John Furlong says that when he first started working on Vancouver’s bid for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, he never thought he would end up being the person in charge.
Then came the phone call.
After securing the bid, Furlong got a call telling him that the board of directors for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics organizing committee (VANOC) had chosen him as CEO, making him the point man for staging the Games and managing a multi-billion-dollar budget.
“I kind of thought that was quite a moment for me in my life,” he recalls. “To get that call. I mean, there’s not a job in sports bigger than this. I remember putting the phone down thinking, ‘Wow.'”
At first, Furlong was an unwilling candidate for the job.
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“First of all, I wasn’t born in Canada,” the Irish-born Furlong said. “I think I may be the first guy ever that can actually say that he wasn’t born in the country that the Games were staged and became the leader of the project.
“I never really thought about it. I just thought I had an obligation to help.”
Furlong was aware that there were people who questioned if he was the right man for the job.
Chief among them was Dick Pound, the veteran International Olympic Committee member who played a key role in bringing the Games to Vancouver.
Not long after receiving the call saying he had the VANOC CEO job, he got another call from a newspaper reporter.
“The Vancouver Sun basically had quoted Dick Pound as having said they picked the wrong guy — this is not right.”
In the article, Pound is quoted as saying Furlong was “unqualified” to run such a large event, and that then-B.C. premier Gordon Campbell “rigged” the process to get Furlong the job.
Furlong can’t remember exactly what he said to the reporter when asked for comment, “but it was something to the effect of, ‘I think I’ll let the work do the talking.’
“But I was stunned and disappointed and hurt. There’s just no other way to say it.”
After a rocky start, Furlong says he got down to the Herculean task of putting together an Olympiad.
Among his many responsibilities was organizing the torch relay, something he approached with relish.
The 106-day, 45,000-kilometre relay visited every Canadian province and territory, making it the longest in Olympic history.
“There’s no question that John Furlong was the driver of covering every corner of the country,” former VANOC deputy CEO Dave Cobb said.
“The vision of the Games, that was John. He just believed this was the opportunity to unite our country.”
In fact, the only memento Furlong has kept from the Games is the lantern that took the Olympic flame from the sacred grove in Olympia, Greece to the airplane on its way to Canada.
“I look at it and I think about all these things that took place and all the wonderful stories brought this all together,” Furlong said.
“It’s a priceless thing.”
The lantern also reminds him of Jack Poole, the head of the VANOC bid committee who helped bring the Games to Vancouver and Whistler.
Furlong says when he was in the grove for the beginning of the torch relay, he called Poole.
“Jack was very sick and dying at the time,” Furlong said.
“And I told Jack that I was going to phone him from there and give him a play-by-play over the phone.”
Poole passed away a short time later.
“To me, I think Jack decided — I’ll always believe this — that his work was done. It was OK to go, he was very sick.”
Following the Games, Furlong faced a personal controversy.
In 2012, a published article accused Furlong of verbal and physical abuse of First Nations students in northern B.C. decades ago.
Furlong dropped his defamation lawsuit against journalist Laura Robinson, so the allegations have not been tested in court. Robinson lost her own defamation suit against Furlong in the fall of 2015, with a judge ruling her reporting constituted an attack on his character.
RCMP said an investigation into abuse allegations concluded without charges.
In 2014, he made headlines again when he was dropped as keynote speaker from a UBC fundraiser because of the allegations.
He was later reinstated after receiving an apology from the university’s president.
In a 2015 speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade, Furlong described the years-long ordeal as “a very lonely and difficult time.”
Furlong told the crowd that as an Irish immigrant, he always wanted to prove he was worthy of being Canadian.
“So when the sky fell for me and for our family, I felt in a way I was being accused of letting the country down,” he said.
As he sits in the Richmond Olympic Oval, Furlong reflects on the legacy of the Games and the mark it has left on the region.
He sees the oval, which was home to speed skating during the Games and is now a multi-sport venue, as a perfect example of the Games’ legacy — a well-used and versatile space that has served its community for more than a decade.
“This was not an accident, this was a plan,” he said.
“We always tend to use grand words around the Olympics, but we’re sitting in a building that is frankly the best building in the world of its kind. And you just look around and you can see why it can take so many groups and different sports at the same time.
“There’s a real atmosphere. It’s a happy place. It’s doing very well. The business case has been proven to be solid.”
As the 10th anniversary of the Games approaches, Furlong says he can’t help but see reminders of the Games everywhere.
“Every day in Vancouver, it is really hard to not wake up and not have a flashback. It was so big and so overwhelming and it physically altered the state of the city and the way we all behave,” he said.
“It’s always there.”
— With files from Chris Gailus and The Canadian Press