July 19th will mark the 20th anniversary of the Atlanta Olympic games. An attorney, Mr. William “Billy” Payne, championed the effort to bring the games to Georgia. Last month, Mr. Payne graciously took the time to share with us his memories from the Olympics. The lessons underscoring them serve as fine examples for attorneys throughout our state.
Mr. Payne earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia in 1969. As the son of a No. 1 NFL draft pick, Mr. Payne also played for the football team. His football skills led to a post-graduate scholarship to the law school. Mr. Payne graduated from law school in 1973 and entered into private with a firm in Atlanta that represented MARTA. Mr. Payne then transitioned to a larger law firm. After spending approximately five years with that firm, Mr. Payne opened a practice with six other lawyers. Mr. Payne, like many other attorneys starting a practice, remembers the humble beginnings, such as running titles at the various courthouses throughout Georgia. Mr. Payne later built the firm into a successful commercial real estate practice with large national clients.
A Dare to Dream
After several years of practice, Mr. Payne wanted to do more good than to simply earn a living for his family. Mr. Payne was inspired by his faith. When he was returning home from a dedication of a new church at his parish on Sunday, February 8, 1987, Mr. Payne recalled all of the wonderful smiles and began thinking about his other dreams. Mr. Payne happened to pencil down bringing the Olympics to Atlanta early the following morning. He notably gets up every morning at 5:30 to begin the workday. Mr. Payne’s dream certainly seemed improbable, if not impossible, ever to come to fruition at the time. Despite the myriad of obvious challenges, Mr. Payne dared to dream, and dreams do come true.
Importance of Friends
After Mr. Payne shared his dream with his wife, who is without question his best friend, she told him to contact his friends about actually pursuing an Olympic bid. Mr. Payne began reaching out to a number of his colleagues practicing at King & Spalding among other firms. His first telephone call went to his most conservative friend. At first, Mr. Payne recalls a profound silence when he broached his idea, but then his friend responded, “That’s a great idea. How much money can I give?” Mr. Payne’s wife, unbeknownst to him, listened to the conversation to ensure that he would accurately recount it later to her. Mr. Payne’s friends all supported him. In sum, Mr. Payne knew that the collective efforts of friends were immensely more valuable than any single individual effort.
Since the 1996 Olympics marked the centennial anniversary of the games, Athens, Greece initially appeared to be the most compelling location for them. Mr. Payne recounted that the international community had a very limited knowledge of Atlanta, Georgia beyond the Civil War and the struggle for civil rights. In fact, one person even asked Mr. Payne whether gambling was permitted near the games because that person confused Atlanta with Atlantic City in New Jersey. Mr. Payne, nevertheless, continued to persevere with his quest. He stressed the community spirit, as well as volunteerism in Atlanta with the Olympic committee. These common values made the difference because Atlanta was officially announced as the site for the games on September 18, 1990.
Best Memory of the Games
While Mr. Payne holds many fond memories of the Olympic games, his finest memory involves Mr. Mohammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame. Mr. Ali’s role was kept as a secret until the very last moment. To this end, Mr. Payne remembers standing in the tunnel in the stadium, which was already full of the athletes, and telling Ms. Janet Evans, who is widely considered the best female distance swimmer, “Now give the torch to Mohammed Ali.” Her knees buckled at the news. Mr. Payne recalls being overcome with profound emotion at the historical significance of the lighting of the Olympic flame by Mr. Ali. Simply put, it was the greatest single moment of the games.
At the conclusion of our conversation with Mr. Payne, he reminded us that the story of the Olympic games ended where it began. “[A]chieving the improbable and impossible is beyond the talent of any one person, and accordingly, we as individuals must turn to friends.” The bonds of trust from friendships brought the Olympics to Atlanta. Most importantly, these values are the central component of leading a fulfilling life.