Skip to main content
the globe's choice

John Furlong stands beside the 2010 cauldron in Vancouver, B.C.Jeff Vinnick

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.

"We had so many naysayers, and so many people who thought we were going to be embarrassed," recounts Mr. Furlong.

But he stuck to his guns, insisting the relay had to touch the entire country, and it wound up a smash. Millions of Canadians lined the nation's roadways to cheer on the torch, often in sub-zero temperatures, with tears in their eyes and not from the cold.

Mr. Furlong also advocated relentlessly for the ambitious but controversial program, Own the Podium, designed to put Canada at the top of the Games' medal count.

Although the United States eventually finished first in total medals, Canadian athletes won a record 14 golds, capped by a heart-stopping victory over the United States in men's hockey.

"We showed that Canadians can not only compete, we can win," Mr. Furlong says. "We can hold our own with anybody."

Author, Hockey Hall of Famer and Liberal MP Ken Dryden, who writes about the Games in his latest book, Changing Canada, says Mr. Furlong understood that the key to delivering an inspired Olympics was to tap into people's deepest emotions.

"And what's there, what's really inside people? It's Canada," Mr. Dryden says. "John Furlong knew that, he respected it, he went at it, and he delivered it. The Games reinforced the feeling that we are good. We needed that."

During an early-morning breakfast last weekend, it's clear that the VANOC boss has lost none of his conviction and passion. Nearly 10 months after the Games ended, his voice still rises with emotion. He jabs the air with his finger for emphasis. He still wants you to believe, too. "I believe it because I've seen it. I've felt it, and there's no way to explain what happened here, unless you believe in something like this."

When the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili cast its terrible shadow over the Games' first few days, Mr. Furlong, himself numb with grief, found a way to rally the troops.

"As the weekend unfolded, I was aware people were quite wounded, quite overwhelmed by what happened. I knew I had to do something about it." Mr. Furlong first reminded VANOC executives that the country was behind them, and it was time to show courage and spirit.

He then cleared his agenda and went out to meet Olympic volunteers. From dawn to dusk, he journeyed from venue to venue. He thanked as many volunteers as he could, gave them a hug, and let them know they were all part of a team. They would prevail.

"I wanted them to hear that again and again from the guy in charge, that I had confidence in them." Afterward, he said it was the most important thing he did during the entire event.

Not everyone agrees that what unfolded last February will have a lasting impact on Canada.

Celebrated Vancouver author and artist Douglas Coupland says the Games might have been a coming of age for the city, but he shies from pushing the significance further. "My memories are all positive. My hands were raw from high-fiving with strangers," Mr. Coupland says. "I loved the Olympics. It was great for the country, but let's not torture ourselves about what it all means. Let's just accept it."

To which, Mr. Furlong retorts: "Nonsense. ... We can choose to take these Games and put them into a box that says this was only a moment in time. I'm sorry. I refuse to see it that way.

"I believe we have given ourselves a best-in-class example of the way the country can be, the confidence we can have, and there's not a person alive who can convince me otherwise," he declares. "Maybe that's been our history, that something like this can't live on. But if you are just going to rely on previous experiences, then you have no chance to grow. ... We would not have done anything of this."

By no means a humble man, Mr. Furlong says he is nonetheless humbled that "a man from away" could be entrusted with a project as vital to national pride as the 2010 Winter Games.

"I came from another country. I have an Irish accent," he says. "I don't know of any other country where someone like me could have been CEO of an Olympics. It just couldn't happen. But in Canada, it's who we are. People of the world live here and we all get along. This is a very unique and special place."

Full circle

Mr. Furlong arrived here when he was just 24. His father had been head of Ireland's prison system, and he, himself, was an emerging star in Gaelic football. But the fun went out of Ireland that May, when his 19-year-old cousin Siobhan Roice was killed, along with 10 other passersby, in a Dublin street bomb attack by the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Furlong's dad, who had to identify Ms. Roice's shattered body, was felled by a fatal heart attack.

Canada, with an offer to teach at a Catholic high school in Prince George, suddenly seemed right for the distraught Irishman.

It was in Prince George where he caught the big-event bug, helping the northern city play host to the B.C. Winter Games in 1981. In fact, Mr. Furlong was back in Prince George this week, closing the circle and repaying his debt to the city by providing advice to local organizers in charge of staging the 2015 Canada Winter Games.

Today, at 60, with five grown kids and 11 grandchildren, bombarded by speaking engagements and offers to sit on boards, Mr. Furlong is looking for a new, more permanent challenge. Not surprisingly, he's aiming high.

He would like it to be as grand as the Olympics. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life comparing what I'm doing now to what I did then. I want to use the Games as a base for something I might do in the future."

After all this time, there are still more boxes to tick off, more pitching in to do. Working to make Canada better.