I should probably preface this review of John Furlong’s book by noting that since 2009 I’ve been repeating and proliferating the following mantra:
the Olympics were here because Vancouver is awesome.
I’ve said it on TV and in radio interviews, tweeted it, posted it on this blog multiple times and as the sentiment has been reposted through social media by literally hundreds of people I’d like to think that it’s not only caught on, but that’s it’s something that people agree with. It’s not saying I don’t love what the Games brought here, in fact I have a personal history working with the Olympics on the fringes, co-curating an art show called Lightning Bolts for Nike during the Beijing Olympics, helping to introduce the sport and culture of BMX to the Summer Games as it made it’s debut there in 2008. I can say with all of my heart that I appreciate and support the Olympic movement, warts and all, and that it was and is my intention with this mantra to mount a preemptive (now postemptive, if that’s a word) strike on the massive Olympic hangover that was predicted for our city (which, go figure, has yet to materialize). What I mean by it is that we must never lose sight of the fact that while for most the Games were an absolutely incredible experience which we as Canadians might never match in our lifetime, the magic and the beauty of this amazing place where we all choose to live is what brought them here in the first place. Had I been privy to the inner workings of the Games ahead of time I might have written in there somewhere that John Furlong and his team practically killed themselves to bring them here, and that by their very design they were meant to unite a country as it had never been united before but I didn’t have a grasp on that before I read this book. And even if I did, it just wouldn’t have had the same ring to it, you know?
John Furlong has been living and working in British Columbia since 1974, longer than I’ve been alive. An Irishman who emigrated to Canada early in his career, he worked on the Northern Games, the BC Games and then the Canada Games, and you now know him as the most prominent member of the organizing committee who brought us the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. He was the face, and the CEO, of VANOC.
The story that John tells in Patriot Hearts, while offering intimate details on the dealings behind the scenes of the Games, is a deeply personal one. With the help of award winning writer, Gary Mason, he brings us inside the original bid for Vancouver to host the Winter Olympics whose idea was sparked 14 years ago and was then relayed through a decade and a half by John, his good friend Jack Poole and their team all the way to ignition in that cauldron in Coal Harbour. And while it’s the “the story of how they did it” (“they” being the original team who secured the Games with John and then VANOC which produced them with him at the helm) perhaps what I like the most about Patriot Hearts is that it reads as a memoir and tells how John did it, and how he made it through.
The book speaks of John’s early life in Ireland and his coming to Canada, how he was once a competitive athlete himself, how he worked his way up over the years, how he flew literally 2,000,000 kilometres while securing the bid, how he handled the pressures of the media, friends deaths, being the one everybody blamed whenever things went awry, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s tragic death, how he managed teams and aligned strategic partnerships and most of all how he believed in the power of sport to change this country for the better. As well he comes with a candidacy you might not think he would; from his previously unspoken problems with politicians “politicking” to the more public issues involving Chris Shaw and the British press, he pulls no punches. He talks about his struggle with the French language and the hell he caught for it, about exactly how the Bay took out Roots as a sponsor and similarly how CTV took out CBC as a broadcast partner all the while noting that “The Olympics have their flaws and have sometimes been dogged by scandal, this we know. But at the core is something good, with the potential to be life changing, something with the power to unite a nation as it had ours. You can’t say that about a lot of things today”.
After making my way through Patriot Hearts over the past couple of weeks, opening it up exactly one year after the Games started and turning the last page almost 17 days later, I can honestly say that there’s no better way to relive the Games than by reading about them from a different perspective while having some of the brightest (and the not-so-brightest) moments of them expanded on and sometimes even walked through in these pages. We can gather in the streets dressed in red to play street hockey in “Relive It” celebrations year after year (I did just that this year and I will do it again next year and the next!) but nothing will ever come close to repeating those magical days in 2010, and none will ever come as close to the experience as the CEO of VANOC did.
Thank you, Mr Furlong, for your incredible work in bringing the Olympics to Vancouver, and for sharing your experiences in this book with us. But don’t ever forget…