The Macleans.ca Interview: John Furlong
CEO of the Vancouver Olympic Games on bobsleds, torch runs and the two-year countdown to the city's big bash
Ken MacQueen | Feb 11, 2008 | 21:56:57
Eyebrows were raised when John Furlong was named in 2004 as CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Winter Games. Furlong, a former sports administrator and coach, had served as president of the city’s successful bid committee, but did he have the skills to deliver a multi-billion-dollar event? He’s proved the critics wrong, so far, by running a tight and scandal-free ship. With two years to go before the opening ceremonies—Feb. 12, 2010—the real test begins.
Macleans.ca: I interviewed you in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Games when you were on the Vancouver bid committee. You folks were lobbying the International Olympic Committee and you reminded me of the Mormons: clean-cut, earnest, and proselytizing all who would listen.
JF: In Salt Lake we were all about trying to get support for the Games. I can’t remember where I was but I had a phone call one day and they said if you get down to the [sliding] track in the next half-hour you’re going to have a chance to go down the track with [IOC member] Princess Nora from Liechtenstein, who has a vote. So I barrelled out there with a driver, I got in and I tell you, I’ve never been more terrified in my life.
M: For God and country.
JF: And for a vote. I was committed. All I can say is thank God we agreed what happens in the bobsled stays in the bobsled.
M: As I understand it, the day you were appointed CEO, you gathered what passed for your team and you went to a theatre to watch Miracle on Ice, the film of the American hockey team’s gold medal victory in Lake Placid. Whatever for?
JF: One of the pieces of that movie that really stood out for me was how the sum of the parts really showed itself. You’re talking about a country that had no right to think of itself as an Olympic medallist. They brought all these athletes together, none of which were NHL material, none of which went on to NHL greatness. They became extraordinary; they got to a place where they believed they could do absolutely anything. And they did. It was just this group that had found the way to come together and in front of the world pulled off what would have to be described as probably the single greatest upset victory in all Olympic history. I thought our team had to see that at the beginning—this is what we have to become. A perfect team.
M: What made you think that Vancouver, and Canada, needed these Olympics?
JF: I saw it very much through the eyes of an athlete at the beginning and what it would be like for young people growing up here. I also thought, because I’ve travelled a bit, that Vancouver, as a location, would stand out from the crowd; that the Olympic Games would look good on Vancouver. That Vancouver would be good for the Games. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but when we started we actually thought of bidding for the summer Olympics this time around. It became clear that we weren’t big enough.
I hope when this is over that the world will look at this and marvel at what we’ve been able to do together. I always thought of it as more than an event for a city at a particularly important time. I thought that’s what others have done; it has been very much a local story often, and I’ve thought we can be better than that. We want it very much to be about Canadians feeling pride that we did it together. Every province and territory will be here, this will be very much an all-Canadian adventure. That is our job.
M: Speaking of jobs, can you name the last head of an organizing committee who either didn’t burn out or get fired? JF: You really have to be smitten with this. It has to be something where you really believe it’s going to change your life and that it’s a vision worth getting out of bed for every morning and going flat out and nothing else matters. That’s how you have to be engaged. I think recently [CEO longevity] has been getting better.
M: Turin, Athens, Salt Lake City, all replaced.
JF: Italy’s CEO stayed to the end.
JF: Well, there were changes. And Salt Lake had its own challenges.