VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - The man charged with making the Vancouver Winter Olympics a success knows there are some things out of his control.
John Furlong, chief executive officer of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games, admits that Canadians have to reach the podium for the event to be truly memorable.
“I would say 50 percent of the success of the project hinges on having a team that everybody sees as the team to beat,” he told Reuters recently in a wide-ranging interview.
Furlong is the first to concede that history has not been kind to Canadians when they have had the home-field advantage.
At the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, Canada failed to reach the top of the podium while winning just five medals. At the Montreal Summer Olympics in 1976, they won 11 medals but none of them were gold.
”Just thinking back to Italy (in 2006) when we were at the (Turin Winter) Games, speaking strictly as a Canadian, the next best thing to a Canadian winning a medal was when an Italian won a medal.
”There was just some sort of magic around that. We have not had great experiences at home at the Olympics. We haven’t won many medals.
”You would never build a great theatre, or a great cinema, without thinking about the programs, the activities or the films that you would put on.
“So this is about making sure that we are ready to deliver a great Games but also have a great team.”
Furlong said the best thing he could do to ensure the Canadians had an edge was to give the athletes a long training period at the Olympic venues.
”Today we’re in the happy position of being able to say that by the time the Beijing Olympics start (in August) all of the sport facilities for 2010 will be done and operational.
“That’s pretty unusual and quite an achievement. Now, the venues will start to have a life of their own. The athletes will now come out here and start to experience them.”
Furlong takes pride in how the venues were created in and around Vancouver, a picturesque seaport city in western Canada with a long history of environmentally concerned residents.
”There are three stadiums in Whistler Olympic Park right now,“ he said. ”You could almost be convinced that they had been gently dropped down into the environment.
”There’s no destruction. There have been no trips to the dump with big trucks taking stuff out of there. We wanted to leave the least amount of damage we possibly could.
“We were able to do that because we had time. And because we said we would.”
Furlong said the Olympic downhill course had been rerouted five times to help save a species of rare frog.
“We were literally getting down on our hands and knees and lifting these frogs out of the water and moving them to protected areas,” he said.
The Olympic courses won rave reviews from Alpine skiers who tried them out in four World Cup events last week.
The Games, however, are controversial to some.
With the opening ceremony still two years away, a clock in downtown Vancouver counting down the days has been splattered with paint several times by protesters.
“It’s frustrating,” admitted Furlong, adding that he believed his organization’s efforts were winning over most residents of British Columbia.
Furlong said the organizing committee was teaching local youths various trades at a Vancouver fabrication shop in an effort to keep them working past 2010.
“We’ve looked at it and said: ‘We’re only here once. Are there other things we can do to give this community a real sense of connection to the Games?”’ he said.
”We’re trying to use the glow of the Olympics to get more people working at a time when the construction industry is badly in need of men and women.
“We want to convince people that over time we’re doing the best we can to engage as many people as possible.”
Furlong, a 57-year-old former Canadian squash champion, said that unlike the Montreal and Calgary Games he wanted this effort to involve the entire nation.
”The Olympics are an enormous undertaking,“ he said. ”We’ll not likely see it again in Canada, certainly in my lifetime. We’re trying to make these Games about Canada instead of making it an event that only resonates locally.
”It’s a big job because Canada is six times the size of Europe. When you’re in Montreal, you’re almost closer to London than you are Vancouver.
“That raises challenges. We need to build the energy that will bring this country together. We need to show that everybody counts.”
Editing by Clare Fallon