Amber Hildebrandt - Thursday Feb. 6, 2014 20:46 ET

John Furlong: It’s a shame security fears kept fans away from Sochi

Remembers tragedy of Nodar Kumaritashvili and sent family a letter this week

John Furlong
John Furlong expects Canada to have a "magnificent Olympics" in Sochi. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
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John Furlong, Canada’s public face during the Vancouver Olympics, says he finds it unfortunate that fears of a security threat at the Sochi Games kept some people from attending the world’s largest sporting event.

“The talk that’s taken place has made some people think twice about going there, which is a shame because I think we’re about to see some extraordinary athletics in Sochi,” said Furlong, the chair of Own the Podium. “I think Canada’s going to have a magnificent Olympics there.”

The CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games said every Olympics deals with potential threats, no host city can promise to prevent them and Russian security is doing a “commendable” job.

“I think they’re doing a superb job on the ground but no one can ever guarantee against an incident taking place,” he said. “We couldn’t. Salt Lake couldn’t. Torino couldn’t.”

The threat level during the Vancouver Olympics was deemed low in the lead up to the games, though post-Sept. 11 terrorism concerns ramped up national police force involvement in the sporting event.

The 2002 Salt Lake City Games marked the first Olympics after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. Visitors dealt with security measures at every turn.

Friendly security a 'good sign'

Security concerns at Sochi remain top of mind as the Games get underway.

Last month, several European countries received email warnings of a terrorist attack against visitors to Sochi, though Olympic officials called it a random message from the public.

This week, the U.S. warned airlines flying into Russia to the potential threat of explosive materials being hidden in toothpaste or cosmetic tubes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to put on the “safest Olympics in history.”

Furlong stressed that the Black Sea resort town poses complex challenges for the security network since it’s 145 kilometres long, the second longest city in the world.

But he said he’s heard from those on the ground that security officials have been polite and friendly. “They’re not in fact taking away from the Games,” said Furlong. “This is a good sign.”

The morning Nodar died

Four years after heading the organization of the Vancouver Games, Furlong reflected on the immensity and range of challenges facing those in Sochi as they put on the “biggest event in human history in their country.”

“It’s an enormous undertaking. It’s like putting on the Super Bowl three times a day for 18 days,” said Furlong. “So it’s a lot of pressure.”

“You have to be practiced at everything, test everything and retest everything,” he added.

One of the biggest challenges Furlong faced during the 2010 Games – and what he describes as “one of the great personal challenges of my life” – was the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on the opening day of the event.

“I remember that morning when Nodar died and we realized that the Games had changed,” said Furlong.

Kumaritashvili’s death had a lasting effect on the former CEO of the 2010 Games. Shortly after the closing ceremony, he visited the athlete’s family in Georgia and attended a funeral service in his hometown.

“I saw the community he grew up in and saw how proud they were of him.”

This past week, Furlong sent a letter to the family, telling them he was thinking of them at the start of this Winter Games, an undoubtedly hard time for them.

“I just wanted them to know that the hearts and thoughts and minds of Canadians are with them this week, which will be a very difficult week for them.”

Slopestyle safety questions 

In the days leading up to the Sochi Games, organizers are dealing with concerns about risky courses, similar to those expressed about Vancouver’s luge track.

American snowboarding star Shaun White pulled out of slopestyle, calling the course “intimidating” and saying he planned to concentrate on winning a third gold in halfpipe instead.

Norwegian snowboarder Torstein Horgmo – a medal favourite – broke his collarbone after a hard fall on the course during a practice run and is now out of the Games.

Course officials decided to make some adjustments after athlete’s raised concerns about the course.

Furlong said tweaks to venues are par for the course in the week leading up to the Olympics. Organizers watch practice runs carefully and work with athletes and sport organizations to adjust the venues until its perfect for the big day, he says.

But he notes, it is the Olympics. “The standard is supposed to be high,” he said.

“Their job is to create the right environment for competitions for the best athletes who have competed in these sports and that’s what the Russians have tried to do.”

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