The woman behind an Olympic war

Jonathon Gatehouse on the woman behind the John Furlong allegations

The woman behind an Olympic war

Jessica Darmanin

The woman behind an Olympic war
Photo of Laura Robinson by Jessica Darmanin

At first, Laura Robinson didn’t believe it. The tip from a native artist she met by chance in Vancouver’s Robson Square in the fall of 2009, suggesting John Furlong, the high-profile head of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, had a secret past as a teacher at Indian residential schools in British Columbia, just seemed too much of a stretch. After all, the soft-spoken Irishman had been the public face of the 2010 Games for years, travelling the country and the world to promote the dream. And he’d spent countless hours meeting with the province’s native leaders, brokering agreements on everything from venue construction to cultural exhibitions to Aboriginal-themed souvenirs. How could it not be common knowledge? So the Ontario-based freelance journalist poked around on the Internet for a couple of hours and, finding nothing, let the matter drop.

It wasn’t until a year after the conclusion of Furlong’s big show—a dazzling home Games where Canada captured 26 medals, including 14 golds, and the entire country celebrated—when she even really thought of it again. The Anishinabek News, a paper serving 39 Ontario First Nations, had asked Robinson to review Furlong’s new memoir, Patriot Hearts. She started reading the book while covering cross-country skiing’s 2011 world championships in Norway, and something in the tale the former VANOC chief executive told of his 1974 arrival in Canada—that he had been recruited in Dublin to head up the physical-education department at an unnamed high school in Prince George, B.C.—didn’t sit right. To her mind, it seemed a long way to go to hire a then 24-year-old with an impressive history as an athlete, but little experience as an educator. So, at the end of a race day, she returned to the web. It didn’t take long to find the secondary school (then the only Catholic one in the city) and determine that almost all the staff in that era were from Ireland, members of an organization called the Frontier Apostles, the Church’s answer to the Peace Corps. Their Facebook group led Robinson to scanned yearbook pages with photos of the young Furlong, and the surprising information that he’d served as a coach and instructor at oblate mission schools in B.C. years earlier than he’d said. And now, suddenly Laura Robinson was convinced she had a very important story indeed. “I looked up and realized that it was 10 p.m., and I was all alone in the press room, except for the cleaners.”

Her first version, filled with mostly positive comments from his former students, was published without notice in April 2011 on the website of Play the Game, a Danish organization dedicated to transparency in world sport. No one else in the media followed up on the information that Furlong had provided a selective version of his past in speeches, interviews, his official CV and book (co-written with a Globe and Mail columnist), failing to mention he had first come to Canada as an 18-year-old in 1969 to teach in Burns Lake, B.C., and then Prince George, before returning to Ireland three years later. And it wasn’t until months later that Robinson herself began to probe more deeply into his early career, paying a visit to northern B.C. But her follow-up story that appeared in September 2012 in the Georgia Straight, Vancouver’s alternative weekly, could hardly be ignored. Based on affidavits gathered from his former native students, the piece alleged that Furlong had been a notorious figure at the Immaculata Elementary School in Burns Lake, frequently meting out harsh physical discipline and racial abuse.

Furlong held a news conference the day the story appeared. “I have been accused of physical abuse and—apparently, within the last hour—sexual abuse,” he said, referring to a report that would air that night on the CBC. “I want you to know I categorically deny absolutely any wrongdoing.” His time in Burns Lake had been “fairly brief and fairly uneventful,” he said, and he had returned there frequently over the years for VANOC, even helping bring the Olympic torch through town. The clearly shaken 61-year-old went on to attack Robinson, accusing her of a “shocking lack of diligence” and of harbouring a grudge. “Having experienced this reporter on many occasions in the past, this feels very much like a personal vendetta.” In a subsequent press release, he accused her of “open contempt for the Olympic Games and male authority figures in sport.” A month later, he filed a defamation suit against her, the paper and its editors, in the Supreme Court of B.C.

Robinson fired back in a response filed late last month, unveiling shocking new charges supported by more affidavits and signed statements. The unproven allegations include physical abuse against his first wife, the molestation of two female students, and the repeated rape of a former common-law partner, who came forward after the story ran in the Straight. The ex-VANOC boss has again denied that there is any truth whatsoever to the claims. And his two ex-wives, Gail and Margaret— the latter being the one Robinson’s filing contends he abused—joined his five children and 11 grandchildren to denounce the allegations. “We are being subjected to shame and embarrassment by misuse of journalistic privilege and licence,” said their joint statement. “Imagine trying to explain to your nine-year-old child that an adult in a position of power has written that Grandpa is a racist, a wife-beater and a rapist because of what appears to be personal enmity.” Maclean’s contacted Furlong’s lawyer seeking an interview, but received no response by press time.

