Payne's aim: Warm, fuzzy Olympics

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Peter Ueberroth proved the Olympics could be profitable. Billy Payne's aim is to restore their ambiance.

The President, Chief Executive Officer and Presiding Good Ol' Boy of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games wants his Summer Games to leave the world with a ''warm and fuzzy'' feeling. That's a direct quote.

It is a curious ambition in a cynical age, and in its own way as outlandish as was landing the Games themselves. Warmth should not be a problem in a Georgia July, but the Olympics have grown too big, too commercial and too security-conscious to foster much fuzziness.

Billy Payne believes otherwise. He is about as cornball as they come.

'Uplifting experience'

''It's an uplifting experience,'' Payne said Tuesday afternoon. ''Things are beginning to happen that we hoped, dreamed and said would happen. We are seeing the totality of our community. This will be an affirmation of all that's great about Atlanta, an affirmation of all that's great about the American South. I would say it's the total unfolding of the Olympic movement.''

Thirty days in advance of the Opening Ceremonies, Payne is dispensing platitudes at warp speed. He is nearly done with the heavy lifting and can pause periodically to appreciate his handiwork. Six years ago, the Olympics was ''an absolutely crazy dream.'' Today, the dream is pretty much down to the detail work.

''It's gone from nervousness and fatigue,'' Payne said, ''to excitement.''

Downtown Atlanta remains the orange barrel capital of the world, but this is partly by design. Payne says he wanted to leave much of the repaving of streets and sidewalks to this late date so that tourists could travel on the smoothest possible surfaces.

Some temporary Olympic venues have yet to be completed, but this, too, was a deliberate choice. Building on a tight deadline increases anxiety, but it also serves to minimize maintenance. The hour grows late, but Billy Payne does not appear the least bit panicky. His construction plans, he says, are still on schedule.

The warmth and fuzziness factors are less predictable. Atlanta has some of the friendliest (and most plentiful) panhandlers on the planet, but this form of Southern hospitality may not be readily appreciated by tourists. Neither will visitors welcome Atlanta City Council's approval of a temporary taxi fare hike that amounts to legalized gouging during the Olympics.

Sunday morning, a South Korean television crew visited the Underground Atlanta shopping and entertainment complex to prepare a puff piece about local attractions. Instead, they came within camera range of a murder-suicide at one of the stores.

''I heard Underground was a great attraction for the Olympics,'' Jung-Hyung Yoo of MBC Television told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. ''I am worried once the foreign people are here, there is no guarantee the security will be better.''

No security guarantee

Billy Payne would make no promises on this score. However visible and vigilant, security measures are inherently limited in such a large city. The Olympics have existed under the threat of terrorism since the 1972 Munich massacre, and no amount of barbed wire will eliminate those concerns.

''As much as we do - having never compromised at any time - we all know they can't 100 percent ensure there won't be some incident,'' Payne said. ''I choose not to lose any sleep over things I can't control.''

Besides, there are always more tangible problems to tackle: A projected budget shortfall; a transportation system that can not be adequately tested until the Games begin; the continuing flap over the Confederate battle emblem on the Georgia state flag; the million minor details of the world's largest sporting spectacle.

''It's important for us Southerners to represent our fellow countrymen and do it extremely well so they're proud of us,'' Billy Payne said. ''Maybe it's insecurity.''

Maybe warmth and fuzziness are not worth all this aggravation. But it's too late for Atlanta to turn back now.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 19, 1996.