Q&A: John Furlong talks hockey, Sochi success, and what's next

The former head of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver says this year's Games in Sochi, Russia, were a spectacular success and that Canadians should be proud of what they accomplished.

Former head of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics sits down with CBC's Dan Burritt for a post-Sochi debrief

VANOC organizer John Furlong talks hockey, Sochi and what's next 12:37

The former head of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver says this year's Games in Sochi, Russia, were a spectacular success and that Canadians should be proud of what they accomplished.

John Furlong, former CEO of VANOC, organized the third Olympic Games held on Canadian soil and the first in which the host nation lead the gold medal count in nearly 60 years. Canada won a record 14 gold medals in 2010, in addition to 12 silver and bronze. It was the country's best Winter Olympic performance to date. 

On Sunday, Furlong sat down with CBC's Dan Burritt to talk men's hockey, the Sochi Games, Canadian Olympic success, and passing the torch to Pyeongchang, South Korea. Here are some excerpts. 

Dan Burritt: What were you doing at 4 a.m. this morning?

John Furlong: I was up and peeling my eyes open like anyone else in Canada, and glued to the TV. It was a pretty great morning. I actually went out for a walk beforehand because it's a great memory for me — this particular Sunday in February of 2010 — and just taking it all in and trying to run my mind through what the Russians were going through and the kind of day they were going to have. And for us, it's a day where we experienced another piece of Canadian history, something very unique happened today, and so it was really special. And then to see the Canadian team, in my opinion — I would never put myself down as a hockey expert — but I'd say that's the best Canadian hockey team ever. I just thought they were so impressive. 

DB: Compare the atmosphere you could see on the screen to what you were experiencing four years ago on this Sunday.

JF: It was very different, and much more difficult for this team. It's interesting because when [Team Canada coach] Mike Babcock arrived in Sochi, he said the first thing we have to do is become a team. They hadn't had one practice together. And in the space of a couple of weeks, or ten days, they'd become a team and they won the gold medal. But they're in the arena against Sweden and no one wants them to win unless they're wearing a Canadian shirt, so that's a very different environment to Vancouver where on that Sunday, not only was the arena electrifying it was like jet planes were flying around inside but the streets of Vancouver were just brimming with people. Everybody wanted Canada to win. It was almost the definition of success for Canada to win. It was a bit like destiny.

DB: What are some of the other highlights over these 17 days in Sochi that will stand out for you?

JF: One of the things that gets lost in the Olympic story and the build up and all of the things that happen, is we forget that this is all about expressing our humanity on the world stage. And I saw some wonderful human things happen — some of it by Canadians, some by others. But looking at what happens in sport ... the behaviours it causes, the celebrations that follow winning, and some of the unique things that Canadians did ... all of that together, I thought there was a really great human story going on in Russia. ...

Frankly, some of the best moments were the ones where we were gasping. I just found watching Latvia put up a fight against the Canadian men's hockey team to be absolutely riveting, because it's the Olympic Games. We always have expectations that our best when we go to the Olympics and walk away with gold. But at the Olympics ... everyone else wants to beat you. And so that's what makes the drama so special. ...

    To me this was the best performance by a Canadian team in Olympic history. We may have had one medal less than Vancouver, but to actually go to Russia in an arena that is so difficult, so challenging, where the Russians were pouring it on, where there was great compression among the top countries, and to win 25 medals. And if you look at our team and see a few of the things that happened to us, we could have just as easily been in the same spot as Russia at the end.

    DB: What do you think the Canadian Olympic Committee will take out of this, knowing that the team got one medal less than what they did in Vancouver?

    JF: They should come home from Sochi delighted. As the chair of Own The Podium, I am. We were the ones that were helping to prepare the team. The goal of being number one is a great goal [but we] shouldn't be predicting that we're going to be in number one. Because you're in with countries who all have the same ambition and the same plan. But you have to go back a bit and ask yourself, 'Where was Canada 25 years ago?' We were so far behind these countries. Now we're right there. We're a powerhouse in that group. The difference between first and fifth is four or five medals. This is unprecedented in Olympic history. So it's a real contest now. ...

    At Own The Podium, the biggest concern we had was, this is Russia. It's not like competing in the United States or a couple of time zones away. It's as far away as you can get, and they want to beat you at everything. And so at every arena, you're competing against the crowd. Your competing against great athletes. So it's very, very difficult. And for [Canadians] to have won so convincingly so many times is really impressive.