Robinson says it’s nothing personal. She’s met the man three times in her life, and never spoken to him for more than a few minutes on each occasion. But in a way, her whole 22-year journalism career, eking out a modest living writing about women’s sports, sexual abuse, gender politics and Aboriginal issues, has been building to this one big showdown. She’s as much an activist as a reporter—a complicated and sometimes divisive figure, who has been proven wrong at least once before. “I’m like a character from a Coen brothers film,” she laughs, as she stands in the sunny kitchen of her home near Owen Sound, Ont., simultaneously holding court and baking muffins. Books, papers and files are scattered all around, evidence of preparation for what promises to be one of the ugliest libel battles in Canadian legal history. “I know that from here on in, it’s going to be all about me,” she says. “They can dig, but I don’t know what they’ll find. I haven’t even been drunk in my life.”

Robinson knew the story was destined to spark a lawsuit. And she’s on the hook for her own defence, having gone ahead with the full knowledge that the Straight’s insurance wouldn’t cover her legal costs. The $2,500 Robinson got paid for the biggest story of her career was eaten up the first time she sat down with her lawyer.

Sport was her first love, a head-over-heels affair that started on a spring night in 1972, when a group of boys from her Grade 8 class pedalled up to her Cooksville, Ont., house on shiny new 10-speeds. Captivated, she saved her babysitting money for months until she finally had the $75 needed to buy one down at the local hardware store. At her mother’s suggestion, she and her older brother joined a local cycling club. And once she’d completed her first race—a 10-mile time-trial—and discovered she was faster than any of the boys, Robinson was hooked for life. On Friday and Saturday nights in high school, she was usually in bed by 8 p.m. to rest up for the coming day’s rides, and was the first to leave her senior prom because there was a race the next morning. In 1975 and ’76, she was Ontario junior champion. And by the time she was in her early 20s, studying social sciences at the University of Western Ontario, she was competing on Canada’s national team. “Sport opened up the world for me,” says Robinson. But it also taught her that the playing field was rarely level for women.

The prizes for the men’s races were cash or new bikes, while female riders got bubble bath and chocolates. At the highest level of the sport—the Olympics—there were no women’s events until the 1984 Los Angeles Games. And far too frequently, she says, sponsors, coaches and male athletes treated the women like a harem. Robinson remembers leaping out of a car to avoid one coach’s advances. He was almost 30. She was 16.

Robinson never hid her opinions about the unequal state of the sport. She’d inherited a strong feminist bent from her mother, a founder of the local women’s action committee. And toward the tail end of her competitive career, after it had become clear she wasn’t fast enough to make it to the world stage, she decided to leave her mark in another way. In Toronto, she led an effort to force organizers of cycling races to provide the same prize money for men and women. Left- wing councillors such as Jack Layton and Marilyn Churley got involved, convening hearings and threatening to withhold civic approval for road closures unless reforms were made. And while many in the cycling community—including most of Canada’s top female racers at the time—opposed the enforced parity, Robinson eventually triumphed.

There were other battles. When a budding female hockey star, 14-year-old Justine Blainey, won a tryout spot on a boys team but was prevented from playing by the league, Robinson became a tireless advocate as the case went before the Ontario Human Rights Commission and made its way through the courts. “She seemed to be there all the time when we needed her, magically appearing at all the court hearings and TV shoots,” recalls Blainey, now a Toronto-area chiropractor. The emotional support was vital, she says, and Robinson became a role model. “She taught me tenaciousness and how to stay focused on a goal that is bigger than yourself.”

As her sporting days wound down, Robinson tried teaching, but it proved a poor fit. Administrators at an Orthodox Jewish school didn’t appreciate her efforts to preach girl power. And neither did the powers at a community college where she introduced the writings of Gloria Steinem into a course on sports administration and management. After students complained and the dean intervened, Robinson took the story to the Toronto Star, explaining that she made all her important life decisions by asking: “Is this a non-sexist, non-racist thing to do?”

A serious bike accident in 1987—a car struck her from behind as she trained on a Vancouver roadway—gave her the time, and insurance money, to look for a new career. Robinson had dreamt of becoming a professional writer since publishing some poems in a local newspaper while still in junior high. “Writing swept me away the same way sports did—to a foreign land,” she says. Her first paid piece was an op-ed for the Globe in 1990 on the need for women in sport to overcome “pink-ribbon syndrome.” And in the wake of the Oka crisis, she found another area of enduring interest: the challenges facing Canada’s native communities. Alwyn Morris, a Kahnawake Mohawk who won two Olympic kayaking medals at the Los Angeles Games, let Robinson tag along on a project in northern Manitoba, where he was trying to use sport to divert troubled youth from alcohol and drugs. He came away as impressed by her compassion and dedication as by what she wrote. “What I saw from Laura was that she wasn’t someone who was going to play on the fringes,” he says. “We used to get a lot of people who would say they were interested and then fade away.” (For 20 years now, Robinson has volunteeed with kids on the Chippewas First Nation reserve in Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, leading cycling groups in the summer and giving cross-country-ski clinics in winter. She and her husband provide most of the bikes and ski equipment.)

