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The Globe and Mail

Tragedy made Olympic effort stronger, Furlong says

John Furlong VANOC CEO in Vancouver, BC, February 25, 2010.

Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

The spacious hotel ballroom was packed. Canadian flags adorned the centrepiece of every table. Many re-donned their red Canadian hockey sweaters and other Olympic paraphernalia, trying on Friday to recapture the rapturous celebration that took over Canada for the 2010 Winter Games.

But VANOC chairman John Furlong, for the last of his annual speeches to the Vancouver Board of Trade, temporarily tempered the room's enthusiasm with a moving, behind-the-scenes glimpse of the dark fallout from the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili just hours before the Games opened.

Three days before a comprehensive report into Mr. Kumaritashvili's death is due to be released by the International Luge Federation, Mr. Furlong recalled the grief and "complete helplessness" he felt when told of the young luger's catastrophic accident.

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"I honestly didn't know what to do. … We had prepared for every conceivable thing that could happen to us, but this was not one of them. Finger-pointing started, and it was not a good time for us."

Three days later, however, by the time a hastily organized memorial service had been held for Mr. Kumaritashvili and his body was on its way to Georgia, VANOC had actually become stronger through coping with the tragedy, Mr. Furlong said.

He told of his surprise at seeing a Vancouver police honour guard in place, when he emerged from the funeral home. As the Georgian's coffin went past, they saluted.

"Every one of those officers was in tears," Mr. Furlong said. "That's when I realized that all Canadians were ready to play a role in making [these Olympics]an incredible experience. Canadians were going to show the world what happens when Canadians hold hands and stick together."

Shortly afterward, buoyed by the outpouring of emotion, Mr. Furlong said he decided it was time to confront the British media, which had been withering in its criticism of the troubled first few days. One commentator calling them "the worst Games ever."

"We said that if you want to criticize us, you should be here, see what is going on and then write it. Enough already," Mr. Furlong said to loud applause from the audience.

What kept VANOC team members going in the immediate aftermath of Mr. Kumaritashvili's death, he added, was recognizing the need for everyone, including the International Olympic Committee, to rise to the occasion.

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"We reminded the IOC that this was a day when our humanity needed to be our primary compass. We had to lead with our hearts, and that's what we tried to do."

The opening ceremonies were subsequently altered to include tributes to the dead athlete by both IOC president Jacques Rogge and Mr. Furlong.

After his Board of Trade speech, which drew a loud, prolonged ovation, the VANOC CEO said he thought it was important to remind his listeners of the luge tragedy.

"I don't think you can talk about the Games without talking about Nodar. He affected the Games, he is part of the story of Vancouver 2010," Mr. Furlong said. "I can't forget him. Whenever I think of specific things that are very strong in my memory book, this is one of them.

"It was a terrible tragedy and it set us back dramatically in so many ways, but I also think it made us a stronger team, and caused a lot more people to come together to support what we were trying to do."

Earlier, the Board of Trade announced a donation of $10,000 to Mr. Kumaritashvili's family in Georgia.

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As for Mr. Furlong's future, now that the Games are over, he said he may take time to do some writing.

"I've had a lot of [offers]but I haven't said yes or no to anything. I'm too tired. I don't really want to do anything too suddenly. I'm still really trying to catch my breath. … I'm looking forward to the next stage of my life."

Meanwhile, host Olympic broadcaster NBC announced that it lost $223-million (U.S.) on the 2010 Winter Games, mostly because of the sky-high $820-million it paid to acquire the rights.

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