VANOC CEO John Furlong speaks at River Rock Casino newspaper conference

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Over 300 newspaper representatives filled the River Rock Show Theatre on day one of the INK+BEYOND 2011 conference for the anticipated AbitibiBowater Luncheon. The main attraction was keynote speaker John Furlong, former president and CEO of VANOC who organized the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Awaiting hungry guests were 28 tables adorned with cutlery, salads and complimentary copies of Furlong’s book Patriot Hearts. Peter Kvarnstrom of Glacier Media came on stage first to warm up the crowd, and also to present the $1,500 Edward Goff Penny Memorial Prize that is awarded to an exceptional young journalist between the ages of 20 and 25. Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star was the lucky recipient for the second year in a row, this time submitting several pieces on topics such as improper prison releases as well as land redevelopment and heritage preservation in Toronto.

Olympic memories

After an intermission while food was served, Bill Cooper took to the stage. He was previously director of commercial rights for VANOC, and admitted he was better known as the “logo cop” during the Olympics taking care of the Winter Games branding. He gave a short speech to introduce Furlong, who he described as being a “sports hero,” “nation builder” and a “truly inspiring leader.” A short video was also shown highlighting inspirational Canadian moments during the 2010 Games: an emotional Alexandre Bilodeau after winning gold in freestyle skiing; the men’s hockey team dog piling each other on the ice after the winning goal; Scott Moir twirling a radiant Tessa Virtue in the air during their ice dance performance.

Dressed in a dark suit and bright purple tie, Furlong is a charismatic man in his 60s with a commanding voice.

“If we succeeded in bringing the story of the Olympics to every front door, it was because of you,” Furlong said to a captivated audience. He spoke in length about the importance that Canadians played in making the games such a magical experience, and how important it was not just for Vancouver but the country as a whole.

Furlong also talked about the immense challenges that he and the entire planning committee faced making the games a reality.

“Everyone believed in this, we didn’t accept anything less. We needed to have people who saw this as something that really mattered.”

Recipe for success

He said they established a series of five core values that would come to represent what the Olympics stood for: teamwork, trust, excellence, creativity and sustainability.

The first two values came in the form of some 25,000 eager volunteers across Canada, most of whom Furlong said he had never met until they arrived for the dress rehearsal for the Opening Ceremonies. Handpicked and trained remotely, they were entrusted with the crucial tasks of running the games in which they were of course successful.

Excellence, Furlong said, was displayed by the immensely complex torch relay. Travelling first from Greece to Victoria, it went around the country and then back to Vancouver in just 106 days. He gave an anecdote of how during the entire relay, there was only one day off during Christmas Day when the torch was in London, Ontario. And even then, the torch bearers decided to share the flame with local hospitals and children. “You can sleep in March,” Furlong said he quipped to the bearers.

For creativity, it was best displayed by the ways VANOC tackled the snow (or lack thereof) problem.

“For one hundred years there was enough snow on the mountain, except our year,” said Furlong to laughter from the crowd. “It’s like God said ‘anyone can put on an Olympics with snow. Try none!’”

As a result, they came up with the idea to build walls made from bales of hay on the runs to prevent snow from falling off the sides, and then trucking in snow from Manning Park down Highway 1, he said.

Finally, Furlong referenced sustainability with the call he got about the tragic death of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice run. He said everyone felt a special connection with the accident, and talked about his own personal experiences with tragedies losing his cousin and father early on in his life. To move on from it he touched on the importance of leading by example and simply trying to “be a good human being.”

A country united

Furlong ended the luncheon with a short but inspiring quote.

“In the end, it wasn’t a few of us – it was all of us that did this. We did this together. This was our moment. This was one of those rare times, in our country, that we got to do something profound together and looked good on it. And that is what the world is talking about today — about what Canada did, not about what the people at Vancouver 2010 did.”

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