VANOC's John Furlong pushing for a Vancouver 2030 Winter Olympics bid

Feb 20 2020, 4:51 pm

The man who led the bid committee and then the local organizing committee (VANOC) for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games is pushing for the city to stage a repeat performance in 2030.

VANOC CEO John Furlong addressed the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade today, and in his speech he said he believes it is now time for levels of government, the community, and stakeholders to consider putting a bid together for the 2030 Winter Olympics.

Around the world, and generally locally, Vancouver 2010 is considered a highly successful model of hosting a sustainable Olympics, as it created lasting, positive post-Games legacies that are well used today.

The 17-day event also brought an electric, friendly atmosphere to the host region that was widely commended by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), world media, athletes, and visitors.

We have the venues and proven track record

In an in-depth interview with Daily Hive prior to his speech, Furlong said “the Winter Games fit perfectly for our wheelhouse” and “we are a city with a terrific reputation.”

The sports venues and capital investments made for the 2010 Olympics are still sound, in good physical condition today, and there is now a narrowing timeframe for another Winter Olympics, before these facilities begin to show some age and require major reinvestment.

In the seven-year lead-up to 2010, after being awarded the Games in 2003, VANOC had an operating budget of $1.76 billion that was largely non-taxpayer funded from revenue sources such as sponsorship, licensing, and merchandising.

It also had a separate $600 million capital budget for the construction of sports venues, which was covered equally by the federal and provincial governments.

This does not include the various municipal and stakeholder contributions towards some of these venues, such as the City of Richmond’s partial funding of the Richmond Olympic Oval through casino and real estate revenues, and the City of Vancouver’s involvement in the completion of the Southeast False Creek Olympic Village, which ultimately became a success and provided the municipality with a net profit by the time all of the remaining homes were sold in 2014.

Olympic banners at the Olympic Village during the Vancouver 2010 Games. (Shutterstock)

As well, this does not include other direct and indirect costs, such as the acceleration of the Vancouver Convention Centre expansion, the Sea to Sky Highway improvements, and the SkyTrain Canada Line. However, it should be noted that all three projects were first envisioned by the provincial government between the early and middle of the 1990s, before the idea of bidding for 2010 was born just after the middle of that decade.

Prior to the convention centre’s new West Building, the convention centre inside Canada Place — formerly Expo ’86’s Canada Pavilion — was fully booked, running at capacity. Its tight size severely restricted the type of events and conventions that could be held, thereby also curbing the tourism industry’s growth.

Improvements were envisioned for the Sea to Sky Highway, which saw an average of about 300 crashes every year before the full completion of the upgrades in 2009.

Rail rapid transit was seriously contemplated on the Cambie Street corridor between downtown Vancouver and Vancouver International Airport, but local opposition and a change in government shifted attention to another corridor, resulting in the Millennium Line.

Furlong believes there is now an opportunity to utilize a theoretical Vancouver 2030 Winter Games to help tackle issues such as housing and transportation, both directly and indirectly.

“In the early days when we were bidding for 2010, we did not put our hand up and say we needed a new convention centre, a new train to the airport, and a new airport. We were very focused on the Olympic side of this, but what always happens is a broader discussion takes place, the world is coming, and governments tend to come together and they rally around the immediate needs of the city. And this becomes the broadening focus of the Games,” said Furlong.

“These are spectacularly successful physical infrastructure legacies, and I think you’d have to be a pretty harsh critic to say that they haven’t served a great community need and we’re proud of all of them. I can say absolutely that not a single time has someone stopped me in the street and said this was a bad idea.”

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Richmond Olympic Oval’s post-Games community and recreational uses. (Richmond Olympic Oval)

Indoor sports venues built for the Games have all been integrated into their areas as vital community and recreational facilities.

Richmond Olympic Oval for speed skating is now a highly used recreation centre with sports courts, running tracks, indoor wall climbing, fitness centre, ice rinks, a rowing tank, and an Olympic museum, while the Vancouver Olympic Centre for curling, now known as Hillcrest Centre, has been converted into an ice rink, gymnasium, public library, and fitness centre, replacing an aging community centre in the area.

