VANOC CEO John Furlong in conversation

On the highs and lows of the Vancouver Winter Olympics

VANOC CEO John Furlong in conversation


THE CEO of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee is one of a rare few Olympic administrators to go the distance in a job that, for most Games in recent memory, has ended in burnout, dismissal or disgrace. Furlong has spent the past few months dismantling the organization he led, and reflecting on the experience. His book (with journalist Gary Mason), Patriot Hearts: Inside the Olympics That Changed a Country, is set for release on Feb. 12, the first anniversary of the Games.

Q: Cast your mind back to Canada’s first gold medal. Where were you when Alexandre Bilodeau made his run?
I was in BC Place stadium. It was the same night that [mogul racer] Jennifer Heil had her silver medal hung around her neck. We’d had a tough weekend. We hadn’t yet put Nodar Kumaritashvili on a plane home for Georgia [after he was killed during a training run on the luge track]. We hadn’t yet had our little [memorial] service. It was a very painful weekend, but I know Jennifer, and I wanted to go cheer for her. At almost the precise moment of walking into that theatre, I could hear the anticipation building in a space to my left, a lounge area with televisions. He was just literally about to come out of the gate and come down the mountain. Everybody was buzzing and noisy and suddenly it went chillingly silent. When he went into the air it was almost as if someone had turned the sound down. When he hit the ground, there was this almighty outburst of, “He’s nailed it!” To me it was a little bit like the laws of natural justice were taking over. We needed something. For that young fellow to be the first [to win Olympic gold at home], with his family and his background, just everything about him was so becoming.

Q: It was an emotional moment.
Afterwards, I decided to walk back to a meeting we were going to have at the Westin hotel. Honestly, in all the years I’ve lived in Vancouver I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s almost as if every single citizen had come off that jump. I was getting stopped every five feet by people wanting to have their picture taken. It was just an incredible outpouring of empathy and support for us and for him. That night I realized that the people of the country were taking the Games over.

Q: That must have been a relief.
In my heart I’d hoped from the beginning that would happen. When you read the vision statement, it talked about this idea the Games would be owned by individual Canadians.

Q: But you can’t mandate that, can you?
No. To me it was the ultimate validation of everything we had hoped for but could never really have stood up and said this is what’s going to happen. I thought, we’re turning a corner here.

Q: What were other key highlights for you?
There are moments we’ll go back to in 10 years and marvel at what that they meant. For example, on the night that Joannie Rochette won her bronze medal [just days after the death of her mother]. I went that night and my kids were there and I remember sitting in the aisle of one of the rows of seats watching her performance and looking over at my kids, all five of them together. And realizing that they were watching just about the finest moment of a Canadian dealing with adversity that they would ever see in their lifetimes. I just thought, what an incredible lesson to get.

Then there was watching [skeleton racer] Jon Montgomery when he won. I saw him a year before the Games at a press conference. I sat at the back of the room and listened to him talk. I remember thinking it is going to take some superstar to stop that kid. That kid is coming here to win a gold medal, nothing less will do.

There was Ashleigh McIvor, the woman who won the ski-cross gold medal. I was walking through the [athletes’] village one day and I had a conversation with her. Her event was a few days later and I asked her how she was feeling. Just the way she communicated I could tell this was going to be the moment of her life. I walked away and I ticked the box [another medal]. I went up there. She led all day and of course she won the gold medal. She just had this glow about her.

And the women’s hockey team, who had lost a few times to the Americans recently. Then seeing them on the ice and knowing they were simply not going to be denied.

Q: And of course you were at the men’s gold medal hockey game?
Yes. It was an odd kind of day. I’d hoped to spend that day at the game with my own [executive] team. But I got a call that morning asking me to sit with [International Olympic Committee president] Jacques Rogge and René Fazel [president of the International Ice Hockey Federation]. It was a bit of a different experience. I had wanted to go there and be a crazy fan like everybody else. Honestly, the day was so heavy, so many things were going on, I couldn’t have told you from Adam who scored [Canada’s first goals]. I was just happy we got two. I did believe that morning that there was nothing that was going to stop us from coming away with that 14th medal. Nothing. I just believed we had earned it.

Q: Did you get a chance to talk to Sidney Crosby since his winning goal?
I didn’t. I wish I had. I did have a conversation later with the captain of the team, Scott Niedermayer. One of the things he said to me, which I felt was extraordinary, was that the players knew this was bigger than hockey. They realized it was for them to take the country to another place, and they did. And, sure, they won the hockey gold medal but they gave this country, I think, this feeling that it could do anything after it was over.

Q: I spoke with Alex Bilodeau and asked him if he thought the Games had a lasting legacy. He called sports his “school of life.” He said he thinks Canadians now realize what he has learned; that there are no limits to what can be accomplished with hard work, sacrifice and the right resources.
I think it’s bang on. I think that people can be led to believe that what you’re looking at is raw talent, not hard work. And in actual fact, it’s the other way around most of the time. It’s the result of a great effort by a lot of people. The day after the Games, the phone rang and it was my oldest son [John]. He said, “You know, Dad, for what it’s worth, I was always aware growing up that we lived next door to a giant. They were bigger than us, they had more of this and that. They had the money, they made all the movies. If they said ‘do this,’ we did it. It just seemed okay, but it’s not okay anymore. I think the next generation will never have those feelings again. People in this country will feel that we can go out in the world and compete at anything and feel that we belong, and we can win.” I thought, wow, if that was the number one legacy from the Games I’d be very happy.

Q: I was surprised that before the Games there was a backlash, internationally and even among some Canadians, because of Own the Podium and the Top Secret Program, both designed to create winners and produce medals.
This was lost on people: you can be a champion and not be arrogant. You can be a champion and be humble and a great ambassador. I think it’s possible to not lose your personality and still go for broke. I think Canadians, frankly, came to enjoy the idea.

Q: If you had known then what you know now about all the time and stress you’d have to invest in running these Games, would you have accepted the job?
I’d do it for Canada, but I wouldn’t do it for another country. This for me was far beyond a career thing. This was a mission, a cause. Once I came to grips with the fact that this was going to be a heart-wrenching experience from beginning to end, and my family had accepted it was going to be sometimes very painful, sometimes very exhilarating, I was prepared to go the distance. I’ve probably used the phrase too often, but I haven’t had an Olympic-free moment for the better part of 14 years. I wouldn’t change it either.

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