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John Furlong

Vancouver 2010's organizing committee head reflects on the year



By Clare Ogilvie

He has been named one of the top 50 people of power in B.C. by Vancouver Magazine and the Globe and Mail has named him one of the top 25 people who most influenced sport in 2006. But if you ask John Furlong how he would like to be thought of he would likely answer you that it would be as someone who has made a difference in creating a human legacy from the Winter Olympic Games, which will be held in Vancouver and Whistler from Feb 12 to 28, 2010.

As CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee Furlong must answer the hard questions all year and keep his eye on the goal. This week Pique Newsmagazine chatted with him, as he looked back over 2006 and forward to 2007.

Pique: 2006 was a significant year for VANOC. Can you tell us about some of the milestones organizers passed and what you remember most?

John Furlong: We could go back and talk about 2006 for a long time.

The most revealing moments for me were human ones. You are doing this work every day and your head is down and you are solving problems and then something happens again and again and you are reminded about why you started in the first place.

Two examples that come to mind: I was walking in Pacific Centre mall a couple of months ago, I was keeping to myself, and suddenly I was standing in front of this mother and her daughter, and this little girl was telling me that she was keeping this scrap book on the Olympics and that she had been building it for three years. She was keeping her own history of the project and cutting things out of the papers everyday. While she has been doing that she has also been developing this plan where she is raising money through doing the shopping and cutting grass for family and neighbours and working whichever way she can to make money so she can buy a ticket to go to every single sport at the Games one time.

I am looking at this little girl, she is about 10 or 11, and I realize that everyone is watching and there are hopes and dreams in every home and everyone has got this sense that something pretty extraordinary is coming and they want to be a part of it.

This really reminds you where the higher values are with this.

Then in Kelowna, a few months ago… I was at the airport ready to come back and I was sitting in the corner on my own reading the Globe and Mail and this elderly gentleman came over and he sort of tipped the newspaper away from the front of my face and he said, ‘you’re John Furlong right?’ I said yes. ‘You’re the guy with the Olympic Games?’ and I said, ‘yes, I am. I hope that is a good thing.’

And he looked at me and he said, ‘this entire generation of British Columbians will be measured by the performance of your committee.’ And I started to realize in many ways it is true when you see the scope of the Games and think of the three-plus billion people who will watch it around the world. They will look and they will watch and they will judge all of us and it is why it is so important that we are successful at building this sense of teamwork that we are all in this together.

All of the other challenges, meeting deadlines and reports being made public, and the finances of the Games, they are all things that happen to every big project that comes along. But what we are trying to do here is leave an extraordinary human legacy and when I hear (those types of thoughts) I feel like what we are doing is being validated.

Pique: There were significant challenges in 2006, such as securing new funding from the provincial and federal governments. What are some of the challenges you expect in 2007?

JF: I think 2007 is the year in which the real heavy lifting for construction has to be finished. We have put a flag down that the projects in Whistler will be completed in the fall of 2007. That is a promise we have made and we need to get those venues completed, get them done, completed, open and get athletes on to them. We need to send a loud message to the community that we are on time and on budget and we need to get the athlete strategy up and moving and get the athletes out here to feel and touch the venues so they can properly prepare for 2010.

We have put ourselves under such pressure to be done early… so people are watching and this is how the world tends to judge the performance of the organizing committee — how it does its venue program, how it completes the venues, so that is obviously a very important thing.

Pique: How do you expect the hot labour market and high construction costs to influence that?

JF: We have been fortunate that the contractors we have, have really adapted to the vision we have and they recognize that these projects are critical to the success of the Games. They are on the team and they are very focused on what it is they have to do and they are meeting the challenge head on.

We have not had challenges with people coming to work and we have not had challenges with small crews. In fact to the contrary, I have been out on the sites in Whistler quite a bit in the last few months and there is a high level of inspiration and a high level of awareness of what they are doing. And it is not just what they are doing, as in pouring concrete, building fences, and cutting trails, these people know that they are working for Canada, that they are building a venue that the world is watching and where their progress is being checked every single day.

There was a lot of talk at the beginning of the project that we would suffer but to be fair I think we have done quite well.

Pique: 2007 will also see the release of the long awaited VANOC business plan. Why is it significant?

