Vancouver riot review: John Furlong's balancing act

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At the time of the Georgian luger's death, the accident was quickly attributed to "driver error" during the Games by British Olympic Association's performance director Sir Clive Elwood. However, Whistler's luge track designer had previously warned  VANOC and FIL that design issues in the Whistler track could result in serious accidents, according to a CBC investigation.

Although Furlong initially claimed that he had no way of knowing that the track was considered dangerous, an email dated March 2009 (leaked by VANOC to the Globe and Mail) showed that Furlong was aware of design concerns surrounding the track, and was worried about the possibility of being blamed in the event of an accident: 

 

“[E]mbedded in this note (cryptic as it may be) is a warning that the track is in their view too fast and someone could get badly hurt. An athlete gets badly injured or worse and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing ... Our legal guys should review this at least.”

 

In his book, however, Furlong denies that VANOC could have done things differently.  He instead mentions how other people must have felt somewhat responsible for the young athlete's death: on Nodar's uncle Felix Kumaritashvili, he writes:

"I imagined the guilt Felix must have felt, that he was partly responsible for the tragedy."

As for his right-hand executive, Dave Cobb, he writes about how he was "wounded" by the athlete's death, but adds: 

"Of course, Nodar's death was out of Dave (Cobb)'s control."

While he questions if VANOC had "bloody hands" over the luger's death, he doesn't talk about any responsibility on his organization's fault, and mentions that people like Sliding Centre director Craig Lehto were "unfairly wearing some of the responsibility for what happened."

Through his account in the book, two things are evident: first, how the VANOC members were emotionally "devastated" by the accident, but second, how Furlong was determined not to let it get in the way of a successful Olympics. "If we didn't get the situation (the death of Kumaritashvili) under control, all of the problems were going to be laid at my feet and everyone was going to say: 'See, he was the wrong guy after all. He didn't have nearly the right experience. What were we thinking?'" he writes.

Furlong was evasive during the CBC's "Death at the Olympics" report, frequently interrupting reporter Bob McKeown's questions and arguing that VANOC was not part of discussions about the track. Although the CBC spoke with Furlong for an hour and 20 minutes, no admission about VANOC's awareness of the track problems emerged.

Questioning a national hero

So why have so few people spoken critically about Furlong's track record, or the potential bias that Furlong brings to the riot review?

"No one is willing to talk about it. There are people who know (about his Peter Armstrong ties), but no one wants to talk about it," said Woodsworth. "To quote someone else, Furlong is 'God' in Vancouver."

Maybe not God, but CityCaucus.com, the NPA blog, has gone so far as to refer to Furlong as a saint.

And Vancouver Sun reporter Lee seemed almost to be warning off other journalists when he wrote blog last week, "Anyone who criticizes Furlong is risking a public drubbing."

"His handling of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and the miracle he wrought in energizing a nation around the Games has almost made him a saint."

Amid speculations about how Furlong’s role will affect the outcome of the review, Green brushes off the idea that the riot review will affect the mayor, saying it won’t be an effective political weapon by the NPA.

“You can’t run an election based on the past,” he said. “If Anton is going to run an election on the riot, on bike lanes and on the chicken coop issue, she’ll get annihilated.” 

Photo above by Linda Solomon: NPA City Councillor and mayoral hopeful Suzanne Anton (left) with Vision City Councillor Andrea Reimer at the 2010 Winter Games at City Hall celebration of Olympic torch arrival.

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