Q&A: VANOC boss John Furlong

Near the anniversary of the opening of the Vancouver Olympics, organizing committee boss John Furlong spoke to CBCSports.ca about his role in the Games, including the controversy surrounding a luger's death and what he thinks the legacy of Canada's Games will be.
John Furlong ushered the Vancouver team from the Olympic bidding process in the late 1990s through the end of the Paralympic Games in March 2010. ((Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images))

With the one-year anniversary of the opening of the Vancouver Olympics arriving on Feb. 12, Canadians are remembering the triumphs of the 2010 Games, where the country won a record 14 gold medals, including a dramatic men's hockey title.

For John Furlong, the historic event was the culmination of more than a decade of work, first as the head of the Vancouver bid team, then as CEO of VANOC, the organizing committee for the Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Games.

In his new book, Patriot Hearts: Inside the Olympics that changed a country, Furlong tells the story of his Olympic journey, starting with his days as an accomplished athlete in his native Ireland, to lobbying the International Olympic Committee to award Vancouver the 2010 Games, to the final breathless moments leading up to Sidney Crosby's iconic goal that helped the Canadian men's hockey team win gold.

It wasn't always easy, of course. Furlong spoke recently to CBCSports.ca senior writer Jesse Campigotto about the controversy surrounding a luger's death on the track, as well as his struggles with the media and the French language. The man in charge of delivering the Olympics to Canada also discussed the legacy of the 2010 Games and what he plans to do next.

CBCSports.ca: A year later, what do you remember most about the Games?

John Furlong: Our vision for the Games was we always wanted to touch the country. I remember in the early days saying that we needed to make this about every Canadian, to touch every Canadian life, to matter at the kitchen table. Every day I meet people all over the country who feel like they had a great experience and they want to talk about it, so I think it's lingered on. We had a view that we could do this, but very few people believed in it. In fact, when we talked about making this a unifying event for the country, there was a lot of sort of violin playing going on at the time, and legitimately so. Canada is not Luxembourg. It's a big country, it's a very difficult country to navigate. Winning 14 gold medals, and winning the first [gold medal] at home, and overcoming all the adversity we had were all major high points for me. But I think at the end of the day when your vision is about improving the country and you feel that you've had an impact, that's pretty special.

CBC: You book is subtitled "Inside the Olympics that changed a country." How do you feel the country has changed?

JF: When the Games ended, the prime minister made a comment that, as historians write about Canada's growing strength in the 21st century, they'll say it started here in Vancouver. But I had the most extraordinary comment from my son, who's a 35-year-old teacher. He said, "You know, Dad, we grew up living next door to a giant — a county that was bigger than us, they had more money, they made all the movies, they beat us in most things, if they went to war we went to war, if they said turn left we turned left, and we sort of followed them around." He said the next generation is never going to feel like this. They'll know they can go out and compete on their own and feel that they can win and feel that they belong. The future for them is going to be filled with a different kind of confidence. That describes, I think, what happened to the country. And the City of Vancouver has changed. It's more strident, it's more confident, it has that look in its eye that it can do anything. I think the Games were also a demonstration to the country that, whatever comes along that we're confronted with, if we stick together we can overcome it. In many ways, Canada came out of it a little stronger, a little taller.

CBC: We heard a lot about how the Games would have a lasting impact on the athletes and maybe increase interest in sports like, say, bobsleigh or alpine skiing. But we're still seeing pretty small TV ratings for those kinds of sports. Do you think anything has changed in terms of the Canadian public's willingness to get interested in those sports and support them financially or otherwise?

JF: We're finally seeing the kind of funding for these athletes that we need. I think it's important for us to recognize this, and for the media to see it as these are the best ambassadors we're ever going to have. These are our best role models and we need to talk about them. It's always astounding to me that the papers are filled with stories about teams with losing records and teams that don't do this and don't do that, and here we have these kids who go out there every day and break world records and compete flat out and they don't earn any money to do it, and they get three inches in the paper. On a national level, I think we have a ways to go still. After the Games, kids were on their way to skating rinks the next day and signing up for curling and skiing and ski jumping, and this is what the Olympics can do. Ultimately you hope that, as a result of the Games, every child will get a chance to experience sports. But if we don't talk about it and celebrate it all the time, it's never going to happen.

CBC: Ever wonder how the Games would be remembered if Sidney Crosby hadn't scored the overtime goal in the men's hockey final, and an American player had instead?