JF: (It) is important because it is the lock on the door of the project. It sort of frames everything up. It is the plan to the finish line, with enough flexibility, with enough contingencies in it to protect against eventualities and things that might occur along the way.

For the community it will be a chance to really see the project in all of its scope, and size with all of the elements. I mean, we are talking about plans in 53 distinct functions all of which are integrated, so it will really package it all for everyone and really paint a picture of what the road ahead looks like step by step, mile by mile, minute by minute. That is obviously very important and from then on the community will be able to take the pulse of the project a lot more easily.

It is necessary because this accountability is one of the things that drives the organizing committee to get the work done, to meet the milestones, to surpass expectations, and so on. Anyone who thinks we are going to go all the way to the finish line and not make a few mistakes, they are wrong. We will. There will be some, but it will be in the open and the mistakes will be balanced against the successes and the wins.

So clearly it will put it up to the organizing committee to deliver emphatically against those milestones. But I think that is the sort of pressure an organizing committee needs to be under.

We don’t have the opportunity to delay the start of this by five minutes. We have to be very efficient and effective at moving the plan along. So the pressure is good for us. (The plan) though it really is a way to communicate the magnitude and the scope. I think one of the biggest challenges we have is trying to explain all the elements to people. I think there are many people who still think of the Games as a whole series of world championships. It really isn’t. It is a whole series of world championship to the power of 10.

It is not easy and we haven’t done it before so this plan will really drive home the complexity and what it is the organizing committee has to contend with on the way through.

Pique: Is accommodation still an issue in the Sea to Sky corridor for 2007?

JF: We have just come back from Lausanne… and we have gone through our project review, we had a good year, and the only issue that has been sitting on the blotter beside Vancouver’s name is the shortage of accommodation in the corridor. Across the rest of the project we are getting glowing reports, high accolades, lots of compliments.

This is one we really have to be focused on. We need to substantially bring this one under control by mid-year.

We were given fair warning a long time ago by the commission that more and more people would want to stay in Whistler. All you have to do is go to Whistler to see that it is a magnificent area. It is one of the more compact areas to ever stage the Games.

Clearly it is just not OK to say well that is too bad, we don’t have enough room, people will have to stay in Vancouver, or Squamish, or Pemberton, or somewhere else. We have to try to find a way to make sure that every bed, every room, every available piece of accommodation is part of the solution. That is work we have to do and it is not work we can do alone. It is work that everybody has to rally around. We need everybody to be engaged in this; there is a lot at stake. So it is a big challenge and every organizing committee has had it, but in this case, because all of the mountain events are centred on one place and not spread out, it is probably a more significant one.

The solution to this is literally going to be person by person. I think we have to find a way to get every person in the community to contribute to this. We have to look at this and find a way to get everybody to care about it to look at it as a significant thing to recognize that there is a huge advantage to this long term if we respond well to this.

We are looking at all kinds of ways to solve this. We are looking at temporary facilities, we are looking at home-stay, everything because we need to.

It takes sometimes a little bit of a crisis to get everybody to get focused and I think this is the one area that I think we have been a little bit slower than it might have been.

We just met last week with the broadcasters in Lausanne and it is a big issue for everybody.

The last thing you want to have to do is move people those distances every day. It is one thing to move somebody who is going once for an event but to have to move them again and again is something we would rather not do.

Pique: What else will we see in 2007?

JF: This year the things that you will see a lot of progress on are things like the torch relay plan, the ticketing plan, and by this time next year we will have met the mascot or mascots and that program will be launched.

The project will start to come alive because you will see the venues and you will start to feel the effect of the project on people. The excitement will grow and the awareness is growing.

We are well past the honeymoon phase where you go through a lot of time when you are planning and thinking and searching for solutions and then you have to start digging and building and erecting… This will be a year that a lot of that is pulled together and once we are passed 2007 it will be getting to that stage where we are thinking of moving people out of this building and into venues to start operating them and so on, so it is moving very quickly.

Pique: What would you like for the holidays?

JF: Oh dear, I hadn’t really thought about it. You know what I want, a week for me to read and catch up and rest and come back rejuvenated. I just want to stop for a few minutes and put my feet up and finish all the books I am reading and come back in the New Year recognizing we will have passed another milestone.