‘BoniBlog – Catching Up With John Furlong

by John Iaboni

Sports Media Canada

The year-end tendency is to reflect on athletes and their performances for a final salute. To me the mover and shaker who made the most impact in Canadian sports in 2010 was John Furlong who never would want to take centre stage away from the incredible Olympians, Paralympians and pro athletes who stood out in 2010.  But I’m going to give it to him anyway.

The CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games was exemplary in that massive role, our voice, our face, our leader of an exceptional crew through the mostly highs and sometimes lows for this significant chapter in Canadian sporting history.

Furlong was Sports Media Canada’s George Gross Award Sports Executive of the Year recipient and he graciously accepted the honour during our 15th Sports Achievement Awards Luncheon.

Recently I had the privilege of catching up with Furlong as I prepared a Vancouver One Year Later retrospective for aips magazine.

Our chat came just weeks shy of his announcement – proudly one might add – that the Games of 2010 broke even. Delivering news of the balanced budget when the tab was some $1.86 billion was dropped upon all of us officially a week before Christmas.

Some weeks back, Furlong tipped us off on it when he said breaking even was “what we hoped for and promised – and the taxpayers deserve no less than that. So we had always intended to keep our word, no matter what we had to do to accomplish that.”

Think of it, putting on this show in the worst recession in 80 years, VANOC still raised a record $760 million in corporate support plus the overwhelming success required in ticket sales. How did corporate Canada buy into the Games during these difficult economic times?

“First of all, we threw away the model that people have been using for 100 years on Olympic sponsorship which was basically to sell two weeks of sport to the highest bidder,” Furlong said. “We took the Olympic Games, we reshaped it; we remodeled it and we asked organizations to become involved with us in a completely different way. Sure they were going to get the right to use the Olympic brand on their products and services but we wanted them to help put on the Olympics; we wanted their employees to be engaged in the work of the Olympics. We wanted them to feel like they had the same stakes in the project as we had ourselves. So we didn’t sell a sponsorship, we sold a relationship.

John Furlong

“I mean, there’s a belief out there that the Olympic Games, the organization of the Olympic Games, the actual event itself was largely funded by government. It certainly was not! It was 90 per cent funded by the private sector which is a stunning number when you think about the size of the project. But 90 per cent of the dollars we collected came from private sources. The 10 per cent that came from government was targeted for things like the (Olympic Torch) relay, the Ceremonies, Paralympics. Other than that it was the community at large that basically supported the Games whether it was sponsorship, television, ticket holders, but it was private sector.

“So the Games attracted people to them in a very different way and I think there’s a great lesson for others about what we did here. It was daring. Could it have failed? It possibly could have. But I think we had a number of CEOs who looked at this vision and said ‘count me in!’ Once we got a few in, we had 65 companies at the end and I think they would all sit here today and say they’ve had the best experience they’ve ever had – and they wrote the biggest cheque they’ve ever written.”

There is no question the low of the Games occurred within hours of the Opening Ceremony. Organizers had prepared for what they thought was every possible tragedy but not the death of a competitor in a final training run to fulfill his Olympics dream.

“I don’t have words to describe what it felt like when that young man Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed,” Furlong said. “I felt like I’d been told my son had been killed. It was one of those moments where I would be less than honest if I said I was sure about what we might do next and how we would manage this. I knew the expectations of us were high; that the country would expect us to demonstrate an extraordinary level of compassion, empathy and dignity. We knew that the world was watching us. So it was a very serious, difficult blow for us and I think the fact we came out of it and somehow managed to stand up, get up off the ground and give the country the experience that they had been waiting for is a credit to us.”

Furlong sacrificed long and hard for some 14 years on this project and took a massive toll in his personal life.

“While my friends and colleagues were getting on with their lives, I was toiling away, keeping my fingers crossed that we would get to a place where we would take the country’s breath away and it feels good to have been a part of it,” said Furlong who now is taking the time to re-connect with his children and grandchildren..

Asked if he would do something like this again,

“I would but I would only do it in my own country,” he said. “This is one of these things where your heart and soul are so emotionally connected to it. So if it wasn’t for my own country and my own people and to leave behind a benefit that would be tangible for our kids and their kids, I wouldn’t.

“But the price was high; it’s a very difficult journey; it’s hard on families. I can say I have not experienced an Olympics-free moment for over a decade but the reward is marvelous. I mean, how many people get to have a career and, at the end of it, look back and say that they actually had a meaningful impact on the reputation and the standing of their own country in the world? I’m in awe that an event can do that. So for me, I was very proud to do it.”

He says the Canada we have today “is a little different than the one that went into the Games.”

Methinks Furlong’s modesty interferes with that statement. I’d say Canada is a lot different thanks to the legacy of Vancouver-Whistler and the people – with John Furlong at the helm – who deserve another rousing salute!

Visit John Furlong’s new website:  www.johnfurlong.ca