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(Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
(Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

John Furlong welcomed the world to Vancouver Add to ...

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

Nominations remain open until November 26. Submit yours today.

John Furlong, VANOC CEO, has been selected as one of 25 Transformational Canadians.

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Last week, John Furlong was named outstanding sports executive of the year at the Sports Media Canada Achievement Awards. The VANOC CEO recalls giving the Toronto audience his theory on why so many Canadians will remember Sidney Crosby's gold medal-winning goal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

"I believe in my heart that the reason that moment will linger is that every Canadian would agree that at least to some extent, they got a stick on that puck," says Mr. Furlong, 60. "The reason people exploded the way they did is because they felt that it was their goal - that they had a hand in it."

Mr. Furlong says he and his team set out to stage a Winter Games that united the country and gave all Canadians a sense of ownership. First, they made every province and territory a partner. Then the 45,000-kilometre torch relay - the longest ever in a host country - took the Olympic flame to 1,000-plus communities and other locations. "By the time it got to Vancouver, everybody was already in, and they were just waiting to get their event started," Mr. Furlong says.

The Irish immigrant took charge of VANOC in 2004 after serving as president and CEO of the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corp. Underestimated by some - including former International Olympic Committee vice-president Richard Pound - he silenced his critics by putting on an impressive Winter Olympics that saw Canada finish first in gold medals.

Overseeing VANOC's $1.75-billion operating budget and the 50,000 people who worked on the Games might have looked like a bridge too far for Mr. Furlong. In his youth, he competed internationally in three sports and dreamed of being an Olympic athlete. After arriving in British Columbia in the 1970s, he taught school and founded the Northern B.C. Winter Games Society. He then moved to public administration and recreation, becoming CEO of Vancouver's Arbutus Club.

In the end, Mr. Furlong stickhandled VANOC through lousy weather and the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression. He says he went about his task with humility - and a refusal to settle for mediocre results. Mr. Furlong also sought to avoid the blunders of previous Olympic organizing committees by planning meticulously for the unexpected and stressing teamwork. "I was trying very hard to build a culture that could sustain itself against any kind of tragedy or calamity or difficulty that would come along," he says.

VANOC brought its partners and sponsors along too, Mr. Furlong says. "We had tried early on to build relationships with our partners where they were not just taking advantage of the fact that they had a marketing relationship with us, but they were engaged in helping put on the Olympics."

Unfortunately, no one could have foreseen the accidental death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on opening day. Mr. Furlong says he knew he had to find a way to rally everyone and deal with this sad event compassionately. "I decided that this was one of those days where I was going to allow my heart to call the shots, as opposed to making it all about the typical executive thinking that goes on when things are very difficult."

Three days later, Mr. Furlong left Mr. Kumaritashvili's Vancouver funeral service to find all the members of the police escort in tears. "I realized that everybody wanted to help and everybody wanted us to succeed," he remembers. "I went back to the office after that and said to our team, 'This country's cheering for us, and we need to now demonstrate to them that we deserve their support.'"

As VANOC winds down, Mr. Furlong is doing speaking engagements around the world and getting ready to launch his book Patriot Hearts: Inside the Olympics That Changed a Country. He wants this start-to-finish account of the Games to celebrate the participation of the many rather than the few.

"I hope that Canada will see that when we decide to hold hands and speak together as a country, we are pretty special to look at," Mr. Furlong says. "The Games were one of the great examples of what Canadians are able to do."

John Furlong on a culture of openness at VANOC

I think it's very dangerous in an organization when people are so smitten with doing the best they can that they aren't prepared to stop and say, 'I don't know to do it.' But they press on and they do do it, and they make big mistakes. To have people who are prepared to open up and say, when they're struggling, that they need help, to try to make the organization more open so that we did not end up having to go back and rehabilitate things that were broken….We tried to do that in the executive room, we tried to do it throughout the organization.

 

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