Olympic tragedy galvanized VANOC

By BOB MACKIN, QMI Agency

VANCOUVER - Organizers of the 2010 Winter Olympics were unprepared for an athlete dying, but the tragedy that marred the Games’ opening day galvanized VANOC, according to its chief executive.

“We had tested for everything, this was not one of those things,” John Furlong said in his last annual address to the Vancouver Board of Trade on Friday. “We tested for every conceivable thing that could happen to us so that we could know what to do if it happened during the Games.”

Furlong said he vividly remembers the phone call from his deputy Dave Cobb about 21-year-old luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s serious training crash at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Feb. 12. Furlong said he felt “complete helplessness” and prayed the next phone call would bear good news about the Georgian’s condition. It was not to be.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time.

El Nino-influenced warm temperatures were wreaking havoc at snowboarding and freestyle skiing venue Cypress Mountain. Buses were breaking down. The Olympic torch relay was drawing tens of thousands of people to downtown Vancouver. Thousands of protesters were marching on streets to oppose the Games.

“The ceremonies were just hours away and yet for a minute it felt like we were starting again,” Furlong said. “We had something that changed absolutely everything.”

Furlong said “our humanity needed to be our primary compass, we needed to lead with our hearts.”

That showed on Feb. 15 in the faces of police officers who came unannounced to a memorial service for Kumaritashvili in a Vancouver funeral home.

“I went over to talk to them, thank them for coming out, every one of those officers was in tears,” Furlong said. “We realized every Canadian was ready to play a role in making this the most incredible experience.”

The fall 2008 economic meltdown, the summer 2009 sudden death of designer Leo Obstbaum and the cancer death of chairman Jack Poole in fall 2009 similarly strengthened the organization, Furlong said.

Vancouverites heeded warnings to leave their cars at home and take public transit. More than 100,000 flag-waving pedestrians jammed streets every night. Television and Internet viewership set records in Canada and elsewhere. Canada ended with a Winter Games record 14 gold medals.

“Mark my words, someday historians will look back at Canada’s growing strength in the 21st century and say that it began right here on the west coast with the best Winter Games the world has ever seen,” Furlong said.

While Vancouverites consider the cost of the Games -- $554.3 million according to a Thursday city council report -- Furlong said the few staff that remain at VANOC are too busy to publish any more quarterly financial reports. He said the final report in October is expected to be balanced.

“We did our best, we gave this everything we had.”

Furlong said later he has received job offers but has no immediate career plans.

“I can say for sure I’m probably going to do some writing, that’s a pretty strong possibility,” Furlong said. “I’ve had a lot of calls, I haven’t said yes or no to anything, I’m too tired, really.”

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