UBC Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre, the secondary ice hockey venue, provided the university with a new indoor stadium facility on the footprint of a portion of the previous ice rink complex.

Robert Livingstone with GamesBids, an online publication that has been covering all Olympic bids over the last two decades, agreed with Furlong’s bright depiction of the legacies left behind from 2010.

“The organizing committee delivered a plan that was generally in line with longer term goals of Vancouver and Whistler, and although there were cost overruns, they were reasonably low compared with other contemporary¬†Games,” said Livingstone.

“Whistler leveraged new venues and exposure to continue hosting world-class winter sport events. In Vancouver, the positive legacy use of venues such as the speed skating oval and other community-located facilities is notable. Transportation upgrades accelerated by the¬†Games¬†are also in good use.”

In fact, Livingstone goes as far to say the Vancouver 2010 legacy is “among the leaders in terms of sustainability and post-Games legacy use,” especially for Winter Games. Another notable Games with positive legacies, he says, is Salt Lake City 2002.

A recent survey found 68% of British Columbians think the 2010 Games were worth it, with this opinion increasing to 71% in Metro Vancouver and 73% in the Fraser Valley.

When respondents were inquired on specific legacy projects, 82% said they are satisfied with transportation infrastructure projects such as the SkyTrain Canada Line and the Sea-to-Sky Highway upgrades. As well, 72% said they are satisfied with the sport venue legacy projects, including Richmond Olympic Oval and Hillcrest Centre.

IOC’s new approach of legacy-centric Olympics

Four years after the Vancouver Games, the IOC approved a series of major reforms, collectively called Olympic Agenda 2020, on how host cities can organize their Games.

The reforms essentially allow prospective hosts to draw up plans based on what they already have, where they have it, in an effort to limit the required new construction of facilities.

During the 2010 bid process, the IOC’s evaluation commission made note that the two-plus-hour drive between Vancouver and Whistler was “too long” and efforts should be made to reduce the travel times. If this were under the lens of Olympic Agenda 2020, this would not be an issue, although the safety conditions and capacity of the Sea to Sky Highway at the time would still have to be addressed.

The host city decisions of Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 for the Summer Games, and Milan Cortina 2026 for the Winter Games, were the first under the Olympic Agenda 2020 framework.

Under the previous framework, the city of Milan and the ski resort of Cortina — a travel time of nearly five hours over 400 kms — would have been unacceptable.

With more flexibility lowering costs and risks, interest in bidding for future Games has since picked up, after the IOC’s recent experience with a dearth in interest from prospective bid cities.

Pacific Coliseum was used for figure skating and short-track speed skating during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. (Lisa Brideau / Flickr)

Vancouver 2010’s plans align with the new reforms by maximizing on the usage of existing facilities and venues, including BC Place Stadium, Rogers Arena, Pacific Coliseum, and other infrastructure.

“We were doing things that aligned with Olympic Agenda 2020, before the agenda was out there. That’s largely because of the way we tend to think. We started out by thinking less is more,” said Furlong.

“We were very determined to not ask for funds we didn’t need. We were determined to not leave a big bill for the community to pay. We were determined to not build a venue no one would use.

Under Olympic Agenda 2020, Livingstone believes the IOC would allow a Vancouver-Whistler 2010 bid to take these sustainable organizing concepts even further than what it previously allowed.

“If the Vancouver 2010 bid were to happen under today‚Äôs Agenda 2020, the IOC would shy away from the construction of Richmond Olympic Oval and the Whistler Sliding Centre ‚Äď among other venues. The bid would have likely involved multiple cities with Calgary‚Äôs legacy venues being included in the mix,” said Livingstone.

“Olympic Agenda 2020 has evolved since its inception in 2014 and the¬†Games¬†model has taken twists and turns in the past couple of years. Now, the IOC expects the use of existing or temporary facilities to organize the¬†Games, even if that forces a broader regional venue footprint.”

