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John Furlong stands beside the 2010 cauldron in Vancouver, B.C. (Jeff Vinnick/Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)
John Furlong stands beside the 2010 cauldron in Vancouver, B.C. (Jeff Vinnick/Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail)

The Globe's Choice

John Furlong is Canada's Nation Builder of 2010 Add to ...

The story is one John Furlong never tires of telling. The day he landed in Edmonton in 1974 to begin his new life, an unassuming immigration officer welcomed him with the words: "Make us better."

Still reeling from the loss of a close cousin to a terrorist bomb and, three weeks later, his beloved father to a heart attack, the young Irishman took the message to heart.

It has stayed with him throughout his long Canadian journey, from teaching in the gyms of Prince George, B.C., to supervising the public playing fields of Nanaimo, to overseeing the tony facilities of Vancouver's private Arbutus Club.

And finally, at the end of it all, the man from Tipperary harnessed his decades-long determination to make himself worthy of Canada's trust and presided over an event that brought this unwieldy, uncertain, often-ungainly country together in a way it hadn't been for years.

Soon after Sidney Crosby's overtime goal sealed hockey gold and brought millions of flag-waving Canadians into the streets, Mr. Furlong declared to the world, as he closed the 2010 Winter Olympics: "I believe we Canadians tonight are stronger, more united, more in love with our country and more connected with each other than ever before."

Whether that legacy lasts, and Mr. Furlong believes fervently that it will, remains a matter for historians. But throughout those 17 extraordinary days in February, albeit with a terrible beginning, it was sheer Canadian bliss. For that, we can thank his perseverance, leadership and, above all, vision.

For making Canadians feel joyful, patriotic and confident that they can not only hold their own but kick butt on the international stage, by bringing the country an outstanding Olympics, John Furlong, president and chief executive officer of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee, is The Globe and Mail's choice as nation builder for 2010.

These would not be Vancouver's Games, or British Columbia's Games, he determined. They would be Canada's Games. And they were.

Some might argue on behalf of Mr. Crosby and his golden goal, but that was a fleeting moment, however glorious. Mr. Furlong's achievement took years to build, one brick at a time.

As he is quick to point out, the 2010 Games would not have been such a success without many other heroic performers, particularly the 25,000 Olympic volunteers in their cheery blue jackets.

But it was Mr. Furlong's vision that fired it.

He developed his bold approach years before the Olympics began, even before he was hired to run the Games, and he never wavered from it. An essay he penned for a Vancouver newspaper in 2003, headlined "What Dreams May Come," reads as if written yesterday.

He saw the Olympics as more than venues, infrastructure and two weeks of sport. It was, above all, a human adventure, in which all Canadians could share and shine. "I believe the 2010 Olympics can change the country," he wrote. "We can stop, for a while, being a nation of regions. ... We can inspire people to do better in their lives, to be more giving, to love their country. ... We can all come out of this a little taller. The Games can be a contribution to nation-building that is unprecedented in Olympic history."

Mr. Furlong distributed copies of his thesis to everyone on the Olympic team. "This is where we're going," he told them. While some mocked his old-fashioned, almost cornball sentiment, his aspirations prevailed.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) signed financial agreements with every province and territory to be part of the Games (Quebec was first to come on board), volunteers streamed to Vancouver from across the country, and most of all, there was the epic, 106-day journey of the Olympic flame.

At 45,000 kilometres, it was the greatest distance ever covered by a torch relay in a single country, stretching to all three coasts. But because of the vastness, Mr. Furlong had to overcome fierce internal opposition.

While he kept pressing for the torch to pass close to as many Canadians as possible, some organizers felt that working more than 100 days straight was too demanding, and the relay might be too much of a logistical headache to succeed.

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