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Furlong preparing for Vancouver plebiscite on Games

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Seven years from this week Vancouver-Whistler Olympics would begin, but hurdles and opponents still to be overcome

Seven years from now millions of people all over the world could be tuning in to see an extravaganza of sport and entertainment as Vancouver hosts the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympic Games on the first Friday in February 2010.

But there are several large hurdles to clear before the Games come to town, including actually winning the right to host them this July in Prague.

Also looming large in the minds of many is the upcoming plebiscite in Vancouver, to be held Saturday, Feb.22.

The Vancouver City vote, the result of a municipal election promise by new Mayor Larry Campbell, is bewildering to many looking at Canada from overseas.

John Furlong, President and Chief Operating Officer at the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation, recently returned from a trip to Kuwait and London.

While in London he spent some time talking to media and top of the list of topics was what the plebiscite was all about.

"I did a lot of media work and most of that was related to the fact that there is a lot of misunderstanding out there about what is going on here in Vancouver, and I wanted to make sure people understood what was going on," said Furlong.

"People are concerned. You know we have been working hard on this for a number of years and it has got people a bit confused.

"I would never be prepared to admit this, but there are quite a few people in the international media who believe we are the front runner, so they don’t really quite understand why we are holding a plebiscite. They see us as having gone through this extraordinary building exercise and see us as having climbed a lot of mountains and built an incredible plan. They know that the technical work has been revered. They know we have a great country and great cities and they just don’t understand why we would do this.

"It isn’t, to be honest, the easiest story to tell."

Furlong said the bid corp. is looking on the bright side. It chooses to see the event as unique in Olympic history and one that will set a precedent if the result is a good one.

"If we are successful we will have done something that no one else has been able to do before and it will say something about us and that has got to be a good thing," said Furlong.

The international media aren’t the only ones watching.

The International Olympic Committee, responsible for choosing the winning candidate city, is also keeping an eye on the vote.

Recently Gerhard Heiberg, the head of the IOC’s evaluation commission, said while a no vote on the non-binding plebiscite wouldn’t kill Vancouver and Whistler’s chances it wouldn’t look good.

It would be pretty hard to award the Games to a city unless most of the population actually wanted them, said Heiberg.

The evaluation commission will be visiting Vancouver and Whistler from March 2 through the 5.

Furlong is planning on staying close to home for the next several weeks as the bid corp. works hard to get a positive result in the plebiscite.

Between now and Feb. 20 the bid corp. plans to hold seven information open houses in Vancouver.

"I think the IOC will watch this carefully and they will evaluate it," said Furlong.

"They will still do their own poll and they will judge it.

"I think most of the IOC members that I know just expect us to come through this. I think they feel that we have a pretty good bid and we have a good chance and I think a lot of them hope we will get through it."

The plebiscite will not only affect Vancouver and the bid. The results will also affect other communities involved with the bid, including the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

"This is the thing that I hope Vancouver will come to realize over the next few weeks," said Furlong.

"It is a partner with many others like the community of Whistler, which has contributed an enormously positive spin to this bid.

"…We will all own the result and so I think it is important for us all to care and do what we can to get the best result we can."

This week CBC hosted an information program on the Games and Furlong and several other stakeholders took part, including Whistler Mayor Hugh O’Reilly and Van Powel, one of the founders of a local information Web site on the 2010 Games ( www.whistlerolympicinfo.com) .

During the program The No 2010 Games Coalition’s Dr. Chris Shaw called into question the reliability of the Auditor General’s report on the cost of the Games.

Furlong was surprised.

"We agreed at one point that the Auditor General would be the person who would ultimately settle it for people and he did and he settled it very clearly and so for Dr.Shaw to bring the Auditor General into disrepute was really a very unfortunate thing," said Furlong.

Shaw couldn’t be reached for comment.

Furlong fully expects the IOC evaluation commission to make some arrangement to hear from those opposed to hosting the Games.

He hopes any protest will be peaceful.

"I would hope that people who decide to show their disapproval will do it within the law," said Furlong.

One protest group, Oust the Olympics or Out-O, has said it is planning a number of protests including "food activism" and blockades.

On its Web site Oust the Olympics states it is planning high-risk and low-risk actions under a campaign it’s terming "The Gloves Come Off."