Sunday, September 20, 2015

Billy Payne's Olympic Autobiography Remains A Work In Progress

When it comes to Games-related memoirs, Peter Ueberroth set the Olympic standard when he wrote "Made In America" with Richard Levin and Amy Quinn.

The 1984 TIME Magazine Man of the Year published his five-ringed autobiography after leading the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee to record-setting profitability. 

Several other OOC CEO's also wrote tell-all books. 

Mitt Romney shared his "Turnaround" story after leading the 2002 Salt Lake committee in the wake of an Olympic bribery scandal. 

In "My Greek Drama" the Athens 2004 CEO Gianna Agelopoulos-Daskalaki shared how she led a successful bid team to bring the Games home to Greece, then how she saved the nation from humiliation when the IOC threatened their cancellation due to lack of preparation.

And north of the border, John Furlong wrote "Patriot Hearts" about the many 2010 Vancouver Olympic challenges and feats.

Noticeably missing from the roundup, however, remains a behind-the-scenes account for what was billed as "the world's largest peace-time gathering ever." 

I'm writing, of course, about the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games and its leader, William Porter "Billy" Payne. 

Many still wonder, "Where is his Olympic book?"

Later in this post, there's an update on Payne's answer to this question. I asked him about it at the Sept. 18, 2015, celebration he hosted in honor of the friends who rallied with Payne to bid for and win the Games 25 years ago. 

But before touching on Payne's autobiography update, some additional background to set up the questions posed and answers provided a few nights ago.

In the months after Atlanta's Games ended, there was speculation about a planned Olympic book by Payne. There was also discussion as to how to summarize the Centennial Games which were a vast success but not without some avoidable snafus. 

How could Payne (or anyone) write about the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) without acknowledging real or perceived glitches of that memorable summer (in no particular order, the "Situations Normal All Flamed Up" included a terrorist attack, power failures big and small, media bus delays and the off-venue transformation of downtown Atlanta into a citywide version of the city's popular Scott's Flea Market). 

By the time the Sydney Olympiad rolled around, it was clear Payne decided not to write his story of Olympic glory with all its trials and tribulations, or at least to delay such a project. That was a big disappointment to some fans, volunteers, historians and, I would argue, Olympic movers and shakers eager to learn from ACOG's many successes or lessons.

As a member of Payne's ACOG staff in 1996, and later as an entry level public relations executive in 1997 to 2000, my P.R.-skewed perspective at the time was that Payne never embraced media relations in his leadership role, and media scrutiny became Payne's biggest Achilles' heel, a mistake common among CEOs and lawyers (Payne wore both of these career hats). 

I also theorized that a year or two after the '96 Closing Ceremonies, still smarting from a few things beyond his control/scope of work but for which media remained critical of ACOG top brass, Payne delayed or scrapped a book out of concern or fear his version of events might not stand up to media scrutiny; it occurred to me that, like Richard Nixon at his famous "last press conference" Payne would have just assumed tell the media, "You won't have Billy to kick around anymore."

Once Payne donned the staff jacket for Augusta National Golf Club, no more would he look back or give media another "in" to ask tough questions about Atlanta missing "best ever Games" status from IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, a popular story line in media after Atlanta's Olympics.

One person who DID write an insider's version of Atlanta Olympic events was C. Richard Yarbrough, who served as managing director of communications for ACOG. I first met Yarbrough in winter 1996 on a referral from John Graham, then CEO of Fleishman-Hillard in St. Louis (on my last day at F-H, Graham told me, a fall 1995 intern, to "Go see my good friend Dick when you get to Atlanta" and I did, and Yarbrough was among those first met after settling in at ACOG's offices in the INFORUM).

In 2000, Yarbrough published "And They Call Them Games -- An Inside View of the 1996 Olympics" which became the main authoritative narrative of Atlanta's Games. I've always appreciated that Yarbrough invited my two cents on the book's content, and his inclusion of my name in the acknowledgements took my breath away (he also was key to landing my first P.R. job in town, so thanks are in order on that front, too).

Though Yarbrough's book accurately delves into many of ACOG's inner workings and is a great read, over time a hunger remained for Payne's tell-all tale. 

As "blogger Nick" attending the Payne's "Dreamers & Believers" party a few nights ago, I asked Payne for the status of a book -- any book (???) -- and the extent to which he may have had a change of heart to write it.

"I never said I didn't want to do it," said Payne. "In fact, I've actually written 85 percent of it, and I did that within the first couple of years [after 1996]. But I got tired of doing it."

Payne explained that before and during the Games he had a personal archivist who shadowed most of his daily work for the specific purpose of capturing an authentic play-by-play of the Olympic organization. This shadow person also carried a recording device and wrote copious notes, according to Payne, and the extensive collection of materials is challenging to manage.

"It got to be too much work," said Payne.

At this moment in our conversation, Ambassador Andrew Young, who was seated nearby, chimed in to explain that he now has some type of video recording device in his home or office that permits him to just sit down, push a button and start talking for posterity.