JF: We might like to think it would've felt the same, but it wouldn't have. I think people would've felt that the Games were great and the country did well, and the [hockey] silver medal wasn't terrible. But it certainly took the Games to the pinnacle that people were hoping for. This may sound naive, but I think the laws of natural justice prevailed. We got the reward at the end that we had worked for tirelessly for 14 years. I spoke with Scott Niedermayer, the captain of the team, after the Games and he told me that the hockey team knew that their performance was far bigger than hockey. They knew that what they were about to try to do was so far beyond winning the gold medal for their sport. They knew that they were going to ultimately settle the place for these Games in history and change the way the country was feeling about itself. That was pretty amazing to hear that.

CBC: You write in the book about having a difficult relationship with the media. In fairness to you, it seemed that early on, when Canada was lagging in the medal table, there was a lack of voices pointing out that things would probably get better later in the Games, just because of how the events were laid out. How fairly do you think you and the athletes were treated by the media, especially at the beginning when things weren't going well?

JF: Because we had a tragic accident on the first day of the Games [the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili as the result of a crash during a practice run] it was a difficult and painful start for us. Then I think the little things that happened after that became 10 times bigger. I thought we were disrespected by some of the media in Britain, particularly. What was frustrating was that nobody seemed to be doing anything about it in the media. Usually if one media outlet covers a story the wrong way, somebody else sees it and corrects it. For a few days we were sort of alone in that and it felt frustrating because we didn't feel that we deserved the criticism that we were getting. Eventually I had the experience of confronting them, which is something nobody involved in the kind of work that I do ever really wants to do, but I felt I had little choice but to say, "This is not far, you know it's not fair, and you shouldn't do it." And then at the end the media wrote very positive reports about us. Most of them believe in the higher power of this, but in the first few days it felt like we didn't have any friends and no one seemed to see our side of it.

CBC: So many things went wrong early — most terribly the death of the Georgian luger, but also the weather, traffic problems, and the cauldron malfunction during the opening ceremony. How low did you get during those tough times?

JF: It was tough, but one of the things I realized is that the last person who should be feeling sorry for himself is me. I realized also that my body language as the leader of VANOC was important, and I tried very hard not to demonstrate that I was feeling under siege because I wanted my team to stay up and stay focused and do what they needed to do. I just abandoned my schedule, I just tore it up and threw it away. I decided that the only work that was important for me now was to go around and support the team, to help the people wearing blue jackets, to support them, encourage them, cheer them on. So I didn't go to any social functions, I didn't go to any dinners, I didn't show up at any of that stuff. I just simply focused on trying to make sure that our effort was as good as it could be. I couldn't think of anything that topped that as my primary responsibility.

Furlong counted IOC president Jacques Rogge, left, among his allies during difficult times at the start of the Vancouver Games. ((Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images) )

CBC: In the section about the bid process, you wrote about thinking you had a vote nailed down but that "… you never know with the IOC." What's your impression of that organization?

JF: A lot of things have been said about the IOC in the media. But, to be honest, I think they did a good job and they did well by us. They were a good partner, they helped us when we needed them. On the day we lost the athlete, they were our best friend and they were right there with us, and [IOC president] Jacques Rogge was very helpful. I think they're trying very much to become a model 21st century organization. I think they've had their challenges and they're trying to rid themselves of the kinds of things that led to that. In the days when we were bidding for the Games, we ran into lots of stuff and it's not an easy process, as I describe in the book. But, generally speaking, they were good with us. They have a high degree of expertise. I'd have to give them pretty good marks.

CBC: There must have been a huge void in your life when the Olympics and Paralympics finally ended, and all those years of work were finally over. How did you deal with that?

JF: I was glad it was finished because I'd been doing it for 14 years, and that's a long time. I was exhausted. I sort of enjoyed watching it slip away. And, as I said earlier, it doesn't feel like it's really gone yet. The day-to-day energy required to sustain the Olympics and the Paralympics was so high that I was ready for it to stop. We had been under such a huge amount of pressure. But I really revelled in listening to people tell us their stories and talk about the Games since they ended. It's been a great and wonderful experience for me.

CBC: What are you doing now?

JF: I've written the book, so I've been travelling all over the world talking about the Games, speaking to groups and CEOs, talking about leadership and dealing with adversity, and trying to explain what really went on. That's been fun. I'm also sitting on a few boards. I'm just trying to take my time in moving to the next stage of my career. I'm not sure what I'm going to do next. I may take on another project. [The Olympics] was a very punishing thing and a very exhilarating thing and a happy thing. It's a lot to come down from, so I'm sort of taking my time. The year since the Games has been flat-out busy, almost as busy as I was when the Games were on. I'm just waiting and we'll see what the next little while brings. I may take on something new. But I'm not running for public office.

CBC:It struck me while reading the book that politics would be a good line of work for you.

JF: No [laughs]. It wouldn't be.

