"Welcome to Canada - make us better" were the now famous words uttered by the Immigration Agent at Edmonton airport in 1974 as he beckoned John Furlong and his young family onto Canadian soil. Like many an immigrant before and after him, Furlong has indeed made Canada better, although few have done so on such a scale.
John Furlong was born in Clonmel in 1950, the third child in a family of five boys and one girl. His father, Jack was with the Irish Prison Service, his mother Maureen the home-maker. The family lived for a while in PortLaoise before eventually settling in Dublin where Jack became Governor at Mountjoy Prison.
John's first exposure to the magic of sport was as a 14 year old, mesmerized by the Tokyo Olympics and in particular the 10,000 metre win by Native American, Billy Mills. From that point he was hooked, excelling at both Gaelic Football and Basketball at St. Vincent's CBS in Glasnevin, where coincidentally he was a class mate of the 2010 Irish Person of the Year, Ambassador Declan Kelly. He played Senior Football with Dublin in the early 1970's and represented Ireland in both Basketball and European Handball. He also served as Coach of the Irish ladies Basketball team, all by the tender age of 24, by which time he was married with 2 young children.
Tragedy struck the extended Furlong clann in the form of the Dublin bombings of May 14th 1974, which claimed the life of his cousin Siobhan, one of 26 people to die as a result of that day's atrocities. His Father passed away at the age of 63 less than one month later and in his book "Patriot Hearts" Furlong suggests that the trauma associated with Siobhan's death was a contributing factor to his Father's premature passing. These two bereavements left John open to considering broader horizons and consequently when he was approached by a recruiter later that year to set up a school athletics program in Prince George B.C., he decided to try his luck. Ireland's loss was Canada's gain.
Furlong quickly took up in B.C. where he had left off in Dublin, throwing himself into anything with a sports dimension, both as an athlete and as an Administrator. His remarkable ascent to the summit of Mt. Olympus had its genesis in his role as Chair of the Northern B.C. Winter Games in the late 1970's. He officially welcomed Prime Minister Trudeau to the Games and this encounter was to play a huge role in his embracement of the potential of his adopted home.
Gaelic Football options were limited in Prince George in the mid 1970's (this was before the Brian Farmer era) and so Furlong took up squash, and eventually became Canadian Champion...as one does! A variety of incrementally challenging roles in Sports Administration ultimately culminated in his appointment as CEO of the Vancouver bid, and subsequently of VANOC itself, and the rest is now part of Canadian history.
It's hard to know which of his many awards one should select for a short article like this to give a flavor for his accomplishments and a sense of the esteem in which he is held here in his adopted home - Order of British Columbia, Officer of the Order of Canada, and the Globe & Mail's Nation Builder of the Year award to name but a few in addition to countless honorary degrees.
It is only on reading 'Patriot Hearts' that one gets a real sense of the magnitude of the task that Furlong took on. It would not be possible to do it justice here - suffice to say it was truly of Olympian proportions. While the mere accomplishment of an Irish immigrant rising to such a lofty position would be one worthy of celebration among his fellow Irish Canadians, the vision, the leadership and the dignity Furlong brought to the role was such that his accomplishments should be celebrated by Irish people everywhere.
Furlong attributes his leadership style to the values he learned at home as a boy. He describes his Father as his hero, who instilled in him all of the values that he sought to instill in his organization. He credits his Mother with having taught him about honour and decency and doing the right thing and never disregarding the value of someone else's contribution. Furlong has these values in spades, and perhaps never more evident than in his response to the tragic death of the young Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvlii on the opening day of the Games.
His Father also impressed upon him the value of hard work telling Furlong as a young man that the values he had been imbued with would not on their own make him a success. Furlong recalls clearly his Father telling him "What will separate you from others is how hard you are prepared to work" and by all accounts, no one has ever outworked John Furlong on or off the field.
Unfortunately his parents did not live to see how far their strong values and lessons took their son. No doubt they would have been incredibly proud, and perhaps no more so than when he wrapped up his globally televised speech at the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games, with a couple of sentences in Canada's third official language, as Gaeilge!.
"Sports is a metaphor for life," Furlong said in a previous interview with this publication. Part of his job as a leader he felt, was "to give his team members the tools they needed to help them be successful". These are the lessons you learn as the captain of a sports team." He added that "If you don't try hard enough, you won't survive. When you give it everything you have, you have a good chance of coming out a winner."
It was Furlong's vision that the Games could and should be a huge nation building exercise. This formed the foundation on which Vancouver's successful bid was based and underpinned the entire philosophy of VANOC's approach including the now legendary torch relay which sought to reach as many Canadians as possible, from coast to coast to coast. He expressed this vision time and time again with evangelical zeal.
Perhaps it was his Irish up-bringing that lead him to believe a country the size of Canada could indeed become a parish for a few weeks and get behind the home team like never before. This is the true measure of Furlong's accomplishments - organising a efficient Games is a phenomenal achievement, but inspiring a whole country is quite another.
As Prime Minister Harper said at the conclusion of the Games, "Mark my words, some day historians will look back at Canada's growing strength in the twenty first century and they will say that it all began here on the West Coast, with the best Olympic Games the world has ever seen". That Edmonton Immigration official can rest assured; his instructions were followed to the tee by this outstanding Irishman.
Last Updated (Saturday, 04 May 2013 11:58)