Furthermore, the host city selection process is now more collaborative between the IOC and prospective bid cities — far less of a high-stakes, one-way competition. There is also no timeline of awarding the Games every two years, seven years in advance. Notably, Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 were both jointly confirmed during the IOC Session held in September 2017.

The need for a vision to propel a bid

Vancouver 2010 began around 1996, when Tourism Vancouver, Tourism Whistler, and Sport BC explored a Winter Olympics bid, including commissioning a feasibility study.

These organizations then formed the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Bid Society, tasked with beating Calgary and Quebec City for the domestic rights to bid for 2010. This new not-for-profit organization was initially led by Arthur Griffiths, the former owner of the Vancouver Canucks, Vancouver Grizzlies, and Rogers Arena.

In 1998, the Canadian Olympic Committee decided Vancouver-Whistler would be Canada’s bid. Support was also later received from the City of Vancouver and Metro Vancouver Regional District, with the domestic bid focusing on four areas: international winnability, a commitment to the development of Canadian sport and athletes, broad-based community support, and bid organization expertise and technical strength.

Vancouver 2010 bid logo banner

Street banner with the Vancouver 2010 bid logo in 2003. (Under Consideration)

But beyond just forming a bid committee, Furlong says, there needs to be a real, empowering vision that drives such an endeavour forward, in order for it to have any chance of seeing success.

“We can certainly do it all over again. The question is, if you’re ever going to go down that road, you always need to be sure why you’re doing it. Not just to do it, but to have a grand reason and a grand purpose, and say, this is something that should bring us all together,” said Furlong, noting this was also happened for the World’s Fair.

For 2010, VANOC sought to unite the country through staging “Canada’s Games.” It even used lyrics from Canada’s national anthem as its official motto: “With Glowing Hearts” in English and “Des Plus Brillants Exploits” for French.

The 2010 Olympic Torch Relay became a particularly powerful tool for VANOC to build up a sense of unity and excitement ahead of the Games. It was the longest domestic torch relay ever, within reach of the vast majority of Canada’s population, traversing 45,000 kms and over 1,000 communities across the country.

“We wanted to change the country. We believed that we could bring the Olympics to every front door of the country. We believed we could bring Canadians together. Typically in our country, because it’s so big, we are very regional. It’s like we’re multiple countries in one piece of land,” continued Furlong.

“But the Games put us all on the same plane, and that’s the power of events like this… Everyone wanted it to be successful. So when you have something like this in your hand, it gives you so much extra room and scope and ability to move the needle and get other things done.”

Learning from the Calgary 2026 bid failure

An incomplete vision killed Calgary’s bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, when 56.4% of residents voted against the bid in a municipal plebiscite held in November 2018.

Conversely, in a municipal plebiscite held in February 2003, Vancouver residents voted 64% in support of the 2010 bid, which remains as one of the city’s highest voter turnouts in history.

“I don’t think Calgary had yet evolved a full vision for the Games, about what was the real dynamic purpose to bid. I don’t think it had this kind of burning political unit that we had, where you have all the political forces coming together and becoming champions,” said Furlong.

In the weeks leading up to Calgary’s plebiscite, there was tremendous uncertainty with the level of support from all three levels of government, with a total public funding proposal of just under $2.9 billion.

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Artistic rendering of McMahon Stadium reused for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Calgary 2026 Winter Olympics. (Calgary 2026)

Calgary’s bid plan and vision focused on extending the life of the aging physical legacies left behind from the 1988 Winter Olympics. That was not enough to convince government leaders and ultimately the public.

“For 2010, we had all the support we needed. It is necessary that you get the best from everyone. For us, all the stars lined up,” said Furlong.

“We started with a Liberal prime minister (Jean Chretien), then we had another one (Paul Martin), and then a Conservative prime minister (Stephen Harper) through the actual event. They were all supportive. In BC, we began the bid with an NDP premier (Glen Clark), and then a BC Liberal premier (Gordon Campbell), and they were all supportive.”

