We may never understand the toll it took on John Furlong, but we can imagine. One minute you're a hero, the toast of a country grateful and indebted for the role you played in orchestrating one of the greatest events ever to take place on Canadian soil. And then one day, you wake up to find yourself confronting the most odious allegation imaginable – that you sexually abused native children.
Mr. Furlong always denied the claims, but his protests of innocence played a bit part in the front-page stories and television reports that outlined the accusations of the plaintiffs. When three separate people file lawsuits against the same person, there has to be some truth to it, doesn't there? Where there's that much smoke, there's always fire, no?
Except that, when the smoke cleared, all that was left was evidence that the damaging assertions made against the former CEO of the 2010 Winter Olympics were baseless.
On Monday, the third and final sexual-abuse case against Mr. Furlong was dismissed, as was a previous one. Another had already been dropped. By the end of the process, the lawyer who had been representing the three plaintiffs had withdrawn entirely. It was shown that one of the women was not even attending the school where Mr. Furlong was teaching in northern B.C. in 1969-70, when the incidents were said to have occurred. A second complainant simply abandoned her case. The last proceeding was dismissed after the accuser, a man with a criminal history of more than 50 convictions, failed to show up for the start of the trial.
I've known Mr. Furlong for several years, initially in my role as a journalist writing about the 2010 Games, and then later when I helped him write his Olympic memoir, Patriot Hearts. I had not seen him since the funeral of his wife, Debra, who died in a car accident in Ireland in April, 2013, amid the crisis that had erupted around the allegations of abuse.
The appearance of the person I sat a few feet away from at a news conference on Tuesday had changed perceptibly in a couple of years. Mr. Furlong appeared frailer. His face bore the lines and markings of stress and seemed drained of colour. He looked like someone who had been thrust into an experience that had not only robbed him of the vigour he once possessed, but also of the unrelenting optimism that was his trademark. Looking at him, the disclosure that the charges had precipitated a deep depression was no surprise at all.
"As long, painful and paralyzing as this has been, I am grateful that truth and innocence has prevailed," Mr. Furlong said.
"With this horrible nightmare behind me, it is time to move on. I have been numb for months, trying my best to cope and protect those I love. Living like this is not living at all."
Only time will tell if he can resume the life he once knew. Mr. Furlong will be 65 this year. The impact of the allegations that he faced undoubtedly cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in earning potential. His appearances on the speaking circuit virtually dried up. He'll never recover that money. His legal bills must be mountainous, and they're not over. While Mr. Furlong has dropped his libel suit against the journalist who wrote a story containing allegations of physical abuse at a Catholic school near Burns Lake, Laura Robinson is not abandoning her countersuit against him.
The claims in the article, that he strapped some students and verbally bullied and insulted others, never resulted in any charges. He has steadfastly denied the contentions, although many will always wonder why he left this earlier brief period out of his memoir.
With the sexual abuse allegations behind him, Mr. Furlong hopes to get on with rebuilding his life. I hope he can, but the sad truth is that he will never be able to rid himself completely of the ugly stain this affair has left on his life and legacy. There will always be doubters who will insist high-priced lawyers cleared his name, nothing else. And that is a shame.
The truth is, John Furlong was cleared of the ruinous accusations against him because they had no basis in fact. Sadly, those allegations robbed him of things he will never entirely get back.
Editor's note: The title of John Furlong's Olympic memoir is Patriot Hearts. An earlier version of this column gave an incorrect title.