Ring Master

At the start, few thought VANOC head John Furlong could pull off the 2010 Games. If only they'd realized the man had something to prove

January 2, 2010

By Gary Mason

The year was 1982. John Furlong was the director of parks and recreation for the district of Nanaimo. It was the era when “So You Think You’re Tough” amateur fight nights were held in small arenas across the country. And in Nanaimo there was a local fighter who’d built a bit of a legend for himself. His name was Gordie Racette.

Racette was a real-life Rocky—security guard by day, by night a brawler who’d rather die in the ring than quit. Furlong had an idea: get reigning Canadian heavyweight champ Trevor Berbick to come to Nanaimo and fight Racette for the national title. It would be held at Frank Crane arena and it would be a smash hit. At least in Furlong’s mind.

“So I jet off to Halifax to meet with Berbick and his lawyers and, honestly, I was completely out of my league,” the president and CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee recalls, some 27 years later. “I mean, I was 31 years old at the time. So we all meet in this hotel room and I make an offer and everyone starts laughing and saying they’d need way more than that.”

Furlong bumped up his purse, but not by much. Berbick would get $100,000 and Racette $30,000. It would be the richest purse in Canadian boxing history. Final offer. And if they didn’t take it in five minutes, Furlong would pack up and leave. Berbick’s camp said no deal.

“So I leave,” Furlong continues. “It’s like 4 in the morning and my flight leaves at 9, so I go to my room and hop in the shower. I’m not in there five seconds when there’s a loud banging on my door. I get out and it’s one of Berbick’s people. He’s a monster, standing there looking at this dripping wet thing standing in front of him. He says they want to talk.”

Furlong went back downstairs and Berbick’s lawyers again started haggling over their client’s take. “So I say, ‘That’s it,’ and get up to leave. And right then Berbick walks over and signs the contract. I couldn’t believe it.”

On a chilly night in March, Berbick and Racette entered the ring in front of a sold-out crowd. “It turned out to be a great evening,” says Furlong, sitting in the lounge at the Wedgewood Hotel. “We insisted the media wear black tie. The only one who refused was Neil Macrae. We told him he had to or he wasn’t getting in. So he did. Looking back on the whole event it was a bit risky. I remember sweating a bit at the time, but it worked.”

Furlong takes a long sip of soda water. The man responsible for putting together the largest sporting event in Canadian history—make that the largest event, period—is sweating once again, and hoping for another happy ending. He knows there’s only so much he can control. It’s the things he can’t—the weather, the freak death of a protester, the performance of the Canadian athletes, the ambitions of a nutbar who decides to use the Olympics as a stage to act out some deranged fantasy—that people may end up remembering. You never know.

Furlong’s approach to such uncertainties isn’t merely to put his head down and keep working; it’s to throw every ounce of his being into a job many thought he wasn’t up to. It wasn’t just IOC director Dick Pound who famously voiced doubts about Furlong’s abilities to take on such a daunting assignment, it was half the city’s business community. Furlong has never made a secret of the fact that Pound’s comments in February 2004 hurt deeply. They came out the day before the government was to announce Furlong as the president and CEO of VANOC—this, after he’d successfully led the city’s bid for the Games.

While Pound was certainly uncouth and exhibited terrible judgment, his misgivings weren’t totally unwarranted. Furlong’s last job had been as CEO of the Arbutus Club. Yes, he’d done a great job there, taking a struggling private recreational complex with a declining membership and making it into one that soon had a waiting list. But a complicated, constantly evolving operation involving billions of dollars and requiring a deft political touch it was not.

“If you look just on the surface of John’s résumé, I think you can understand where Dick was coming from,” says Dave Cobb, VANOC’s vice-president of marketing. “I certainly think that in the back of John’s mind he was determined to prove Dick wrong. I think he used it as a positive and an additional motivator.”

For his part, Pound has long since admitted his mistake and now acknowledges that Furlong has done a masterful job as CEO. When the Olympics have wrapped up, Furlong will have joined an exclusive club: people who’ve been presidents of an organizing committee from start to finish. Most governments use the position as a political appointment, anointing someone because of their connections and loyalties rather than their professional attributes. That wasn’t the case with Furlong, who was the hand-picked choice of the late VANOC chair Jack Poole, not Premier Gordon Campbell.


Poole told me not long before his death in October that he knew after his first meeting with Furlong—held on the morning the World Trade Towers were attacked in 2001—that he was the person to take charge of such a massive undertaking. “We met in the offices at Concert [Properties, the development firm he founded] and about 10 minutes into the conversation I remember thinking ‘Where has this guy been all my life?’ One of the gifts God gave me was the ability to recognize talent. This guy was a superstar. It was obvious. And I could tell he was competitive and had the stamina necessary to bring this thing home.”

