ATLANTA -- Billy Payne recalls a conversation he had with Dr. LeRoy Walker, the president of the United States Olympic Committee, shortly after Atlanta was chosen as site of the 1996 ** Summer Games.
"Dr. Walker told me that completing the journey would be just as wonderful as reaching the destination," Payne said last week. "The journey has been wonderful, but I am so glad the destination is right around the corner."
Nine months before the torch is lighted over Olympic Stadium, that proverbial corner is not quite in view for many of this city's nearly 3 million residents. And what they'll see once they reach the final stop remains a topic of some debate.
Despite the optimism exuded by Payne and other high-ranking officials of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), there are still questions looming about the city's capabilities to be host to the world's largest and most logistically mind-boggling sports event.
"We had 100,000 people here for a convention last year, and the traffic didn't move," a cabdriver named Amir said last Sunday, as he drove through the quiet streets. "What's going to happen when they have 2 million come? Even if they don't allow cars downtown, it will be big problem."
It's one of many problems being contemplated as preparations are made for the 17 days that will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Olympic Games held in Athens, Greece. From the distribution of tickets to the much-anticipated traffic gridlock, from the construction of new stadiums to the refurbishing of existing arenas, many Atlantans are asking the same question: Will the city be ready?
"There are always the open issues that you won't be able to plan for," said Anita DeFrantz, a former Olympian who is now the USOC's representative to the International Olympic Committee. "People are going to have to cooperate just as the people in Los Angeles cooperated [in 1984]. The people here will play a major role in the success of the Games."
DeFrantz gushes about the venues being "fabulous." But as a member of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee who personally oversaw the athletes' village as well as a couple of other venues during the 1984 Games, DeFrantz sees a bit of insecurity seeping through when she listens to ACOG officials talk of the job they're doing.
"They're more self-conscious in the fact that they haven't had any major events, except maybe for a Super Bowl," she said. "I wish they would feel more confident and not be -- how shall I put it? -- so defensive."
'Greatest ever held'
There's nothing defensive about Payne, the former real estate developer who spearheaded the successful Olympic bid and now heads ACOG. Despite the controversy over the amount of tickets sold to corporations compared with the number made available to the general public, even though several construction projects seem far from completion, Payne doesn't flinch.
"The Centennial Olympic Games will be the greatest ever held," Payne told members of the Olympic Congress during its annual meeting here last week.
But others watching the process from the outside aren't so sure.
"I don't know if this city will ever be ready," said a hotel manager and Atlanta native who requested anonymity. "To me, they're moving kind of slow."
Payne has been criticized in the local media for being a bit too smug about the job ACOG is doing, about not owning up to mistakes until they're exposed. Some liken the former University of Georgia football player to a college football coach whose team is a three-touchdown underdog, trying to convince the fans that it can still win the big game.
He often spices up his speeches with counterattacks on the press, in particular the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its up-to-the-minutiae coverage of ACOG's activities. The biggest of concerns is the progress being made toward completing 10 major construction projects, as well as just how state-of-the-art those venues will be.
The Georgia Tech Aquatics Center already was used for test events in swimming and diving this summer, but the Olympic Stadium that Payne said will be "a gift from the Olympic Games to the city of Atlanta" still is a work-in-progress. In nearby Stone Mountain, the tennis facility, which Payne predicts "will be the best" in the country, is also a few months away from completion.
"Despite what you might read about the inadequacies of these facilities, they will be a great and powerful legacy to future Olympians," said Payne.
Ready or not?
Jack Kelly, an Atlanta-based sports consultant whose company has run a number of U.S. Olympic Festivals and international competitions such as the Goodwill Games, said this week, "The level of preparedness for a city that had to build most of the venues is way ahead of where Barcelona was [in 1992] or where Seoul was [in 1988].
"Part of the thing about Atlanta is that a lot of its own don't think of it as a world-class city yet. They'll make 1,000 mistakes. The essence of running a successful Olympics is not in being mistake-free, but how they respond to the mistakes they do make."
Though he readily admits that the preparations for the 1996 Summer Games "are so much bigger than what we anticipated," Payne seems undaunted. He jokes about the day officials gathered at the equestrian center earlier this year, and the water to wash the horses wouldn't come on.
Payne looks at the huge expanse of dirt that will be turned into Olympic Park, the piles of rubble that still need to be replaced by freshly mixed cement, and barely blinks. "It's fair to say that all of Atlanta is under construction," he said.
If not under siege. It's not a stretch to say that many within the Olympic movement have crossed fingers behind their equally confident facades. Unlike the Games in Barcelona, Spain, as well as the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, a majority of the competition will take place in a congested downtown, urban setting.
In its defense, DeFrantz conceded that ACOG had to build most of the venues from scratch while Los Angeles had nearly all of its facilities in place. If anything, ACOG has been guilty of over-organization. Its bureaucracy would make the NCAA -- the organization which USOC executive director Dick Shultz formerly ran -- seem to some like a mom-and-pop operation.
Payne said last week that too many people were hired initially, and staff numbers were in the process of being reduced to stay within the proposed $1.61 billion budget. "We're not firing anyone; it's a matter of whether you needed them in the first place," Payne said.
Under a microscope
Payne knows that he is under the most high-powered of microscopes, and that the scrutiny will even be greater come next July. He understands that the Atlanta Games will be treated differently, especially in the United States, from those held in Barcelona or Seoul. He realizes that the near glitch-free standard set by Los Angeles might be difficult to reach.
"They are special because they are in America and the world has such high expectations of our performance," he said.
To some, like Payne, the journey has been wonderful and the destination is seemingly within sight. Others are merely crossing their fingers and hoping this 100th birthday party goes off without too many major blips, leaving the rest of Atlanta to clean
up the mess.