Bench strength: Winter Olympics 2010

Major sporting events can boost economies, while giving people a boost too. The Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, which were pulled off to great applause despite the odds, were no exception. How was it done, and what lessons did the organisers learn? We spoke with John Furlong, who headed up the organising committee responsible for the games.

“We were not given a get-out-of-jail card by governments,” says John Furlong. “A one-dollar deficit would have been unforgivable.” The CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) was referring to the CAN$1.75 million operating budget for the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics held in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Mr Furlong dismisses the notion that he was creative in getting the Olympics under way in the midst of the economic crisis. “It wasn’t creativity,” he says. “We were fighting for our lives.”

It was a good fight, better than anyone had imagined, and not just economically. Canada won 14 gold medals, the highest number of medals won by a country in a single Olympic year. Not only that, it took the gold in the sport that for many defines the nation: ice hockey. Canada was jubilant.

“Canada did not have an Olympic experience of its own,” says Mr Furlong. “It had a profound effect on the country.”

How did he navigate the slalom of the economic crisis? The answer was to pull in the crowds, not least because if Canadians were spared the demoralising sight of vacant stands, they were more likely to cheer for their athletes. “I remember that when I was in Beijing, at some events over half the seats were empty. So what we did was set up a bartering system. People who couldn’t or didn’t want to attend one event could exchange their tickets with someone who did. That way, we always had a full house.”

Confidence was vital to the success of the games. The economic crisis had left financial partners grimacing. “There were dire predictions that General Motors would fail. We decided to believe they would not fail. And they came through. No one wanted to let us down because of what it meant to the country. None of our partners failed us.”

Hosting global events such as the Olympics can be harrowing, as OECD studies have shown. Organisation, budgeting and the economic aftermath of an event can burnish or tarnish a host country’s image. The OECD notes that the scope and sustainability of the post-Games legacy is a major factor in the evaluation of Olympic bids.

Mr Furlong chose to make confidence and trust a point of policy. Organisers had worried that the 45,000-kilometer torch run, the longest in any host country, which would pass through more than 1,000 cities and towns, might meet resistance from some aboriginal communities. Mr Furlong invited them to participate. “We tried to build a relationship with every community in the country,” he says. This led to a CAN$15 million contract with aboriginal firms to do some preliminary construction. “We bet the farm on these relationships,” he says, “and we were so pleased by the result that we upped that to CAN$50-million dollar contract.”

In 2010 Mr Furlong was nominated one of 25 “Transformational Canadians”, who immeasurably improved the lives of others. And today he is much sought after as a speaker at public policy forums and business conferences. Although the full weight of the economic and social impact of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games is still not in, a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that in the first three months of 2010, they generated CAN$862 million in real GDP and created or supported 17,000 jobs.

The economic benefits, Mr Furlong admits, were not the first thing on his mind. “Our priority was to leave Canadians with a profound human experience.” Few would doubt that his organising team accomplished that goal. The success of the Winter Olympics has been credited to Mr Furlong’s managerial talents, frugality and policy of inclusiveness. But the real reason, he says, was the public. “The public was the bench strength of the games.” When Sidney Crosby netted that puck for the gold in hockey, “every Canadian was on the ice. The games were seen as a metaphor of what was possible.”


PricewaterhouseCoopers (2010], “The Games Effect: Report No. 6: Preliminary Economic Impact of the 2010 Winter Olympics on British Columbia and Canada”.

OECD (2010), Local Development Benefits from Staging Global Events.


©OECD Observer No 284, Q1 2011

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