SYDNEY -- Billy Payne sat in the lobby of the Hotel Intercontinental in Sydney looking relaxed and happy, sipping a bottle of diet Coke.
The man who brought the Olympic Games to Atlanta had the look of a successful relay runner who had run his leg of the race and passed the baton on to the next runner with his team in the lead. He is satisfied with his role in pushing ahead the Olympic spirit, and now he can relax and enjoy things he has never before been able to do at the Olympic Games, such as cheering on American athletes.
During a wide-ranging interview, one of only two he participated in while he was in Sydney, Payne talked about how the people of Georgia made the Atlanta Games so special, how the Sydney Games compare, and why he is enjoying the Olympics more than ever before.
Despite the scrutiny and criticism he has endured, even years after the Games were over, he remains committed to the spirit of the Olympics.
"Being a part of this was the greatest experience of my life," he said Wednesday
"The Games remain critically important because they serve as an example to the world of commitment, sacrifice. It has positive influences on billions of people who watch it. So it needs to continue."
Payne is sure the Olympics will weather the storm of controversy generated by revelations that organizers of the 2002 Salt Lake City Games bribed International Olympic Committee officials. In fact, he thinks the scandal ultimately will have positive effects.
"This experience has brought the IOC down to earth," he said. "Their demands for their own hospitality and special treatment have reduced dramatically. That's the last thing they do now is act like they're not getting enough favorable treatment. That's positive.
"When we see a new president (of the IOC) a year from now that president's agenda will be critical and I feel certain it will be to continue to level this playing field and clean up whatever problems exist."
After the Salt Lake City scandal broke, attention was turned on the Atlanta bid process. Payne, who led the bid committee that won the Olympics for Atlanta and later was president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, said he never worried because he knew the Atlanta group had played by the rules.
"It caused us great aggravation," said Payne, 52. "Congress tried to somehow throw us in the same boat. They were unsuccessful. It just made dealing with it for about 18 months extremely difficult and not fun."
Many suspicions grew out of comparing Atlanta to some of the major cities that compete to host the Olympics.
"When you put our physical assets against the Sydneys or the Melbournes or the Torontos there's no way to explain how we could ever win except we touched the hearts (of IOC members)," said Payne. "To me this confirms it."
The strategy Payne and his bid committee used was to become friends with the IOC members who select the host city. The strategy did not include bribery, he said.
"People have asked me, 'How did you win the games?'" Payne said. "And I said we worked and made lasting and true friendships. They voted for us out of friendship.
"I can't imagine a better setting for two weeks of outdoor sporting events than Sydney. It's spectacular.
"In our case what I thought was the shining feature of our games, and will always be regarded as such, are the people of Atlanta and Georgia who were so embracing in the way they welcomed everybody. And not just in the sense of patriotism or nationalism but in the sense of true welcome.
"We had a curiosity in Atlanta and Georgia. We wanted to meet people who were different than us, who came from different cultures and wanted to learn from that experience. I think that caused some very magical moments.
"The people here are nice. I told them they could almost be Southerners. They're close."
There were many critics of the Atlanta Games, including IOC officials such as Canadian Dick Pound, whose wife was ticketed for jaywalking during the Games.
But Payne said he runs into people every day who talk about the positive experiences they had at the Atlanta Olympics.
"The IOC doesn't see the games from the perspective of the average citizen and the incredible joy it brings into their lives," said Payne. "No Games have ever done that better than Atlanta. We shouldn't let criticism by Dick Pound or whoever bother us.
"The dark side of the Atlanta Games, that people remember the most that want to be negative, is they didn't like the street vending and they didn't like the first several days when we had the transport problems, because those mainly affected the press.
"We put the press center adjacent to Centennial Park and we underestimated the popularity of the park. So the greatest success of people wanting to go to the park turned out to cause the blocking of the streets of the press trying to get to the media center. Would I have done it different? Probably not because the park was such an overwhelming success."
Before Payne took on the Olympics, he had successful careers as a lawyer and banker. Now he is an official in a high tech company.Even though Payne says he would do it all over again if he could, one of the regrets he says he has is his working relationship with the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper has soured over the years.
"I've learned that with leadership, making tough decisions, somewhere along the way I angered my own Atlanta newspaper and they have been very tough on me," he said. "So I regret that and wish I knew why. At the same time that comes with trying to do something big and them not agreeing with my agenda.
"But we should only feel ever a very positive place in our hearts for having had the experience. Look what it did. We're the fastest growing state in the country. Atlanta has truly become an international city. No doubt about it whatsoever. It's done some very positive things for us. We feel like we've ascended to the world's stage and it's a good feeling.
"From day one I said these are not the Games of Atlanta they are the Games of Georgia. I always felt that way. One of the best decisions we made was to include as many Georgians as we could in the process.
"People of the world fell in love with the people of Georgia. People of the world had never encountered the American southerner in any large proportion. And having done so, they fell in love with them."
Some other topics Payne touched on briefly include:
* Golf: "I have developed an incredible love and affection for golf....I've got a feeling it will get back in the Olympics. I think that because I love golf so much and I think it has a rightful place in the Games. Look at the sports that have been added over the last four years. I have yet to see one that is the stature of golf. I've said it a million times, I regret very much it was not a part of the Atlanta Games. Once again it's politics."
* Life after the Olympics: "I have a great life. I have two grandchildren and a third on the way, none of which I had during the Olympics. I am just overjoyed at being a grandfather. Life after the Games has been wonderful to me because there's not a single day that goes by, whether I'm in Atlanta or whether I'm here, that someone doesn't come up to me and tell me about their memorable moments in the Atlanta Olympics and how much it meant to them. And it is a wonderful feeling to see people even after this much time has passed, to remember the Games with such unbridled affection."
* Enjoying the Sydney Games: "The first difference is I'm visiting sporting events.... I have no recollection of a single athletic competition (in Atlanta). I was watching the ticket takers and I was uptight and nervous. I couldn't scream USA, USA. My proudest moment so far here, I was at the gymnastics venue and I was screaming USA, USA so loud and I had my flag, the guy next to me, an Australian, says would you mind toning it down a bit? That's the proudest I've ever been. It made me smile because I didn't get to do any of that in Atlanta. I've had so much fun being a fan."
* The future: "I've resisted the temptation to have another crazy idea (like hosting the Olympics). That kind of focus and intensity comes with a price."
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