Competitive, for sure: the Irish-born-and -raised Furlong was a talented athlete in three sports: basketball, handball, and Gaelic football, in which, as a 17-year-old, he competed before audiences of 100,000 people or more. As for stamina, it’s a must. The second reason most Olympic CEOs don’t last from start to finish is that it’s a daunting assignment, both physically and mentally. It can take a toll on everything from your health to your personal life. And when these Games conclude, John Furlong will have suffered some damage on both fronts.

Furlong hit the wall last December. For a week he lay in bed, too weak to even answer the door. He was spent. In the weeks prior, he had looked increasingly pale and tired. His staff privately expressed concern over the insane pace he’d been keeping. (Furlong still doesn’t get the sleep he needs. Part of the problem is his insistence on leaving his BlackBerry on at night. He does this, he says, in case of emergencies. But what it means is that he hears the constant buzzing of incoming messages).

After his December collapse, Furlong adopted a strict fitness regime, cycling or working out in the gym. It has helped to replenish his energy. He’s eating better, too. In the last two years he’s also had to have six lesions removed from his face and four from his arm. Fortunately, they turned out to be benign.

On the personal front, the job has also taken a grim toll. His marriage to Gail Robb, his second wife, ended a few years ago. The job has also cost him time with his 14-year-old daughter, Molly, whom Furlong beams about. There are four other children, adults now, whom he hasn’t seen nearly enough of in recent years. Which means he hasn’t seen much of his nine grandchildren either. The truth is, Furlong has had no personal life to speak of for the better part of six years. Still, he’ll tell you he has no regrets. He took on a once-in-a-lifetime assignment determined to see it through to the end.

Talk to those who have worked most closely with the man, people like Dave Cobb, and they’ll tell you that what Furlong does best is inspire his troops. Cobb says he’s never seen anything like it. His boss will give talks to VANOC’s executive team that help them buy into his grand vision for the Games: in his mind these Olympics are as much about nation-building as winning medals. Along the way, Cobb says, Furlong has fostered a fierce loyalty among his lieutenants.

Furlong can inspire a crowd, too. Michael Graydon, president and CEO of the BC Lottery Corp., remembers a Furlong speech in Saskatoon three years ago. “I’ll never forget it,” Graydon recalled recently. “I was sitting there listening to this guy and I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. I couldn’t believe it.” Graydon says the time he’s spent in Furlong’s company has made him feel “like I’m in the presence of someone great, unique—someone who doesn’t come around all that often.”

It might astonish those who have heard Furlong in full oratorical flight to learn that he’s an extreme introvert, about as reserved and retiring as they come. The man holds one of the most public, high-profile jobs in the country yet hates attention, doesn’t like getting up in front of crowds, and often feels physically sick hours before mounting the stage.

Furlong says he cringes when people approach him in restaurants or on the street. (He tells a funny story about being in the checkout line at an Overwaitea. His head was down and collar up, but an elderly woman recognized him. “I just hope people are telling you every day what a great job you’re doing and how proud we all are of you.” Furlong could feel the presence of someone behind him; he turned to find himself facing a guy who was at least six-four and 250 pounds. “And I think you’re a complete bloody asshole,” the hulk said.)

Those who have worked closest with Furlong over the last several years will tell you stories of the man’s legendary generosity. One such tale involves a fellow by the name of Neil Earl.

Tricia Buckley, Furlong’s executive assistant for four years, says that Earl, an employee of a Canadian Tire outlet in Stoney Creek, Ontario, is an Olympic trivia buff with special needs. In 2006, Buckley says, Earl’s boss paid for him to come to Vancouver to tour the venues and to meet the Games’ head honcho.


The pair had a great visit and Furlong presented his new friend with an armful of Olympic clothing. Over the next couple of years, Earl would regularly email Furlong with questions and random thoughts on a million different matters. Fast-forward to this fall. Earl applies to be a torchbearer. He is crestfallen that he doesn’t get picked. Furlong finds out and decides, for once, to exercise his clout.

He phones Earl’s boss and tells him to put his friend on speakerphone.

“Neil,” Furlong says. “Are you sitting down? You’re going to be one of the torchbearers when the flame comes to Stoney Creek.”

Silence.

“Are you there, man?” Furlong asks.

“Mr. Furlong,” Earl finally answers. “You have made me the happiest person in the world. I won’t let you down.”

“Get your sneakers on then,” Furlong tells him. “And start training.”

Being able to bring such happiness to people, corny as it might sound, has been one of the highlights of the job, Furlong will tell you. And it has certainly helped to compensate for those moments that haven’t been as cheery: the controversies that have tested his leadership mettle.

Up until the Olympic Village financing scandal broke, VANOC really hadn’t faced a major controversy. The venues had been built on time and mostly on budget. VANOC’s sponsorship drive was a record-breaking success. Things were quiet—almost too quiet.