For a couple of years, Robinson was the sports columnist for Now Magazine, a Toronto alt-weekly. And her pieces on little-covered subjects such as eating disorders among female athletes occasionally caught the eye of editors at more established publications. In 1993, she teamed up with the CBC’s Fifth Estate program to help produce an award-winning documentary on male sports coaches who preyed on their young female charges. Bruce Kidd, the former Olympic distance runner who went on to become the dean of physical education at the University of Toronto, was one of her early mentors. Robinson has a way of illuminating the dark corners of sport and raising establishment hackles, he says. “Few people would be in a position to hear these stories. And even fewer would be as determined to slog it out.”

But despite her zeal and track record, Robinson never managed to find full-time employment in the business. She chalks it up to her decision to retreat to Owen Sound, Ont., as her star was rising in the early 1990s, to nurse her mother through a terminal illness. Another one of her high-profile stories may have also played a part, however.

In the summer of 1994, the Globe and Mail published a piece by Robinson on the front of its sports section that made some bombshell allegations about Ken Shields, then the coach of Canada’s national basketball team. Two black players who had been cut from the squad for the World Championships were suggesting that racism played a part. At Shields’s request, Sports Canada commissioned an independent investigation chaired by a former Canadian diplomat. The report, based on interviews with more than 60 people, including 15 players, found the allegations to be entirely baseless. Facing legal action, the Globe retracted the story and paid Shields—a legendary figure who guided the University of Victoria Vikes to seven straight Canadian university titles —an undisclosed settlement. But even today, he remains deeply scarred by the experience. “It was horrific. She had no basis for what she wrote,” Shields says. “They wrote a retraction but a lot of harm was done. A lot of people read it. And once it’s out there, it never really goes away.” (Robinson claims the story the Globe ran was not the one she wrote, having been “significantly altered” and given new meaning in the editing process.)

The nearly 20-year-old controversy seems certain to become part of Furlong’s case against her. After the Georgia Straight story appeared, Shields reached out to the former VANOC head to commiserate and share his own experiences. In their public comments, Furlong and his supporters have been busy trying to paint Robinson as difficult and reckless. “She builds a case of evidence against you and then gives you little or no time to defend yourself before she publishes,” Renee Smith-Valade, formerly VANOC’s chief spokesperson, told Vancouver radio station CKNW last fall. It’s a theme that was further developed in Furlong’s defamation suit, which cites a series of “sharply critical” stories the journalist wrote about VANOC before and after the Games, and accuses her of being the one who brought the allegations that he sexually abused a student to the attention of the RCMP.

Robinson flatly denies going to the cops, but happily admits to being one of VANOC’s most persistent inquisitors, questioning everything from the exclusion of female ski jumpers and the use of fertilizer as a snow-hardening agent to the treatment of the Aboriginal dancers at the opening ceremony. “Of course those stories are critical,” she snorts. “Thank God they’re critical.” And she has even more misgivings about the International Olympic Committee. Still, none of that has dampened her enthusiasm for covering the Games themselves. In Vancouver, she wrote about cross-country for SkiTrax magazine. In London, she covered cycling for Pedal magazine, biking to the venues from her $40-a-night B&B in the outer reaches of the city. “For all the horribleness of the Olympics, I still think they’re wonderful,” she explains. “It’s like doping and cycling. I can still love riding my bike even if the people at the top are corrupt.”

Given the feathers she’s ruffled recently, Robinson isn’t counting on being at Sochi 2014, or any Games beyond. Besides, chances are she’ll be too busy and cash-strapped from the legal proceedings to travel. Demand for her freelance services has all but dried up since last fall. And most of her income is derived from licensing fees that university women’s studies and sociology programs pay to reprint parts of books she wrote a decade or so ago—Crossing the Line, a look at violence and sexual assault in the world of junior hockey, and Black Tights, which explores sexuality, discrimination and homophobia in women’s sport.

After her first visit to Burns Lake almost a year ago, Robinson sat down with her husband, John—the man she married, to her own and everyone else’s surprise, at age 47 in 2005—to discuss the future. They knew the story would perhaps put what little they had at risk: his house, her bikes, including the racing model he gave in place of an engagement ring. But both concluded the allegations were too important to ignore, unlike the Toronto Star, which had planned to publish the Furlong story alongside the Straight and balked at the last minute after threatened legal action. Or the Globe and Mail: when Gary Mason, the co-author of Patriot Hearts, heard what Robinson was up to a couple of months before the story broke, he informed his bosses at the paper about the allegations against their 2010 Canadian of the Year, and recused himself. A senior editor emailed Furlong to request an interview and was rebuffed. And then the matter was dropped.

Whether that indicates Robinson and the Straight are braver, or simply less cautious, is an open question. But there’s no question about her confidence. When her friends express concern that maybe she’s gotten in too deep, Robinson has a stock response. “I tell them if they knew what I know about this, they wouldn’t be worried for me at all.”

The Olympics made John Furlong one of the most celebrated men in Canada. Since the end of the Games, he’s been named to the Order of Canada, awarded multiple honorary degrees, and given seats on the boards of corporate titans like Canadian Tire and Whistler-Blackcomb, as well as the chairman’s job at Own the Podium and the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer club. Now, because of one crusading journalist’s work, his reputation and future hang in the balance. And it will be left to the courts to decide whether he is a victimizer or a victim.