    DB: Given the security concerns, are you surprised we didn't see anything?

    JF: Not a bit surprised. ... I never thought there were going to be any issues. I thought there were people suggesting they would have issues who really didn't have information that could lead you to that. I mean ... sure there [were] threats. But the Russians promised to secure the Games on the ground in Sochi. It was spectacularly well organized. They did a great job on security. It was friendly, it wasn't over the top, and they delivered exactly what they said they would — just like we did in Canada, just like they did in London. ...

    You'd be very unreasonable to say that the Russians did not perform spectacularly well this time.- John Furlong, former CEO of VANCO, on the success of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia

    I think a lot of things that we said about [the Russians] were a bit unfair. I mean, they did spend a lot of money and they obviously have to answer for that. But remember where they started from. They had nothing in Sochi. We went with our team to Sochi four years ago to debrief them on all the challenges and issues with putting on the Games. There was nothing there. So now you see the television pictures today at the end when the fireworks were going off — look at the size of the compound they've had to build, the number of hotels, all of the other infrastructure that they had to build. ... So it's a choice they made, they made a commitment to do it, they promised they would deliver it on time, and they did a great job. And I think the things that people found wanting in Russia are pretty minor. You'd be very unreasonable to say that the Russians did not perform spectacularly well this time. 

    DB: You had some communication with some of the organizers in Russia. What did you tell them and who were you speaking with?

    JF: Dmitry Chernyshenko is the CEO, and he and I are friends. Over the years, we've stayed in touch with each other and obviously our job was to help him get started. And so at the start of the Games I sent him a note, and I urged him to take everything he could from the events: savour it all, pay attention, really let it all sink in. Because this is going to be gone so fast and you've got thousands of decisions to make every day. So I urged him to really try to enjoy it, and let it be the great event it can be. ...

    DB: We're four years away from Pyeongchang, South Korea 2018. What do you expect them to be able to do in terms of staging these games, what are going to be their challenges, and what do you think their focus is going to be?

    You can be sure that the Olympic Games of 2018 will be heavily impacted by technology and communications- John Furlong, former CEO of VANOC, on what can be expected at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea

    JF: Pyeongchang, in a way, is actually a bit further back than many people think. First of all, it's very small. There's only 45,000 people in Pyeongchang. They also have no infrastructure and they're building it. ... So you can expect they have a long way to go. They'll get there. Just watching today and the hand over ceremony to [South] Korea, I think we were given an inkling into what to expect. This is the communications technology mecca of the world over there, and I think you can be sure that the Olympic Games of 2018 will be heavily impacted by technology and communications. ...

    It's also important that the Winter Olympic Games go to these countries that are not likely hosts maybe on the surface. But this is what sport needs. The more this happens, the more countries will join in. One of the nice things about the medal table in Russia is there are more countries on it that won than ever before. So it means that countries are getting good at this, they're engaging together, and when Thomas Bach said at the closing ceremonies today this is a real metaphor for how the world should be looking at itself: all of these athletes in one place, this tolerance and working together, and that it was a most peaceful environment. It's a very good thing for the world to experience every four years. And the more new countries that get to do it, the better it is. 

    DB: Do you miss it?

    It became the Games that connected every Canadian.- John Furlong, former CEO of VANOC, on the legacy of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C.

    JF: When it was over in Vancouver, I was glad it was over because when you're organizing, you just want success. You just want it over and you just want them all to go home at the end. And I'm sure Dmitry [Chernyshenko] is thinking that today in Russia. He just wants to get them all on airplanes and home safe and sound. But looking at it today, it certainly brought back great memories, and a lot of things you remember that you had completely forgotten. ... So yes, I do.

    But at the same time, I'm very proud of what happened. And the one thing, I have to say, that I'm extraordinarily grateful for is that in Vancouver something unique, unprecedented before and I'm not sure it'll ever be seen again happened, and that is the people of this city took to the streets. They gave the Games a lift. They embraced the world. I mean, they literally became an active sixth man in every event. And it gave our team an enormous lift and it created a spirit that caused Jacques Rogge at the end of the Olympics to say the Olympic Games can never go back from this. Basically, it became the Games that connected every Canadian. Everyone of us felt like we weren't spectators, we were living it. So for me that's special. I'm very proud to have had a part in that.

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