed a star, and it was Peter Ueberroth,'' said Pound. ``I think Billy's quite comfortable being the star.''
The devoted son of a demanding father who also starred on the football field at Georgia, Payne became inspired to do something on a grand scale after leading a $2 million effort to raise funds for a new sanctuary at his church.
Adding to Payne's drive was a sense of fatalism growing from the death of his father at a young age, and his own history of heart trouble. Payne, 48, has had two heart-bypass operations, the most recent in 1993.
Though he'd never been to an Olympics, Payne became obsessed with the idea of bringing the 1996 Games to Atlanta. He quit his successful law practice, went into debt to finance his scheme and recruited some well-heeled friends to come along for the ride.
After selling the IOC on Atlanta, Payne sold Atlanta on a downtown Olympic park by conjuring images of the great plazas in Barcelona, site of the '94 Games. That park, now filled with sponsors' tents, more often draws comparisons to a carnival.
That Payne won the Games for Atlanta might have been a surprise, the traits that he brought to the task were familiar to those who knew him.
A workaholic and a hard-driving, hands-on boss, Payne's resolve is legendary.
``What stands out in my mind is his great tenacity as a player,'' said Vince Dooley, Payne's football coach at Georgia and now the university's athletic director.
``He was a real Bulldog in every sense of the word. I always referred to him as a 60-minute player, meaning that you want him in the game all the time.''
Both the bid and the subsequent six years of planning for the Summer Games have given Payne's singlemindedness and competitiveness ample opportunity to come to the fore - not always for the best.
His early insistence on doing it his way led to some embarrassing missteps:
A bid to add golf to the Games collapsed after Payne placed it at the Augusta National Golf Club, a course with a history of excluding African-Americans and women.
Boasts of easy money from sponsors and television rights fell short, and now ACOG continues hunting for cash as the games loom.
His selection, with little consultation, of a computer-generated, bug-eyed creature for the Atlanta mascot drew universal ridicule and prompted several revisions.
Payne's inexperience with Atlanta's racially charged politics drew him into a clash with neighborhood opponents that almost killed plans for the main Olympic Stadium. The community groups said they had no input.
Payne drew criticism that few of the dollars pouring into Atlanta for the Olympics were filtering down to the city's poor. And he has been cursed by many a rush-hour driver stuck in traffic jams caused by extensive Olympic-related construction.
On the other hand, Payne has tirelessly preached the virtues of the Games as a way for people to put aside differences and come together. He has insisted on high levels of representation for African-Americans and women in ACOG jobs and in the companies with which ACOG does business.
And while ACOG is about $130 million short of making its budget, Payne has managed to avoid going to the public trough for the core financing of the games. His critics note, however, that government money is being used for security and road improvements.
Payne has been unfairly characterized as being unwilling to listen to other points of view, Holder said.
``He has become an extraordinarily good executive,'' he said. ``He is a very, very good, first-rate chief executive officer. He's not just some kamikaze pilot that's fixed on a target and can't understand there are things that might have to be done a little differently.''
Payne acknowledges that he's had to learn on the job.
``I've addressed a lot of issues with a sense of innocence and naivete that I guess I could have addressed with a harder edge,'' Payne said.
``This is big business. I was a private lawyer and I jumped into international intrigue and politics . . . right off the bat. I tried to respond and make decisions on what was the right thing to do and hopefully I got it right more than I got it wrong.''
Pound thinks Payne has mostly gotten it right, and that ACOG has prepared an Olympics in line with the vision originally laid out by the bidders.
``Everybody has ended up more or less happy,'' Pound said.
``He certainly understands the importance of these Games to us, and he understands that by not going to Athens for those Games the responsibility on his shoulders was made greater because he'll have to do not only the past but also the future,'' Pound said.
``I think he started off with a vision of what the Olympics might mean to a city like Atlanta and has been pretty consistent in that vision from the outset.''
Photo: Former Georgia football player Billy Payne had the d rive to get Atlanta the 1996 Games, then get the event organized.