John Furlong breaks his silence

Has an Olympic war reached its end game?

The words come tumbling out in long sentences that pick up speed like they’re running downhill. Paragraph piled upon paragraph, with nary a breath between them. For 17 months, John Furlong has been silent about the allegations of physical and sexual abuse that have been levied against him. But now, the man who was the guiding force behind the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, says he can no longer bite his tongue. The time has come to take back his good name. And punish the journalist who has been leading the charge.

“Enough is enough. When this started, I thought this would take a week, maybe two, or a month—max—and then it would be over,” he says. “It was a ridiculous charge. It was a lie. And it was placed before the RCMP by Laura Robinson.”

Sitting in the Toronto offices of a PR firm that was formed by VANOC marketers, the 63-year-old is surrounded by mementos of his greatest professional triumph: a small model of the Olympic torch, glossy picture books, and a bright blue windbreaker with the five rings on the back. But his thoughts are of the humiliations that followed. Things have not been the same since Robinson, an Ontario-based freelance journalist, published a story in the Vancouver alt-weekly Georgia Straight in the fall of 2012, about Furlong’s distant past. The piece detailed how the Olympic chief had first come to Canada as an 18-year-old in 1969 to teach at religious schools for Aboriginal children in Burns Lake and Prince George, B.C.—a three-year sojourn that wasn’t mentioned in his official biography or memoir. Based on affidavits gathered from his former native students, the article alleged that Furlong had been a notorious teacher, meting out physical and racial abuse.

The RCMP launched an investigation. Furlong filed a defamation suit against Robinson, the paper and its editors. And in court filings, the journalist brought forward even more damaging charges about the sexual abuse of students, and assaults against one of his former wives and an ex-common-law partner. Two civil suits by former students followed. And although Furlong and his lawyer vigorously denied all the allegations, a cloud descended on his personal and professional life. “I felt like I was walking around Vancouver with a target on my chest,” says Furlong. Soon his family felt it, too. A stepson was getting into fights defending his honour at school. His grandkids were being taunted on the playground. And his children, two of whom are teachers, found themselves under constant scrutiny. Then last April, Deborah Sharp Furlong, his third wife, was killed in a car crash while they were on vacation in his native Ireland. “Get yourself into the darkest place you can go and keep going,” he says of the past year and a half. “It’s like someone took a wrecking ball to my world.”

This week, in a series of interviews, including a half-hour sit-down with Maclean’s, Furlong began the arduous task of trying to reclaim his once-sterling reputation. The RCMP, he says, have thoroughly investigated the original abuse complaint, and provided him with both written and verbal assurances that he has been cleared of all charges. (The Mounties, who took the extraordinary step of having major crime investigators from outside the province review their findings, are being more circumspect in their public pronouncements. “Our file remains open at this time,” the lead detective told Global News.)
But unwilling to wait any longer, Furlong is now stepping out from behind his lawyers, proclaiming his innocence and promising to pursue “the source of these lies.” His legal action against Robinson will be “escalated,” he says. Although just what that means is unclear. Furlong says his lawyers are reviewing a number of options, including seeking some sort of injunction against her. And while he is dropping his claim against the Georgia Straight and its editors— “I think they accepted her claims in good faith,” he says—he is also opening up new fronts in the battle. On Oct. 28, Furlong’s lawyers fired off a warning letter to the organizers of a Danish sporting conference where Robinson is scheduled to give a lecture entitled, “Truth, Lies and History: John Furlong and Canadian Sport’s Moral Vacuum.” It asked that Robinson’s talk be cancelled. “If defamatory statements are made, Mr. Furlong may bring further legal action without further notice to you,” the letter concluded.

Reached via email in Copenhagen, Robinson declined to comment on the RCMP’s apparent decision not to pursue charges against the former VANOC leader. But she again denied Furlong’s repeated claim that she was the one who initiated the investigation. “At no point did I ever give [the complainant’s] affidavit to the police, let alone report her allegations,” she wrote.

Furlong contends that Robinson is an activist, not a journalist, and needs to be stopped before she inflicts further harm. In his own court filings, he has details of three incidences from her professional past where she has made allegations of racism, sexism or abuse that were ultimately proven to be unfounded. “This is a pattern that goes back 20 years,” he says. “This person has damaged me and damaged others.” And Furlong is particularly incensed by a recent series of emails Robinson has sent to members of corporate boards that he sits on, including Canadian Tire, Whistler-Blackcomb, and Own the Podium, asking why he has been allowed to continue serving while facing such serious allegations. “There’s been this palpable harassment that won’t stop,” he says.

Robinson defends those inquiries as necessary research for her presentation. “Writing to the board members was an obvious part of my due diligence,” she wrote Maclean’s. “The paper is about the Canadian sport and business communities’ support of Furlong and their seemingly blindness toward the extreme trauma the students are suffering, not only because they continue to see Furlong deny what he did, but because they feel utterly failed by Canadians who have the power to ask him to step aside from his decision-making positions until the issues the students courageously brought up have been properly dealt with and have chosen not to do so. I could not have delivered this paper without asking the various board members what process they went through to determine that Furlong should stay on the board.”

Furlong says he has no plans to file suit against any of his accusers. He suggests the former students might have been manipulated, or are out for money. (The local Catholic diocese in northern B.C., which was also named in the civil suits, has said it has no records of two of the three litigants ever attending the school in question.) “It was a lovely school. It was a happy school,” Furlong says. “The kind of things they’re talking about, there wasn’t even a hint of that.” And he is equally at a loss to explain why his former common-law partner has resurfaced with claims of physical and sexual abuse after all these years. Although he makes it clear who he blames. “I never heard about them until Robinson brought them forward,” he says, characterizing the allegations as “outrageous lies.”

There is still no trial date set for Furlong’s defamation suit, and none of the allegations flying back and forth have been proven in court. But Furlong is now on a mission, just as committed to stopping Robinson, as she seems to be to pressing the allegations. “I’ve had 17 months in hell because of her,” he says. Social invitations have stopped. His once-lucrative business giving corporate speeches has dried up. He’s tired of avoiding people’s gazes on the streets. “The financial cost has been very high, but the human cost has been worse.”

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.