And then last fall the problems began. The implosion of Lehmann Brothers precipitated the collapse of the world economy, which created any number of problems for VANOC. From September onward Furlong and his team were revising their budget almost daily. Then the revelation that the City of Vancouver was bailing out the developer of the Olympic Village prompted questions about how much these Games were really costing. Pretty much everything from the Canada Line to new lamp posts were being thrown into the equation. Furlong was being asked to defend spending billions on the Games when the world was on the cusp of the Great Depression II. Throw in the imbroglio surrounding efforts by female ski jumpers to participate in the Games and 2009 was pretty much an annus horribilis for the Olympic CEO.

Years from now, however, many will still marvel at how someone with little top-rung executive experience managed to keep a billion-dollar-plus-project on track amid one of the harshest and most sudden economic downturns in the last 80 years. Organizing an Olympics is hard enough when the economy is humming. Try doing it as sponsorship money dries up and disposable income evaporates and it becomes another thing entirely.

“Just think about all the suppliers and contractors you need to put something like this on,” Furlong tells me one day over lunch. “All those companies associated with delivering Olympic services have banks and they all need credit so they can get the things they need to deliver the services they’re responsible for. Because of this recession we’ve almost had to become their banker because the banks aren’t prepared to lend the money. Why would they want to take big risks at this time?”

You need listen to Furlong talk about only one tiny planning aspect to understand what an organizational and logistical nightmare 2010 really is. Take the company that won the contract for cleaning and waste disposal. They didn’t have the workers necessary to carry out such a massive job, so they had to build a workforce. They’ll have to get many of those workers out of bed in Vancouver at 4:30 in the morning to get them up to Whistler. Then back down the mountain at the end of the day. For 17 days straight. And then figure out what to do with all the inventory they’ve built up—like hundreds of port-a-johns—that they’ll no longer need. “And that’s just one thing,” says Furlong. “Multiply that thousands of times and you begin to get the idea.”

Ask Furlong what keeps him up at night and you don’t get the answer you’d expect. It’s not General Motors reneging on its commitment at the last minute; it’s not a lack of snow in the mountains in February; it’s not a massive rockslide that closes the Sea to Sky Highway. No, what keeps the Olympic leader up at night is the constant challenge of inspiring his troops. “My job is to make sure we’re focused and the organization is healthy and that everyone believes we’ll get through the challenges and the inevitable valleys and that the Games will be inspiring and uplifting and make us feel great as a nation,” Furlong says. “So what keeps me awake is the worry I’m not doing that, inspiring my gang. I can’t afford to have a down day because we need, as an organization, to be going at full speed all the time. And you need to be charged up all the time to do that.”

What Furlong doesn’t spend much time worrying about are critics who believe that he hasn’t lived up to his public commitments. This group would include Chris Shaw, author of Five Ring Circus and a constant burr under Furlong’s saddle, and David Eby, of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “VANOC’s growing disconnect from the real people who live and work in Vancouver has not served it well in efforts to build trust,” says Eby. “Under Mr. Furlong’s model of community relations, VANOC’s communications with the public is now relegated to damage control. It’s difficult to find much positive to say about Mr. Furlong’s tenure except that he’s done a wonderful job protecting VANOC from accountability and transparency.”

It’s far easier to find those who feel Furlong has carried out the challenge he was given almost six years ago with great skill and leadership. René Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation and the IOC’s main point person for the 2010 Olympics, admits that not many people gave Furlong a chance of lasting as Olympic boss to the end. “And I believe he did it because of two things: he’s a great, great communicator, and he’s not afraid to listen to others. The other thing is John put together an extraordinary team and let it do its job.”

Gordon Campbell says one of the characteristics of great leaders is the confidence to surround themselves with talented people. “Which is exactly what John did,” the premier says. “And he has a passion for excellence he pursues relentlessly. I think he and Jack Poole have done an amazing job, right from the beginning.”

When the Games have come and gone, Furlong will have been at this Olympic thing for 14 years. And now that it’s concluding, Furlong can afford to be reflective. When he thinks about how wonderful it’s all going to be, he’s sorry he won’t be able to share the moment with his father. John Furlong, Sr., died in 1974, a month after a car bomb planted by the Ulster Volunteer Force killed John Jr.’s then-19-year-old cousin. John Sr. later died of a massive heart attack his son believes was precipitated, in part, by Siobhan Roice’s death. John Sr.’s death prompted John Jr. to leave Ireland for Canada. An immigration officer in Edmonton welcomed him with the words “Make us better.”

“I remember the last conversation I had with my dad,” Furlong says. “He was lying on his death bed. He was in a coma. He literally hadn’t opened his eyes in 12 hours, and then he did. He looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here? You have things to do. You should be elsewhere taking care of things.’ ” Furlong pauses. “One of my last talks with him, he said, ‘We sent you to good schools. We taught you the difference between right and wrong. You know that if something isn’t yours, you shouldn’t take it. But all those things together aren’t going to make you a success. What’s going to separate you from the others is how hard you’re prepared to work. Never forget that.’ ”

Furlong has a good memory.

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