CBC: Have you considered taking any French lessons? Your admitted lack of skill in that language seemed to bother you, especially when you had to deliver speeches at the opening and closing ceremonies at B.C. Place.

JF: I might in the future. It was a very unpleasant experience trying to perform with any kind of clarity in French in front of such a large audience. I did my best, but it was very difficult. I really believe in the duality of Canada. I came from a country where we had two languages and one of them was always under duress. So I tried very hard to get in place a comprehensive French organization so we could provide all these services. We had 4,500 people in Vancouver delivering bilingual services at the Games. I think the only place people expressed dissatisfaction with us was with the ceremonies. But we had as many people tell us the opposite. It was not easy. In Vancouver, French is not in the top five in terms of the number of people speaking the language. We tried very hard. I think most people would say that their bilingual experience on the ground was very good. In fact, the International Association de la Francophonie gave us the gold standard after the Games and hoped that we would be assisting London and Sochi in achieving the same standard. Overall I think it was pretty good.

Furlong, centre standing, was among the mourners who travelled to Bakuriani, Georgia, to pay their respects to luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. ((Shakh Aivazov/Associated Press))

CBC:CBC News reported last week that you and other VANOC members exchanged emails before the Games in which it appears that you acknowledge there may have been safety concerns about the luge track. Early in your book, you write about regretting the decision to not make public the details of your bid proposal right away, and the lesson that you took from that was to be as transparent as possible because "worse was looking like you had something to hide." It seems like you take that idea seriously, so why not admit, personally and as an organization, that you had at least entertained the possibility that perhaps the luge track could be unsafe.

JF: Well, we didn't know.  First of all, these documents that you're talking about, we gave these documents to the coroner. We got this letter that wasn't even about our track. It was about the Russia track [for the Sochi 2014 Games]. We just simply asked some questions inside the organization about, is there anything we need to do to our track as a result of what these people are saying about the speed of it? The answer we got was we were already doing it. I can absolutely tell you, and it's an absolute fact, that had we got to the start of the Games and thought that somebody could be catastrophically injured on the opening day of the Games, we never would have agreed to let anybody race on it. Who on earth would have done that? We certainly wouldn't have.

We didn't have jurisdiction. The sports [federations governing luge, skeleton and bobsleigh] declared the track to be ready for the Olympic competitions, and safe. And I believe the sports believed it too, [the people] who had the expertise. For me to say to you that I thought the track was too fast, too slow or unsafe, would be a completely unqualified view. We had no expertise in this area. Those emails were a conversation we had internally about, is there anything we need to be doing with these sports to change or improve this? The answer was no, we're doing everything we're supposed to do.

The problem with this particular issue is very complicated. The role of the organizing committee, as it is with every single sport at the Games, is to give them what they ask us to give them, and that's what we were doing. We're not for a second running from what our responsibility was. We actually performed our duties the way we were required to. We sat in rooms with these sports, all of them, on every venue all the way up to the Games, trying to get the venues as perfect as possible because that was our job. If [the International Luge Federation, commonly called FIL] had said to us two weeks before the Games, "We're concerned about this or that or we need another of this or that," we would have absolutely done it. Money was never an issue. There would have been no credible reason for us not to. I mean, how could anybody think otherwise? That's a fact. Nobody would've ever dared risk it if we knew there was going to be a possibility that an athlete could be killed.

I don't know if you've ever stood at the side of a track, but at every Olympic Games, and I've been to see several of them, these sleds turn upside down on fast tracks, on slow tracks, on technically difficult tracks, because athletes are coming down as fast as they can. So these accidents happen. What the sports have to do is make sure they're contained and that they're managed, and that the athletes don't, because they have an accident or they make a mistake or something happens, that they don't get very badly hurt because of it. According to the sports, they had achieved that, so the Games started on the basis of that decision that they had made that the track was ready.

CBC:It seems you don't think too highly of FIL.

JF: FIL, I think, is a small organization, and when this happened it was quite overwhelming. I think it was a shock. I don't think they saw anything like this coming, and I think even to this day they're not really sure what occurred and what else they could've done to prevent this. The problem is they're a small organization, they're not especially sophisticated in their size and scope, and they don't have volumes of money. They're not like Hockey Canada, for example. We had to spend a lot of time with them during the Games to help them get through this and to work with the various issues that were occurring. When this happened, my biggest concern, frankly, was to provide the appropriate level of support to Nodar and his family. That was the No. 1 priority — lead with your heart. And that's what we tried to do. But for FIL, they were so shocked by what happened. They were small and they had very few people available that could help with us. What we tried to do was apply all the resources that we had to help them so that they could get through this and understand it and manage it the best way they could. They were so wounded and under siege after it occurred, they needed all the help that they could get.