Young suggested Payne should get one of these devices to record his memoirs during Payne's "healing time" in a few years.

"You mean my old age," said Payne, laughing with Young.

Payne picked up where he left off stating his plans for an Olympic book and biography.

"I'm going to finish it," said Payne.

When this writer asked Payne to expand on the possible timing of the book release -- suggesting 2020 might be a good option, before ACOG's 25th anniversary in 2021 -- Payne responded with his perspective.

"I haven't connected [finishing] it to a calendar because it wouldn't be a for-profit kind of thing," said Payne. "It's not a business thing for me. It's just something you write, you write it to leave it to your grandchildren."

Then Payne said something that took me back to my late 1990's speculation. 

With a gleam in his eye while perhaps studying my reaction, Payne added, "You write it to maybe clarify the record." 

We both chuckled. 

At this time I thanked Payne for answering my questions as he motioned to an old friend a welcome to the party site. Sadly, no time this time for another book question. 

My follow up for another day -- and message of encouragement from the International Society of Olympic Historians member corner of my brain -- will be to ask or suggest that Payne bury the hatchet with reporters and hire one of the best sports biographers in the world, Laura Hillenbrand of "Unbroken" and "Seabiscuit" fame, to dive into the Payne Olympic archive and get that book across the finish line. 

It may take more than the "one month" Payne predicted, but, oh, what a book that could be! Imagine the Olympic bid story followed by the ACOG organizational story. Dare to dream of a great book on the horizon. 

With these Atlanta Olympic CEO book wishes in mind, I took the liberty of creating some suggestions as working titles. 

With thanks to Getty Images/Heinz Kluetmeier (photographer for the background image I borrowed, previously used for Sport Illustrated's pre-Games cover story about Payne), those title ideas are presented to the left and below this post's footnote. 

Here's hoping Payne will resume his writing project soon!

Images via and Getty Images

Friday, September 18, 2015

Dreamers & Believers Celebrate 25 Years Since Atlanta's Olympic Wishes Came True

Twenty-five years ago -- Sept. 18, 1990 -- Atlanta won its Olympic bid to host the 1996 Games.

Tonight the bid's originator, William Porter "Billy" Payne, hosted a classy anniversary event to say thank you and celebrate the "Dreamers & Believers" who shared his five-ringed vision as early as 1987.

In a tent filled with about 400 friends at Centennial Olympic Park, Payne proudly explained his remarks for the evening were "25 years in the making" before rolling a video unveiling two new monuments coming soon to the urban park he created.

The additions include custom marble benches honoring key Atlanta business leaders (Jim Kennedy, Bill Dahlberg, Bob Holder, Bennett Brown, Herman Russell and Ivan Allen III) first to embrace the Olympic bid. A new marble column featuring the names of the "Atlanta Nine" volunteers who led the bid committee will also join the statue of Payne installed in 1997. 

Though more details remain to be announced, Payne briefly mentioned a capital campaign in the works to provide other park improvements in time for next year's 20th Anniversary of Atlanta's Games, which will take place on the eve of the Rio 2016 Olympics. 
Introduced by Payne as the keynote speaker of the evening, bid partner Ambassador Andrew Young put into perspective several Atlanta milestones of the 25 years since the city's Olympic victory.

Young referenced the city's rapid growth (more than 25 percent, according to a state representative who spoke earlier in the evening), successful collaborations (to build the world's busiest airport, create MARTA, and to pursue then host the Games) and details of his initial conversations with Payne when Young was Atlanta's mayor. Young said Montreal's $750 million debt from the 1976 Games made his staff members reluctant for Young to meet with the 34-year-old Payne. 

"[But] I heard Billy got this [Olympic bid] idea after church," said Young. "I'm a preacher and I know now the Lord works on you, and when an aging jock in midlife crisis gets religion ... that's the way the Spirit works." He took the meeting and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Other party presenters included WSB's Monica Kaufman, who was in Tokyo covering the 1990 vote, and Charlie Battle, the Atlanta attorney credited with visiting more nations during the bid and for helping forge the most friendships with voting IOC members. Other VIP attendees included former Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games CFO A.D. Frasier, Cohn & Wolfe co-founder Bob Cohn, a longtime Olympic collector whose firm provided early public relations counsel for the Atlanta bid team's domestic campaign, and University of Georgia football coaching legend Vince Dooley, for whom Payne played years before his Olympic feats and current role as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club.

During his remarks detailing the bid committee milestones of 1988 to 1990, Battle called out several volunteers including Atlanta Marriott Marquis concierge Albert "Smitty" Smith who charmed many IOC leaders and staff.

"[Smitty] is one of the first people IOC friends ask about when I travel and see them," said Battle.

Battle also mentioned the bid team's early events that wooed the U.S. Olympic Committee away from competing bids from San Francisco, Minneapolis and Nashville. He detailed the scrappy manner through which Atlanta created an "Atlanta House" in Seoul during the 1988 Olympics and around the 1989 IOC Session held in Puerto Rico. 

