2010 John Furlong

John Furlong

The face of the 2010 Winter Olympics, for most Vancouverites and many Canadians, was John Furlong’s.

And those who knew him from the early days of the bid process through the final, triumphant moments of the Games didn’t need a time-lapse series of photographs in a Vancouver paper to tell them how that face had changed after nearly a decade of 4 a.m. wakeups and four-hour sleeps and millions of air miles.

But if his hair was a little whiter and his face a little greyer by the time the finish line loomed, John Furlong’s passion never gave in to exhaustion.

As the man who shepherded the Vancouver-Whistler Olympic project from successful bid to resounding triumph seven years later, Furlong’s eloquence and humanity, always with a gentle trace of the Irish lilt leftover from his childhood in Tipperary, shone so clearly and consistently from the heart that even a skeptical host city and nation were finally unable to resist his inspiring vision of a country brought together by pride.

His coolness under fire as VANOC’s CEO was put to the test when the worldwide recession hammered the economies of nations – and budgets of Olympic sponsors – in the year leading into the Games.

His grief and compassion were on very public display when Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died in an horrific accident on the afternoon of the Opening Ceremony, and somehow he had to lift the spirits of an army of staff and volunteers, many of them already stretched to the limit by unseasonably warm, rainy weather that threatened to completely undo preparations for freestyle skiing and snowboarding on a key Olympic venue at Cypress Mountain.

But the organization Furlong built survived tragedy and sometimes harsh scrutiny; it rose to the challenge and got through it all on-time and (more or less) on-budget. Most importantly, it delivered a Games that transformed a city’s self-image and – with the help of a record Winter Olympics Gold Medal haul by Canadian athletes – held a nation spellbound for those 17 amazing, perhaps seminal, days in February.

When the Paralympics were over, he travelled to Georgia to observe the final laying to rest of the young Georgian who had died on the Olympic luge track – keeping a promise Furlong had made to the family, doing the right thing.

A measure of the man voted this year’s recipient of Sports Media Canada’s George Gross Award Executive of the Year is that, at any hour of the day or night, during those two-plus weeks, he could often be seen wandering away from an official party to seek out a volunteer, shake a hand and quietly say: “Thanks for what you’re doing for Canada.”

A former athlete, having competed internationally in basketball, European handball and squash – he was Canadian champion in 1986 – Furlong received the IOC’s Olympic Order and has been recognized as one of the most influential figures in sports during the past two years.

He and Jack Poole were co-recipients of SMC’s Executive of the Year Award in 2003 for their tireless work in winning the IOC’s vote for Vancouver and Canada. While Poole never lived to see these Games — he died after a long battle with cancer in October of 2009 — Furlong honoured his contribution in an emotional speech at the Opening Ceremony, and saw their vision through to a spectacular conclusion at the Vancouver Olympics.

……. by Cam Cole,  2004 Recipient Sports Media Canada Outstanding Sportswriting Award