John Furlong was stunned Premier Gordon Campbell was forced from office by the political maelstrom over the harmonized sales tax so soon after overseeing a wildly successful 2010 Winter Olympics.
The former boss of the Vancouver Games, who released his memoir Patriot Hearts on the Olympic anniversary, said he didn’t immediately realize at the time in late October that Campbell was in the midst of resigning.
“I think history will see him as a great man,” Furlong said in an interview with Black Press, calling public opposition to the HST an unfortunate misunderstanding.
“I do believe in his heart he was trying to do a good thing and improve the quality of life in this province and create a more prosperous future, which has always been his focus.”
Campbell was a relentlessly energetic supporter of the Games and a wellspring of ideas and advice for VANOC, he added.
“He was always there for us,” Furlong said. “He wanted this to be about every citizen in the province.”
Furlong’s book airs his frustrations with other politicians, including “moments” of disagreement with federal heritage minister James Moore and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who talked his way into the torch-lighting ceremony in Greece.
“If there was one politician I had a real dustup with it was (former Vancouver Mayor) Larry Campbell, who decided he was going to have a plebiscite with just four months to go before the decision on the Games,” Furlong recalls.
A “screaming match” ensued with the then-mayor sticking firmly to his position he’d promised the referendum to Vancouver voters and was going to deliver it.
“In the end, even though we were angry at each other, he ultimately made us a better organization because we had to go win that plebiscite and demonstrate in Canada why we deserved to do this.”
Furlong said he had no difficulty when he approached Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts about Surrey taking an active role in the Games.
“It took about 15 seconds, the lights went on and she was right there,” he said. “She was a champion who spoke eloquently about the Games and did all kinds of things in the community.”
Olympic live sites, free concerts, pavillions and other cultural events were critical in helping defuse the sense of some locals that the Olympics were an unaffordable playground for the elite and affluent.
“It was a huge impact because it caused the city to fill up every night,” Furlong said. “The cultural Olympiad in many ways was bigger than the Games, in fact overshadowed the Games.”
He marvelled at people who would line up for hours to enter sponsor tents, provincial houses or ride the Robson Square zip line.
“It was important that downtown Vancouver was like a very big arena,” he said.
It meant people weren’t just watching as spectators but living the experience.
“When (International Olympic Committee president) Jacques Rogge said the Olympics can never go back from this, they were talking about this pouring into the streets of people, not just in Vancouver and Whistler and Surrey and Richmond but across the country. This happened everywhere. This happened in Toronto and Montreal and Halifax and Grand Prairie.”
More Q & A with John Furlong:
What was the turning point in preparing for the Games?
As the early 2010 winter weather warmed to spring-like conditions and snow quickly turned to dirt on Cypress Mountain, Furlong headed up the hill daily to monitor his very stressed team battling the conditions.
“After four or five days of going up and down, the fellow running the crew up there said ‘John, stop coming up. We won’t let you down. We’re going to deliver this venue. We will find the snow. We will make the conditions right and we will deliver the Games. We are not going to be the ones who fail. You can count on it.’ I realized this was the spirit. This was the heart and soul of what we were about.”
Best Games moment – other than Canada’s golden goal in men’s hockey?
“Watching my children sit on the edge of the rink looking at Joannie Rochette win a bronze medal (in figure skating days after her mother’s death) and realizing they’ll never see a better example in their lifetime of how to overcome adversity.”
Worst moment – other than the luge tragedy?
“Losing my friend Jack Poole.”
Best possible legacy of the Games?
“A human one. It’s this indelible spirit we have. I think the country lifted itself a bit. And I hope we will build on this. We found a way to show ourselves to the world on our own terms. Canada came out a little taller. It feels good. I think from here on in many Canadians will feel we can compete with anyone and win and we belong out there.”
How can Metro Vancouver recapture the same energy in future events?
“It’s critical to have a vision… When you’re doing something you should try to do as much good as you can while you can. So often events get organized without any thought of who they affect and who should be involved.”