Forging friendships across the Olympic Family echoed as key to the win, according to remarks from Battle, Payne and Young. Since the rules of Olympic bidding now forbid voting IOC member visits to candidate cities, its likely Atlanta's networking techniques were a first- and last-time option for Olympic bid committees of the 2010s and beyond.

Young said Atlanta proved to have a lot more Olympic connections than anticipated, including then-USOC Treasurer Dr. Leroy Walker as a local high school graduate, and Edwin Moses as a top Olympian of 1976 and 1984. 

Young attributed divine intervention, through his U.S. Ambassador assignments from President Jimmy Carter, as federal duties that helped him renew existing connections to up to 55 voting IOC members on behalf of Atlanta. In Young's mind, things started adding up that "The city was ready for it" and "we did it."

During a media Q&A prior to the event, I asked Young if he could recall waking up in Tokyo on Sept. 19 after reality over the victory may have set in for the team.

"The first thought I had was, 'Damn! We won this thing and we're broke,'" said Young. "They [the IOC] gave us a letter saying that we won, but it was also a bill for $1.5 million for the victory party. I said, 'Thanks, you gave us the Olympics and a bill to start with?" 

Like tonight's gathering, that was one party worth every penny.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

USOC Announces America's 2024 Olympic Bid City

Team USA just added a new chapter to the evolving book of L.A. stories by officially naming Los Angeles the U.S. Olympic Committee entry into the 2024 Olympic bid process.

Replacing Boston just two weeks after scrapping a Bean Town bid, USOC officials joined a beaming LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and several Olympians at an afternoon press conference emcee'd by Al Michaels in the Annenberg Community Beach House on Santa Monica Beach. 

I caught the latter half of the press conference online, then dialed-in to a media Q&A, informing several perspectives on the news of the day.

An impressive element of the announcement was that many official participants stayed on message proclaiming #LA2024 is "America's bid city" for Olympic hosting honors. Olympic champion Janet Evans rallied fellow Olympians and other press event participants stating the bid enjoys 80 percent thumbs up approval, but it will take more than Angelinos' local support to win.

"If we are going to win these Games we need every American behind this bid," said Evans. "[This is the start of] a national campaign and a national celebration." 

This message of national unity is appropriate and something that was, in retrospect, buried or never part of earlier bid news. 

During the media Q&A call, USOC Chairman Larry Probst expressed gratitude while acknowledging stumbling out of the bid city gates with Boston.

"[We are] incredibly grateful to have a partner in Los Angeles," said Probst. "We did not take the most direct route to get here today ... [a day of] excitement, enthusiasm and hope. I think we are going to make L.A. and the Olympic Movement better (through this bid)."

Other key messages resonated with this blogger. Garcetti described his city as the nation's "most connected city" and a "global city of diversity ... ready to compete globally" to which other officials explained LA's unique ability to help athletes of the world "feel at home and enjoy a home field advantage" no matter their nationality. 

Press materials also strike a positive and future leaning tone stating the bid and the city's connectivity will engage "the next generation of global youth" in new ways. The City Council's unanimous (15-0) vote in support of the LA bid is another feather in the new cap for #LA2024.

As a public relations executive I was dying to ask which agencies or other communications professionals are already on board with the LA bid committee. I also want to know definitively whether San Francisco and Washington, D.C., also tried to reel in USOC attention after the Boston debacle. It would also be interesting and timely to find out how many jobs may become available through the bid committee featuring Casey Wasserman at the helm and a former political strategist who resigned his Mayor's office post to join the bid. 

I am genuinely energized by the LA24 and Team USA bid -- it is such a relief to feel the organizers have their stuff together, a vibe never felt at any stage of the Boston 2024 effort. 

It also was cool to hear an LA city official express gratitude for the bid committee's "courage moving the city in an Olympic direction" (a sentiment never felt in Massachusetts) and astonishment that they "got it done in two weeks" during which they reigned in community support. 

Confidence also reigned on the media call. When veteran Olympic reporter Philip Hersh asked if LA would pursue a 2028 bid if locked out for 2024 (New York 2012 and Chicago 2016 did not repeat bids after one loss each), officials quickly and energetically responded "we are in this to win" and "ready to win again" (after hosting in 1932 and 1984) with no interest in discussing an alternative ending to a victorious 2024 bid game.

With confirmed competition from Budapest, Hamburg, Paris and Rome -- and a possible Toronto bid also TBD -- Los Angeles has some hard work to complete before the IOC vote in Lima, Peru, two summers from now. 

LA's initial budget and fiscally-responsible approach may resonate. 

There is one communications-related Achilles' heel not yet tested through today's media Q&A: Disclosures. Boston's bid team shot off one foot then the other by failing on the public disclosures front. I hope there won't prove to be a "Gotcha!" moment for LA24 in this regard. I'm still dying to know what other lessons learned the Los Angeles team noted and learned from in the last several months, and time may reveal their key takeaways. 

"Convincing IOC members that LA is the place to be ... is now our mission," one official stated. 

Images via #LA2024 and

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