The Calgary 2026 bid plan was created from the principles of Olympic Agenda 2020, which is most evident from its proposal to reuse the ski jumping facility at Whistler Olympic Park, instead of building a new modern ski jump to current international competition standards at Canada Olympic Park.

Following the astronomical costs and failures of Sochi 2014’s wasteful concept of staging the Games, Livingstone believes it might take a successful Milan Cortina 2026 Games to truly prove that the IOC’s new hosting model is financially and logistically viable, and “that the IOC’s promise of a sustainable and cost-neutral Games is not just talk.”

For 2026, the IOC also promised to pitch in an unprecedented $1.2 billion towards the cost of organizing the Games — nearly double the amount that was provided to VANOC.

“Strong public support would be required in Vancouver and partner jurisdictions in order for a¬†Games¬†to return, and for a regional government to back it,” added Livingstone.

The aforementioned recent survey also queried respondents on their thoughts on hosting the far larger and complex Summer Olympics. It found that 62% of both Metro Vancouver residents and BC residents overall supported Vancouver bidding for the Summer Olympics.

Based on those who voted in the last provincial election, there were support levels of 54% from BC NDP voters, 73% from BC Liberals voters, and 67% from BC Green voters.

But Furlong believes the Summer Games are too big for Metro Vancouver.

BC’s 2026 FIFA World Cup decision

Furlong believes the provincial government has lessons to learn from its decision to withdraw Vancouver out of the contention of becoming a 2026 FIFA World Cup host city during the Canada-USA-Mexico bid process. The bid had the full support of the City of Vancouver.

But the months-old BC NDP provincial government had “ended [the bid participation] too fast,” he said, adding that Vancouver signed a similar contract for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

“I’m very disappointed we aren’t hosting the World Cup. We built a great stadium, and in a sense, the de facto national stadium is here,” said Furlong, highlighting BC Place Stadium’s major post-2010 overhaul, resulting in the stadium being used for the Women’s World Cup championship final, HSBC World Rugby Canada Sevens, and numerous international FIFA soccer matches.

“Had the government had a chance to sit down with some of the Olympic organizers and the Whitecaps, and others, I think there was a way through this [to] show we can responsibly do this,” he continued.

At the time of the government’s decision in March 2018, FIFA was still months away from selecting a host, but the united North American bid committee between the three countries needed an answer ahead of their formal bid submission.

The bid committee went on to submit a potential bid plan with a pool of 23 cities. At the time, there were no immediate financial commitments; if the bid were successful, the organizing committee would select between 12 and 16 host cities from the pool in 2021. Only then will planning for the World Cup accelerate to the local level and pass the point of no return.

BC Place

BC Place Stadium in Vancouver during the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. (BC Place Stadium)

“I think the World Cup in Vancouver would’ve been terrific…¬†I hope going forward, the next time we get into a discussion, the first thing we do is bring it in-house and we ask ourselves, what do we have to do to make it a success, and unite people around these things. One of the legacies that we have out of Expo and the Olympics is there are people in the city who have the technical experience and knowledge with this kind of thing and would have been very willing to help the government deal with the issues at the time.”

Despite the stumble, Furlong remains “very optimistic” with what Vancouver can accomplish moving forward, not just on a potential 2030 Games bid but for the challenges and obstacles it currently experiences.

When it comes to overcoming obstacles and collectively succeeding, he says, “you have to decide this is who we want to be, unite people, and bring people together. For 2010, we tried very much to have the community see the higher calling in this, not to go low but go high and look at the potential. We spent years fighting and debating all the things that could go wrong, and trying to overcome that by talking about all the things that could go right. Eventually we got to that place.”

Just before his interview with Daily Hive, said Furlong, a woman stopped him at the intersection of Robson Street and Granville Street, and blurted to him: “I can’t wait for us to do this again.” He certainly agrees.